Shlomo Moussaieff, who died last week at 92, will be remembered as a purveyor of jewels to the rich and famous and as one of the world’s foremost collectors of biblical antiquities. I will remember him as one of the most enigmatic and fascinating people I have ever interviewed.
The Herzliya hotel suite where Moussaieff spent much of his time was an Ali Baba’s cave: Canaanite oil lamps, Babylonian curse bowls on the coffee table, a pair of bronze lions with ivory eyes. Behind an unremarkable poster leaning against a wall was an inscribed tablet that came, he said, from the land of Sheba.
At a table amid this trove the great man received visitors and supplicants, including academics hoping for access to his Roman coins or Kabbalistic diagrams, dealers trying to sell him rubies or emeralds, and the occasional journalist looking for a story. I met him several times in 2010 as I pursued the mystery of the 1,100-year-old Aleppo Codex, about 200 pages of which have vanished; I was interested in Moussaieff because he claimed to have once been offered some of them on the black market.
I learned quickly that simple answers were not his style. Moussaieff claimed he didn’t buy the pages, but also showed me a fragment of a manuscript that he said was the codex. It was not. I followed him to his home in London’s Grosvenor Square, where I managed to elicit more details, some of them contradictory. He told me the name of the dealer who had offered him the missing pages 25 years earlier, which was helpful. But I couldn’t track down this man, as it turned out, because he had been found dead in Room 915 of the Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem in 1989.
After a few meetings, Moussaieff finally told me that if I brought $1 million he would take me to the pages. It was impossible to say if this was a real offer—he knew I didn’t have the money. I got the distinct impression that he enjoyed this game, the dance of buyer and seller, a test of will and cunning familiar from the bazaar.
He was a merchant, a street-brawler, and a Jew. He seemed proud of all three.
Shlomo Moussaieff was born in 1923 to an important Jerusalem family with roots in the Central Asian city of Bukhara. He was one of 12 children. A dyslexic and a failure in school, he incurred the wrath of his father and ran away from home as a teenager, living on the streets for a time. The persona he acquired then stayed with him: He was a multimillionaire who lived in the toniest part of London, but he put on no airs. He was a merchant, a street-brawler, and a Jew. He seemed proud of all three.
Moussiaeff served in the British Army in WWII, and told me he fled the rout at Tobruk in 1942 on camel-back. In 1948 he fought with the Irgun militia and was captured by the Arab Legion in Jerusalem and held prisoner in Jordan. His brother Daniel died in that war, and a sister was killed in an Arab attack in Galilee in 1956.
He had some trouble with Israeli antiquities law in the 1950s and moved his jewelry business to London in the early 1960s but was back and forth all his life.
“In Israel people called me ‘Bukharan’ but in London they called me a Jew,” he said. “I liked hearing ‘Jew’ better than ‘Bukharan.’ ” (The style of his monologues, delivered in a dramatic, nasal tone and interrupted by cackles and snorts of scorn, is impossible to reproduce in print.) London in the 1960s was “heaven,” he said.
One of our interviews was interrupted by a phone call from a wealthy client, and I heard a conversation in Arabic that ended with Moussaieff saying, “Allah ma’ak”—God be with you. It was someone from the Gulf, he explained, and added that he had benefited from the popularity of polygamy among the oil sheikhs. Multiple wives were excellent for the jewelry business.
Some of his stories involved adventures with celebrities. Elizabeth Taylor once took a bracelet worth £1.25 milllion from his London shop without paying, he told a Haaretz reporter, and she called him later that night to come collect. “I showered and put on some nice clothes. My wife quipped that there was no way Elizabeth Taylor would want to look at my Bukharan face. But I thought, who knows … anything can happen!” (Anything did not happen.)
During his years of involvement in the antiquities trade Moussaieff fended off occasional accusations of acquiring stolen goods and removing artifacts illegally from their countries of origin. Near the end of his life he testified as a witness in the famed “James ossuary” case, in which Israeli authorities unsuccessfully prosecuted an alleged forger, and which raised questions about the authenticity of certain objects in Moussaieff’s possession. The Israel Antiquities Authority, the government arm in charge of artifacts and archaeological finds, made no statement after his death. (An official there delicately described the relationship as “complicated.”)
By his own count, his collection included 60,000 pieces. His goal, he said, was to amass physical evidence proving the accuracy of the biblical narrative, and he disdained scholars and archaeologists whose work undermined that idea.
Moussaieff is survived by his wife, Aliza, and by three daughters, one of them the first lady of Iceland.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Matti Friedman is a Tablet columnist and the author, most recently, of Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.