Proceeds from rare treasures auctioned off help stabilize Jewish history museum
In June, shoe designer and entrepreneur Stuart Weitzman sold the world’s most expensive coin, the world’s most expensive postage stamp, and a block of four stamps with – oops! – the plane printed upside down, all for over $ 32 million.
In November, he decided what to do with the money. It transfers all of its profits to the National Museum of American Jewish History, a Smithsonian affiliate in Philadelphia that recently emerged from bankruptcy.
For the museum – whose collection includes the piano on which Irving Berlin wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and one of Albert Einstein’s pipes – Weitzman’s money is more than a lifeline. The museum will spend $ 10 million to buy its building, which had been sold to the family of a former trustee and rented for $ 1,000 per month.
The rest will go towards an endowment. Weitzman said the result would be that the museum could operate “debt-free and rent-free, so whatever he pays attention to will be for himself and not trying to stay afloat.”
The museum responded by changing its name to the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History. This will make the new name official on Monday, the last day of Chanukah, although Misha Galperin, the museum’s general manager, shared the news at the start of an article on the EJewish Philanthropy website.
Weitzman, who turned 80 in July, said ahead of the auction that he planned to donate the proceeds. He described the sale as a form of estate planning, unloading unique items he had collected over 20 years that he said would have lasting value. But he said his kids didn’t want to inherit it and, like he said, “No one takes a U-Haul to the graveyard.”
The museum had been preoccupied with financial problems for the past decade – ever since it completed its $ 150 million building on Independence Mall, a short walk from Independence Hall and the Bell Center for Freedom. For the five-story building, the museum took out a $ 35 million construction loan, Galperin said. The museum had relied on fundraising to pay, he said, but as the 2008 financial crisis worsened, donations slowed.
“For the next 10 years, they serviced that cash-strapped debt,” said Galperin, who was hired as a consultant in 2019 and became managing director last year. “The museum was in great financial difficulty.”
With around $ 30 million in debt at the start of 2020, it filed for bankruptcy on March 1, before the pandemic struck. Then the museum closed. “No income,” he said, “and because we were bankrupt we were not eligible for federal assistance under P3,” the federal paycheck protection program. The museum laid off 25 employees, two-thirds of its staff.
She came out of bankruptcy in September with a plan that essentially eliminated debt. Some $ 17 million was owed to the banks. This amount was reduced to $ 10.5 million after negotiations and was repaid by the agreement for the building and some donations. An additional $ 14 million was owed to a group of current and past supporters, including philanthropist Sidney Kimmel. Galperin said they forgave this money.
Galperin said Mitchell Morgan, whose family bought the building and re-let it, gave the museum three and a half years to work out a long-term plan, a timeframe that Galperin called “enough lead to determine what that must be done next. “
Weitzman was already familiar with the museum before Galperin approached it in September. Weitzman donated $ 1 million in 2018 for a gallery on Jews who settled in the United States in the 17th century.
Weitzman said Galperin was straightforward, noting what Weitzman said about distributing the auction money. “He said, ‘This is our goal. We want to get our building back. We don’t want to be kicked out in a few years. We need someone or a few people to secure our future, ”Weitzman recalls. “And that’s what I did.”