The works that were moved into the safe on Friday include one of the Jewish world's most iconic paintings — Polish artist Maurycy Gottlieb's 1878 work, "Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur" — as well as some 100 works by sons and relatives of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, and one precious painting by the master himself, the mid-16th century "The Resurrection of Christ."
The Brueghel exhibit had already been crippled by Israel's image as a dangerous place, said the curator, Lurie. He knew museums wouldn't lend him many works by Brueghel himself, so he focused on persuading museums and collectors to lend him works by Brueghel's descendants.
Then, a month before the "All His Sons: The Brueghel Dynasty" exhibition opened in August, two foreign museums backed down on their promise to loan two important paintings by the Flemish master's sons because of heightened talk of a possible Iran-Israel war, Lurie said.
"'Are you serious that you're asking for this painting for summer 2012?'" Lurie recalled museum representatives telling him.
Now the exhibition's works are behind a heavy, hulking metal door with an outsized combination lock. Wearing white gloves, Lurie turned a large silver wheel in the middle of the door and struggled to pull it open to show some of the stored paintings.
Despite concerns about the risks, top masterworks are frequently exhibited in Israeli museums on loan from world institutions and collectors. Displaying masterpieces is a trickier proposition in the West Bank: It took yearlong negotiations with Israel's army and Dutch museum officials to get a $7 million Pablo Picasso masterpiece safely into a West Bank gallery in 2011.
Only a few rockets have whistled over the skies of Tel Aviv during the current conflict, and the city is considered safer than other Israeli towns along the Gaza border. So the Tel Aviv museum let southern Israelis visit the museum for free — and reduced admission for everyone else to account for the 200 or so missing spots on the museum walls. The Israel Museum and Eretz Israel Museum also offered free and discounted entry.
The works moved into the safes in Tel Aviv and Ashdod were mostly pieces on loan from private collectors.
"If they survived 800 years before they got here, we have to do the utmost, for the good of humanity, so they will survive at least another 500 years," said Lurie.
Estrin reported from Jerusalem. Follow Estrin at www.twitter.com/danielestrin