Armenian and Jewish artifacts are displayed side-by-side in a new exhibit — a testament to one collector’s love of history.
Real-estate developer James Melikian, who majored in history years ago at Arizona State University, maintains a strong commitment to the subject central to his academic pursuits.
A big fascination is artifacts, many reaching back to ancient times. He believes they give an authentic and beautiful sense of cultural roots, a belief he shares with his wife, Ana.
In 2004, Melikian decided he wanted to become a collector and contacted antiquities dealers. He came across some early printings of Armenian books and bought them to have artifacts relevant to his own Christian heritage. So satisfied with that acquisition, he sought more through many dealers and web-auction outlets, always consulting experts before making a purchase.
As his search expanded, Melikian came across artifacts from other religions, found them fascinating as well and made additions to his holdings, now reaching 4,000 items. As a real-estate developer, he is never satisfied with a limited number of places and so began showing his artifacts in many places near and far.
For the first time, Melikian is giving almost equal attention to items representing the faithful of the Armenian Apostolic Church and Judaism through an exhibit, “The Melikian Collection: Celebrating & Preserving Our Cultures.”
Showcasing 31 individual items or groupings, the display can be seen Nov.1-Jan. 15 at the Alex and Marie Manoogian Museum, located on the campus of the Armenian Cultural Complex in Southfield, where there will be an invitational preview Oct. 26 attended by the Melikians.
The exhibit originally was going to have 30 items or groupings — 15 Jewish and 15 Christian — but that changed just before Rosh Hashanah, when Melikian offered a winning bid for medals won by Gerda Gottlieb, a pentathlon and swimming champion in 1930s Austria.
“Gerda was victorious in the Maccabi Games of 1935,” explains Melikian, 62, who also will be showing a silver-mounted Torah case (likely from 1923 Jerusalem) once held by the late multimillionaire jeweler Shlomo Moussaieff, a handmade brass Chanukah lamp (made in Syria or nearby during the early part of the 20th century) and a first edition of the Hebrew Bible in Braille.
“The medals are very impressive and include five consecutive gold medals issued to Gerda in Vienna as winner of the 1933-37 National Pentathlon,” Melikian says. “Because of the rising influence of Nazism, Gerda’s achievements are particularly important.”
Armenian artifacts include a white marble Armenian church cornerstone, an Armenian silver chalice dated 1642 and the second Bible printed in Armenian.
Melikian enjoys offbeat and unusual items. In his rare Bible collection, he has the one given by Donald Trump to second wife Marla Maples. This collector also enjoys sharing items with the public and has brought 10 exhibits to various museums.
Jewish works have been exhibited at the Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Tempe and the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum at Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale.
“I moved on to items from religions besides my own because I like learning new things,” says Melikian, whose parents, Greg and Emma Melikian, have been supporters of the arts through board memberships with the Arizona Opera and Phoenix Art Museum.
“When viewers connect with artwork — and there’s great artwork among the religions — they get to understand the spirit of various groups of people.
“I think one of the most impressive historic groupings coming to Michigan from my collection will be Jewish children’s books from around the world. I’ve found that there are more Jewish collectors than Armenian collectors, and they are very connected to their roots.”
Lucy Ardash, director of the Manoogian Museum, also is impressed with the books and looks forward to arranging the entire exhibit as part of the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the museum.
“Both the Armenian people and Jewish people went through tumultuous events, and now people in Michigan can see some of the antiquities that survived,” Ardash says. “We hope visitors learning about the Melikian holdings will read about them, and we also hope they will walk through the rest of the museum.”
The Manoogian Museum opened in 1992 and is spread out across 12,000 square feet. It was founded by industrialist Alex Manoogian as both an artistic endeavor and an attempt to reconstruct the history of the Armenian people.
The facility showcases 1,500 items divided among eight galleries and includes illuminated manuscripts, early printed books, rugs and carpets, sacred vessels and vestments, textiles and embroidery, ceramics, metalwork, paintings, practical and personal objects, ancient and medieval coins and objects from Urartu, the ancient kingdom that flourished in the Armenian Highlands from the ninth to the early sixth century B.C.E.
This will be the first time that items from the James and Ana Melikian Collection will be featured in Metro Detroit. The couple connected with the museum through Elizabeth Brazilian, a family friend who is active with the Manoogian Museum and was interested in providing something special for the anniversary celebration.
“Although the exhibit coming to Michigan focuses on Armenian and Jewish heritage, I hope people representing all faiths will take a look and find out more about the history of these two cultures,” says Melikian, who visited the Southfield museum in 2007 to gain additional insight into Armenian antiquities.
“I have met many people of different cultures who share my interest in how artifacts give insights into ethnicities, and I have developed a special friendship with Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, formerly of Phoenix and now working in California. Each of my days is enriched by gaining more knowledge about a vast range of history, centuries-old and recent.”
An invitational preview of “The Melikian Collection: Celebrating & Preserving Our Cultures” is on Oct. 26. The public can view the exhibit Nov.1-Jan. 15 at the Alex and Marie Manoogian Museum located on the campus of the Armenian Cultural Complex in Southfield. All visits are by appointment with special events and evening tours available. $5.
(248) 557-5977; manoogianmuseum.org. Visit Melikian’s website at melikiancollection.com.