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Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Antiquities Authority chief: Top scholars were suspected of ties to forgery group

Sep. 8, 2009


A world-famous French scholar who authenticated one of the Israel Museum's prize exhibits and Israel's leading analyst of ancient semitic inscriptions were once suspected of being part of an "international forgery industry," it was revealed on Tuesday.

Shuka Dorfman, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said that both Prof. Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne and Ada Yardeni, Israel's leading epigrapher, had been under suspicion as the Authority prepared its case against those accused of faking dozens of priceless archeological items, including a burial box possibly connected to Jesus.

Dorfman divulged this information as part of the testimony he was giving at the Jerusalem District Court in the long-running trial of two men accused of dealing in fake antiquities.

The trial, which began in 2005, followed an indictment that Dorfman described at the time as "the tip of the iceberg" of an international forgery network.

Oded Golan, a Tel Aviv collector, is charged with forging the inscription on a 60 cm.-long limestone burial box, or ossuary, that reads "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus."

The ossuary was exhibited in Toronto in 2002 and hailed by scholars as the first physical link ever discovered to the family of Jesus. But when it was returned to Israel, an Antiquities Authority committee of experts determined it was fake.

Golan is also accused of forging an inscribed stone tablet supposedly from the First Temple, and dozens of other ancient items.

Robert Deutsch, a prominent antiquities dealer based in Jaffa, was also charged with forgery, but the prosecution has been forced to retract many of the original charges after they were challenged in court.

Many of the world's top archeological experts have testified as both prosecution and defense witnesses in proceedings that already run to more than 9,000 pages.

Judge Aharon Farkash has wondered aloud in court how he could determine the authenticity of the items if the professors could not agree among themselves.

Deutsch called Dorfman to give evidence as a defense witness after the prosecution refused to put him or his deputy, Uzi Dahari, on the stand.

Dorfman said the anti-theft unit of the Antiquities Authority believed the items were forged by an international group of experts and dealers that included the two defendants.

He said the suspects at one time included Prof. Lemaire, a paleographer at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Lemaire was the first scholar to study an ivory pomegranate believed to have been used in the First Temple. The thumb-sized pomegranate is inscribed in ancient Hebrew: "Sacred donation for the priests in the House of God."

It was purchased nearly 20 years ago by a private philanthropist for $550,000 and donated to the Israel Museum after its authenticity was verified by experts.

Lemaire said he discovered the item in 1979 when an antiquities dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem showed him the tiny ornament over a cup of tea.

Lemaire photographed it and published his findings two years later in the respected Revue Biblique journal. In 1984, he published his findings in English, triggering worldwide interest.

In 2002, Lemaire published the first study of the James ossuary in the Biblical Archeology Review after seeing the burial box at the home of Oded Golan.

The pomegranate was later inspected and the inscription on it found to be suspect by a separate Antiquities Authority inquiry. Dorfman told the court they decided not to bring criminal charges against eight suspects identified in that case.

Lemaire was questioned by Antiquities Authority inspectors during a two-year investigation, but apparently was never told that he was under suspicion.

Under questioning by Deutsch's attorney, Hagai Sitton, Dorfman was challenged to justify the sweeping statements he made at a press conference in December 2005, the day the defendants were charged.

"We know there are antiquity forgeries - it's not a new thing. But the extent and the drama in attempting to fake history didn't allow us as a government body not to become involved," Dorfman told the press conference.

"I believe we have revealed only the tip of the iceberg. This industry encircles the world, involves millions of dollars," he said.

"I said there was an industry involved in making all these fakes," Dorfman told the court on Tuesday. "In my view, it looked like an entire industry, not a single forger."

Dorfman said he took responsibility for the prosecution, which has run into difficulties as the trial has wound on, but Dorfman himself cast doubt on the reliability of much of the testimony of the prosecution's star witness, billionaire antiquities collector Shlomo Moussaieff. According to the indictment, Moussaieff was duped into paying huge sums for several of the allegedly fake items, but his version of events has been repeatedly questioned.

Asked to comment on one story told by Moussaieff, Dorfman responded, "He is not telling the truth, plain and simple."

In another setback for the prosecution, Judge Farkash agreed to recall an expert on isotopes from the Geological Survey of Israel to explain apparent contradictions between testimony given to the court and research submitted to a scientific journal three weeks earlier.

Matthew Kalman reports from Jerusalem for TIME, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Channel 4 News. His ongoing reports from the antiquities trial are available at

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Burial Box of Jesus' Brother: A Case Against Fraud

By Matthew Kalman / Jerusalem
Saturday, Sep. 05, 2009

The world of biblical archaeology was stirred in 2002 by the unveiling of a limestone burial box with the Aramaic inscription Yaakov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua ("James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"). Allegedly dating to an era contemporaneous with Christ, the names were a tantalizing collation of potentially great significance: James was indeed the name of a New Testament personage known as the brother of Jesus, both ostensibly the sons of Joseph the carpenter, husband of Mary. If its dates were genuine, the burial box — or ossuary — could well be circumstantial evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, a tenet supported only by gospels and scripture written, at the earliest, a generation after his crucifixion and, of course, by the faith of hundreds of millions through 2,000 years.

Experts, however, declared the ossuary a modern-day forgery. It was seized by Israeli police and its owner, Tel Aviv collector Oded Golan, was arrested and charged with counterfeiting the ossuary and dozens of other items. Golan and co-defendant Robert Deutsch were put on trial in the Jerusalem District Court in 2005. Deutsch is accused of forging other valuables, though not the ossuary. Both men deny all charges. (Read a review of a book on fraudulent biblical relics and the ossuary of James.)

Their trial is still continuing. Many of the world's top archaeological experts have testified as both prosecution and defense witnesses in proceedings that already run to more than 9,000 pages. And while the original charges against the ossuary appear to have been popularly accepted as conventional wisdom, they seem to be headed for trouble in the courtroom. Judge Aharon Farkash, who has a degree in archaeology, has wondered aloud in court how he can determine the authenticity of the items if the professors cannot agree among themselves. (Read a story from TIME's archive on the ossuary of James.)

The director of the Israel Antiquities Authority will soon take the witness stand for the first time since he declared, in December 2004, that the ossuary and other items seized in a two-year investigation were the "tip of the iceberg" of an international conspiracy that placed countless fakes in collections and museums around the world. He promised more arrests. But no other fake items have been seized, no-one else has been arrested, and Judge Farkash has hinted strongly that the prosecution case is foundering.

Next week, defense attorneys will present evidence suggesting that scientists testifying for the prosecution have disproved their own findings against the ossuary. The scientific evidence against Golan is largely based on measurements of the oxygen isotopic composition (in technical terms, d18O — Delta 18 Oxygen) of the thin crust — or patina — covering the ossuary inscription.

Scientists are unsure exactly how the patina is formed but most agree it is composed of deposits of solid calcium carbonate that come by way of rain or groundwater. It can contain particles added by wind and perhaps biological. Additionally, depending on the levels of acidity, it may also involve a chemical reaction with the surface of the object. Some scientists say the process is similar to the way stalagmites grow in caves; others disagree.

Testifying for the prosecution, Miryam Bar-Matthews and Avner Ayalon from the Geological Survey of Israel recorded isotopic values as low as -10.2 permil (parts per thousand) in patina found within the inscription on the ossuary. (It is believed that the lower the number permil, the wetter the season was when it was created.) "The patina could not have been created in the Judean Hills or the surrounding area in a natural way," Bar-Matthews told the court in October 2007. With the exception of one letter in the word Yeshua ("Jesus"), she said, "the patina in the other letters is not natural."

Bar-Matthews and Ayalon based on their research on stalagmites in a cave near Jerusalem, where isotopic data showed rainfall and surface temperatures over many centuries, they concluded that the climate in the past 2,000 years could not have produced the patina on the ossuary. As they wrote with Professor Yuval Goren — another prosecution witness and professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University — in the Journal of Archeological Science in 2004, "the patina covering the letters was artificially prepared, most probably with hot water, and deposited onto the underlying letters." The article states: "There is no evidence for the existence of water with such low d18O values in the area during this time span. The range of rain and groundwater d18O values in the Judean Mountains region during the last 3,000 years could not have been lower than approx -6 permil." Pressed by defense counsel, Bar-Matthews declared that an isotopic value lower than -6.5 permil for the ossuary was "impossible."

However, a subsequent paper by Bar-Matthews and Ayalon with their American colleagues Ian Orland and John Valley studied samples from a stalagmite that apparently grew from about 200 B.C. to 1100 A.D. And that showed isotopes as low as -8.5 permil, with annual rainfall in the Roman era reaching double the amounts the scientists had previously calculated. The article, published in the 2009 issue of Quaternary Research, was submitted for publication on October 11, 2007, before Bar-Matthews and Ayalon gave evidence at the ossuary trial.

The defense expects to use these esoteric contradictions against the prosecution when the trial resumes on Sunday. Defense expert Prof Joel Kronfeld of the Department of Geophysics at Tel Aviv University says the new data shatters the prosecution case. "I think this is amazing — it blows my mind," Kronfeld told TIME. "The findings in this study stand in complete contradiction to the assumptions presented by Ayalon and Bar-Matthews, and shed new light on the theory they presented to the court. They not only undercut their own arguments for determining that the patina on several items was not natural but rather quite the opposite. These data can support the authenticity of the items."

Bar-Matthews, however, argues the data from her later study are "irrelevant" to the ossuary trial. She and her colleagues say that the very low values representing wet seasons were "noise" that should not be taken in isolation since patina takes many years to form. Patina's isotopic value would represent an average figure, not just the low winter results. "It's like comparing tomatoes and gloves," Bar-Matthews told TIME. "There is no scenario where we can get light isotopic values below -6 permil also in Jerusalem under natural conditions."

The defense is likely to point out that the tests on the ossuary carried out by Bar-Matthews and Ayalon also found traces of patina in at least two other letters of the inscription with isotopes of -4.65 and -5.82 permil — well within the original range they suggested. Bar-Matthews and Ayalon discounted these results, saying the results had been corrupted either from the limestone of the box or from a nearby crack that had been recently repaired.

The trouble with this kind evidence is, of course, that the formation of patina isn't yet explainable in science everyone can agree on. The patina on one letter could be the result of one particularly wet winter that happened to leave its evidence on the ossuary — but perhaps not in a stalagmite in a cave. Or vice versa. "The analogy between the formation of cave deposits and the formation of patina on archeological objects is imprecise and more work is needed," says Professor Aldo Shemesh, an isotope expert at the Weizmann Institute who was also called as a defense expert. In the end, it is a numbers game — figuring on averages of statistics over which all the experts disagree. Says Shemesh: "Scientific debates should be discussed and resolved in peer-reviewed literature and scientific conferences, not in court." But a judge in Jerusalem has to decide on the "facts" as he sees them, for Jesus' sake.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Exclusive: “I never faked any antiquity”

Written by Matthew Kalman
The Media Line, Thursday, June 11, 2009

An Israeli antiquities collector accused of faking the burial box of Jesus’ brother and other priceless historical items says he is confident that new scientific evidence will prove that he is innocent.

Oded Golan, 58, has been on trial at the District Court in Jerusalem for the past four years, charged with forging an inscription on a Roman-era burial box or ossuary that says it contained the bones of “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

The discovery caused a sensation when it was first announced in 2002 and displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum. But on its return to Israel, the ossuary was seized by Israeli police and Golan was arrested.

He was accused of faking the ossuary and other items in order to trap gullible collectors. In December 2004, he was indicted with four other defendants and accused of being at the center of an international antiquities forgery ring.

“They took original antiquities and added inscriptions and decorations, which turned the artifact into something valuable – and some of the antiquities we’re talking about are worth millions of dollars. One example is the ossuary of Jesus’ brother,” said Commander Shaul Naim of the Jerusalem police.

“We have the basis to believe that there are many more fake artifacts circulating, both in private collections and museums in Israel and abroad that we haven’t found yet,” Naim said.

“We know there are antiquity forgeries – it’s not a new thing. But the extent and the drama in attempting to fake history didn’t allow us as a government body not to become involved,” said Shuka Dorfman, head of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

“I believe we have revealed only the tip of the iceberg. This industry encircles the world, involves millions of dollars,” said Dorfman.

Golan and his co-defendants went on trial in the summer of 2005, but after more than 70 prosecution witnesses and 8,000 pages of testimony, Judge Aharon Farkash warned the prosecution that he was not convinced they had proved their case and advised them to consider halting the trial.

"After all the evidence we have heard, including the testimony of the prime defendant, is the picture still the same as the one you had when he was charged?" Judge Farkash pointedly asked the prosecution in October 2008. "Not every case ends in the way you think it will when it starts. Maybe we can save ourselves the rest."

"Have you really proved beyond a reasonable doubt that these artifacts are fakes as charged in the indictment?” Judge Farkash said. “The experts disagreed among themselves. Where is the definitive proof needed to show that the accused faked the ossuary? You need to ask yourselves those questions very seriously.”

In an exclusive interview with The Media Line at his Tel Aviv home, Golan said he was confident that new scientific research undertaken by defense experts would finally exonerate him. Prosecution scientists had accused Golan of faking patina – a thin layer of biological material covering ancient items – in order to make the inscriptions on the artifacts seem old.

“No, I never faked any antiquity,” Golan told The Media Line. “During the last several years there were several tests and examinations of those items by prominent experts from different countries in different laboratories and I think we succeeded to prove that these inscriptions could not have been inscribed in the last century. There is a thin layer of patina – it’s a thin layer of crust made actually by a micro-organism that was developed inside the grooves of the inscription and this product made by the micro-organism could not have been developed in less than a hundred years.”

“It’s impossible to generate artificial patina, which takes a long, long time to be developed. It normally takes a hundred years in nature to be developed. Technology has not developed yet any technology to make it in a short time in a way that you will not be able to recognize it. You may do something similar, but this is not a forgery. This is like reconstruction of a building with similar materials,” said Golan.

“I am sure that most of the people who originally claimed that it’s a forgery recognized later on – just look at the articles and the researches that were done later on – that it should be ancient. I cannot guarantee that it belonged to the brother of Jesus Christ but it’s definitely ancient. I have no doubt about it,” he said.

The Israel Antiquities Authority and Justice Ministry refused to comment.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

'Jesus ossuary trial' stalled after more than three years


Mar. 31, 2009


One of Israel's best-known antiquities dealers said this week he was the innocent victim of a "witch-hunt" initiated by the Antiquities Authority aimed at destroying his career and reputation.

Robert Deutsch, 58, has been on trial at the Jerusalem District Court since September 2005 on six charges of faking and selling priceless antiquities. He is the owner of the Archeological Center, with shops in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and runs twice-yearly antiquities auctions that attract the world's top collectors of ancient Judaica.

Deutsch's co-defendant, leading antiquities collector Oded Golan, is charged with faking the burial box of Jesus's brother and an inscribed stone attributed to King Jehoash that once adorned the First Temple, plus dozens of smaller items.

As Deutsch took the stand this week for the first time after more than three years in court, 120 witnesses and 8,000 pages of testimony, he said the charges against him were "lies and hallucinations."

Golan, Deutsch and three others were indicted in December 2004 on a total of 18 counts of forgery and fraud. The indictments were announced amid great fanfare, with the police and Antiquities Authority officials claiming they had uncovered a grand conspiracy on an international scale in which fake items had been unwittingly bought by museums around the world. They said the five accused were just the beginning.

Shuka Dorfman, director of the Antiquities Authority, described the charges against Golan as "the tip of the iceberg."

"These forgeries have worldwide repercussions," Dorfman said when the indictments were filed. "They were an attempt to change the history of the Jewish and Christian people."

"This was fraud of a sophistication and expertise which was previously unknown," said the Israel Police's Cmdr. Shaul Naim, who headed a two-year investigation. "They took authentic items and added inscriptions to make them worth millions."

But more than four years later, no one else has been charged and no one has been prosecuted over a single fake item from any museum. Charges against two of the five original defendants were dropped, and one man was found guilty on a minor charge.

"They fabricated this entire indictment, the whole thing, from A to Z," said Deutsch, who tried to dismiss his lawyer earlier this year because of spiralling trial costs.

Deutsch is one of the world's leading experts on deciphering ancient Hebrew and other semitic inscriptions. Of the 1,000 known seal impressions from ancient Israel, he has published about half.

According to the Antiquities Authority, Deutsch and Golan conspired to forge an ancient decanter, several inscribed pieces of pottery and dozens of seal impressions - known as bulae - some bearing the names of Israelite kings mentioned in the Bible. They are accused of publishing scholarly papers on the items to enhance their value, and then selling them for thousands of dollars to unsuspecting collectors.

After Deutsch was indicted, he was fired from a teaching post at the University of Haifa and dismissed as a supervisor at the Megiddo excavations.

"I have never faked anything in my life," said Deutsch. "I'm the first person to call something a fake, because it pollutes the profession that I have made my expertise."

On the witness stand, Deutsch said he knew Golan, his alleged co-conspirator, only through business. He said the Antiquities Authority and police had failed to find a single e-mail between the two men, or any evidence linking him to forgery despite repeated raids on his home and shops.

Deutsch said the trial was an attempt to shut down the licensed trade in antiquities in Israel, even though it is legal and he has held a license from the authority for the past 30 years.

"The Antiquities Authority thinks we are no better than antiquities thieves," he said. "They believe that our legal trade is worse than theft because we are encouraging the robbers."

"They went to the Knesset and tried to pass legislation banning trade in antiquities and they failed. Now they are using this trial to destroy our business," he said.

"I don't know how much lower they can get, the people who cooked up this trial," he said. "They misled the prosecution, they misled the press and they came up with all sorts of stories with no basis in reality."

One charge against Deutsch and Golan is that in 1995 they conspired to inscribe an ancient decanter with a text linking it to the Temple service and sell it to billionaire collector Shlomo Moussaieff.

"To increase the significance of the decanter and enhance its price," the indictment charges, "Defendant No. 2 published the decanter in a volume of archeology which he authored on the subject of Hebraic inscriptions from the First Temple period."

But Deutsch produced the book in court - exhibit No. 4 - and showed that it was already at the printer in 1994, by which time the decanter was already in the Moussaieff collection. The book cannot have been used to enhance the sale price.

In addition, Deutsch and Golan have both produced compelling evidence to show that the decanter, like the rest of the items, is authentic.

The prosecution, which took nearly three years to present its case, has had difficulty proving the alleged conspiracy. When Oded Golan took the stand last year, he produced plausible explanations for the all the apparent evidence of forgery found in repeated raids on his home, business premises and storage facilities.

Expectations that the prosecution would produce an Egyptian craftsman it alleges actually faked most of the items were dashed when he refused to come to Israel to give evidence.

The star prosecution witness, Tel Aviv University's Prof. Yuval Goren, was forced to recant some of his testimony based on scientific tests that showed the patina - the encrustation that adheres to ancient objects - to be a modern concoction. Further scientific evidence based on isotopic analysis of the patina looked increasingly unconvincing after other scientists tested the same items and came to the opposite conclusion.

Last October, the trial appeared close to collapse after Judge Aharon Farkash advised the prosecution to consider dropping the proceedings.

"After all the evidence we have heard, including the testimony of the prime defendant, is the picture still the same as the one you had when he was charged?" the judge pointedly asked the prosecutor. "Maybe we can save ourselves the rest."

"Have you really proved beyond a reasonable doubt that these artifacts are fakes as charged in the indictment? The experts disagreed among themselves" Farkash said.

The trial continues.

Matthew Kalman is the Jerusalem correspondent of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Ancient seal discovered by Israel Antiquities Authority boosts the men it put on trial


JERUSALEM - The discovery of an ancient seal impression south of Jerusalem, announced on 23rd February by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), has given an unexpected boost to the two men the IAA accuses of faking a series of priceless antiquities.

Oded Golan has been on trial since 2005 in the Jerusalem District Court, indicted on multiple counts of forgery, conspiracy and illegal antiquities trading.

Co-defendant Robert Deutsch is accused of a more minor role, selling some of the fakes to unwitting collectors.

Both men deny all the charges against them. Defence testimony by Professor Aldo Shemesh of the Weizmann Institute delivered on February 26th appeared to destroy much of the geo-chemical evidence presented by the prosecution.

One of the key exhibits in the case is a slim volume entitled “Forty New Ancient West Semitic Inscriptions,” written by Robert Deutsch and Professor Michael Heltzer of Haifa University. Its importance to the trial is the cover, which shows an inscribed decanter which the indictment accuses the defendants of faking in 2006 and selling it to millionaire collector Shlomo Moussaieff. The book was published in 2004.

Seal impression of Ahimelek (son of) Amudiyahu, bought by Oded Golan from an antiquities dealer in the early 90s and published by Robert Deutsch in 1994

But on pp31-33 of the same book there is a photograph and description of an ancient seal impression on the handle of a storage jar from the collection of principal defendant Oded Golan, with an inscription bearing the name Ahimelek (son of) Amudiyahu.

Robert Deutsch’s book containing Oded Golan’s unprovenanced seal impression, published in 1994

Golan says he bought the handle with the impression from an antiquities dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem in the early 1990s, but because it was not discovered in an authorized excavation, it is defined as “unprovenanced” and its authenticity might be doubted by some.

Then on February 23rd, the IAA announced its finds from an archeological excavation at Umm Tuba south of Jerusalem, in the ruins of a building dating to the reign of Hezekiah, King of Judah in the 8th century BCE – the period of the First Temple.

One of the IAA finds is a seal impression on the handle of a large jar that was used to store wine and oil in the royal compounds. It bears the seal of Ahimelek (son of) Amudiyahu, who was apparently a high-ranking royal official in King Hezekiah’s Court.

Seal impression of Ahimelek (son of) Amudiyahu, discovered in an Israel Antiquities Authority excavation at Umm Tuba, south of Jerusalem, February 2009

The name Ahimelek (son of) Amudiyahu does not appear anywhere in the Bible or any other written source. The name has been published only once before – in Robert Deutsch’s 1994 book.

So it appears that the storage jar found at Umm Tuba in February 2009 was impressed with the very same seal from Oded Golan’s collection and published by Robert Deutsch 15 years earlier.

Thanks to the IAA, there is now no doubt as to the authenticity of Golan’s seal impression. And, also thanks to the IAA, it has now increased perhaps tenfold in value.