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 http://jamesossuarytrial.blogspot.com/.