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Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Oded Golan sentenced: future of James ossuary, Jehoash tablet and other treasures still uncertain


May 30, 2012

JERUSALEM - The Tel Aviv antiquities collector acquitted in March after a seven-year trial of faking the burial box of Jesus’s brother, an inscribed tablet that may have adorned Solomon’s Temple, and dozens of other valuable antiquities, was sentenced Wednesday to a month in jail and fined 30,000 NIS for three minor charges of illegal trading in antiquities and handling goods suspected of being stolen.

Judge Aharon Farkash, vice-president of the Jerusalem District Court, ruled that Oded Golan will not have to serve a custodial sentence because he was held by Israeli police for more than a month after his arrest in 2003.

Judge Farkash, who had earlier threatened to order the destruction of the burial box, or ossuary, inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” a black stone tablet recording repairs to the Temple by King Jehoash in 800 BCE and other items seized from Golan, delayed a decision on the final ownership of the items, which could be worth millions of dollars.

Judge Farkash rejected prosecution arguments that all the items connected to the 41 forgery charges on which Golan was acquitted should be confiscated, but he also did not order their immediate return as requested by the defense.

Instead, Farkash ordered the prosecution to present detailed arguments by July 1 justifying the confiscation of each item, including dozens of ancient seals and seal impressions, inscribed pottery, lamps, decanters and other artifacts seized on suspicion of being fakes.

Farkash also revealed that he had been petitioned by two other collectors – Shlomo Moussaieff and George Weill – for the return of items belonging to them.

“Antiquities theft in the land of Israel has become a national plague,” Judge Farkash said in an eight-page written decision that he read out to an almost empty courtroom. “Antiquities theft damages various sites spread out across the land of Israel, sites which are an inseparable part of the history and culture of this land and its inhabitants, who lived here from thousands of years ago until the present day. Antiquities theft also damages the ability of experts to document the history of the people of Israel in its land.”

Judge Farkash said the work of the Israel Antiquities Authority in stopping the theft and forgery of historical items was essential in protecting the heritage of the holy land. He said the only way to cut down on illegal excavations and the robbery of historic sites was to discourage the illegal antiquities trade.

The judge also called for a reform of Israel’s antiquities laws and suggested that collectors, as well as dealers, should have to provide the authorities with periodic lists of the items in their collection.

Oded Golan said he was still studying the decision and had not yet decided whether to appeal the sentence.

“I respect the decision of the court,” Golan told this reporter. “However, the decision may be based on a mistaken interpretation of Israeli law. All three minor charges on which I was convicted, and to which I freely confessed in my first interview with the police in 2003, relate to antiquities found outside the borders of the State of Israel. Under Israeli law, the Israel Antiquities Authority has no jurisdiction over them and no authority in matters related to them.”

“My interest is to save, keep and document important antiquities found in Israel and the West Bank. Unfortunately, the Israel Antiquities Authority have failed to prevent the loss of some 1.5 million pieces discovered in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967, which have left the country,” Golan said.

He added that the remarks by the judge had “implications for any antiquities collector, most of whom save valuable items for posterity and donate them to museums so the wider public can benefit from them.”

“The reforms suggested by the judge may even further harm the protection of antiquities found in Israel and encourage people to take them out of the country,” he said.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Judge to decide fate of ossuary, Jehoash tablet

Scholars say items should be preserved; J'lem judge could order items destroyed under "ruling of Solomon."
May 29, 2012


A Jerusalem judge will announce on Wednesday whether he has decided to order the destruction of a burial box that could have held the bones of the brother of Jesus and an inscribed tablet that could have come from the First Temple.

At a Jerusalem District Court hearing in April, Judge Aharon Farkash said he might exercise “the judgement of Solomon” and order both items to be destroyed.

The stone burial box, or ossuary, dates to the first century CE and has an Aramaic inscription that reads "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." The black tablet is inscribed with a passage recording repairs by King Jehoash around 800 BCE. Its surface is spattered with sub-microscopic globules of gold that suggest it might have survived a fire in which golden items melted into tiny airborne particles.

If genuine, the items are the only artifacts yet recovered that can be linked directly to the family of Jesus and the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and could be of considerable historical significance.

Last March, at the end of a trial lasting nearly seven years, a Tel Aviv collector was acquitted of faking the two artifacts and other antiquities by Judge Farkash, vice president of the Jerusalem District Court.

But Judge Farkash reserved judgment on whether the ossuary or the stone tablet were authentic because of disagreements between the world’s leading experts.

On Wednesday, Judge Farkash will pass sentence on the defendant, Oded Golan, who was acquitted on 41 charges of forgery, fraud and other serious crimes, but found guilty of three minor misdemeanors of trading in antiquities without a license and handling goods suspected of being stolen.

At a hearing in April, the prosecution demanded a tough sentence including jail time and said that the ossuary, the tablet and many other items should be confiscated by the court, even though Golan had been acquitted of all charges related to them.

“Maybe I’ll order them to be destroyed and neither side will have them,” said Judge Farkash in comments that were not recorded in the official court transcript.

It would be “the judgement of Solomon,” said Judge Farkash.

“Neither of you will have the ossuary or the Jehoash tablet. They broke once already, they can be broken again. Just destroy them,” he said.

The ossuary cracked into two pieces 2002 while it was being shipped to an exhibition in Canada and was repaired by restorers at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The Jehoash tablet broke along an existing crack in 2003 while it was being handled by investigators at the Israel Police forensic laboratory.

The judge also suggested that the items might be put on display for the public.

“Maybe they should be exhibited at the Israel Museum as items from this trial suspected of being fakes,” he said.

Experts who gave evidence for both sides last night urged Judge Farkash not to destroy the items.

Andre Lemaire, the Sorbonne scholar who published the first analysis of the ossuary in 2002 and has stood by its authenticity, said its destruction would be “scandalous” and “a manipulation of historical evidence.”

“It would be necessary from a scientific point of view to start a new suit, on a real basis this time, for voluntary destruction of historical evidence and tentative manipulation of history,” Professor Lemaire told The Jerusalem Post.

Christopher Rollston, professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Emmanuel Christian Seminary who appeared as a prosecution witness, said “it is never prudent to destroy antiquities, regardless of the controversy surrounding them.”

“I would certainly not wish to see the Ya'akov ("James") Ossuary destroyed. Indeed, to destroy the ossuary would only fuel the controversy, effectively turning this ossuary into an archaeological martyr of sorts. I wish to see it returned to its legal owner,” he said.

Prosecution witness Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, agreed that the ossuary should not be destroyed, but said it should not be returned to Golan. “The Israel Antiquities Authority has a place for alleged forgeries in their storehouses – why not put this item there too for posterity?” Finkelstein suggested.

Defence counsel Lior Bringer said the items should be returned immediately to Golan, who said he has not yet decided what to do with them.

“The prosecution is asking the court to punish the defendant for crimes for which he was acquitted,” said Bringer. “Golan admitted to the three minor charges he was convicted of in the first police interview. On these charges there was no need for a trial at all.”

“He spent more than two years under house arrest and was in prison twice. He has suffered enough,” said Bringer.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Court says 'not guilty,' Antiquities Authority demands punishment

May 12, 2012

Antiquities Authority determined not to return dozens of items to Israeli collector accused of faking burial box of Jesus's brother.

Antiques collector Golan  
The Antiquities Authority, backed by State Attorney Moshe Lador, has launched a desperate rearguard action to reverse its humiliating defeat in a seven-year trial that ended with the acquittal of an Israeli collector accused of faking the burial box of the brother of Jesus and an inscribed stone tablet that may have hung on the wall of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.

The latest twist came during a routine sentencing hearing at the Jerusalem District Court last Tuesday, two months after the stunning collapse of the high-profile prosecution.

Prosecutor Dan Bahat revealed that the Antiquities Authority was determined not to return dozens of items, including the burial box and the stone tablet to their owner, despite his acquittal on all the relevant charges.

Bahat compared it to returning drugs to a dealer acquitted on a technicality.

Oded Golan, 60, was cleared in March on 41 counts of forgery, fraud and other serious crimes related to what antiquities officials and police had described as a worldwide, multi-million-dollar network designed to falsify history and dupe museums and collectors into buying worthless fakes. Golan was convicted on three minor counts of handling goods suspected of being stolen and dealing in antiquities without a license.

The case attracted worldwide attention because of a stone burial box, or ossuary, inscribed with the Aramaic legend “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus.”

The prosecution was unable to prove its assertion that the words “brother of Jesus” were a modern addition and Golan was cleared of faking them.

If genuine, the ossuary is the only known artifact that could be directly connected to the family of the historical Jesus.

Golan was also acquitted on all charges relating to a black stone tablet inscribed in ancient Hebrew recording repairs to the Temple carried out by King Jehoash around 800 BCE. If genuine, it is the only item yet discovered that may have adorned the First Temple.

In December 2007, Amir Ganor, head of the antiquities authority anti-theft unit and the architect of the fraud trial, said the Antiquities Authority would return return more than 200 artifacts seized from Golan.

“I am holding the exhibits under a court order,” Ganor told the court. “When the trial is over, I imagine I will be happy to get rid of everything I have in the storeroom and return it to Oded Golan, including the ossuary.”

The trial has now ended, but even though Golan was acquitted on all charges related to the most important artifacts in the case, the prosecutor demanded the permanent confiscation of all the items. He also urged the judge to impose a maximum sentence for the three minor misdemeanors even though it was Golan’s first offense.

“I do not agree that there is an absence of a criminal history. There were illegal activities,” Bahat charged, prompting a sharp rebuke from Judge Aharon Farkash.

“You are trying to mount a new trial,” said the judge, who even referred to a “witchhunt” against Golan.

The Antiquities Authority has shown no sign that it accepts the not guilty verdict. Its spokesmen continue to describe the items in the trial as fakes and the authority appears to be determined to punish Golan despite losing the case.

Bahat said the decision to seek confiscation of the property and a harsh sentence had been taken personally by the state attorney.

GOLAN, WHO was imprisoned twice by police for short periods during the investigation and then held under house arrest for more than 700 days, as well as losing untold income over the 10-year investigation and trial, said he had expected the court to order the immediate return of the hundreds of items and documents taken by the police and hoped the judge would not impose further punishment.

Bahat presented two apparently contradictory arguments to the court. First, he said that since the judge had ruled the items were not fakes as charged in the indictment, they were in fact real antiquities and Golan was therefore not a collector but a dealer and so had an obligation to maintain a full inventory of his stock.

Judge Farkash pointedly reminded him that this accusation had not even been hinted at in any of the 44 crimes listed in the indictment.

“I don’t recall that in any of the charges you accused him of this crime of being an unlicensed dealer. How can you now ask me to consider this when deciding on the sentence?” asked the judge. “You are now asking me to take into consideration that he didn’t maintain an inventory. I don’t recall that was included in any of the 18 counts, either as a specific charge or within any of the charges on the indictment.”

Bahat then performed an abrupt about-turn, arguing that, despite Golan’s acquittal, the “likelihood” is that the items were fakes.

“In my opinion, it is inconceivable that the items should be returned to the accused,” said Bahat. “I say there is no choice.”

Bahat said it would be unacceptable for Golan to benefit from the ossuary or other artifacts.

“He can sell it, exhibit it. I cannot countenance that if the item is fake that he should get it back,” said Bahat, suggesting the items be given to the Israel Police forensics laboratory for educational purposes.

But Judge Farkash seemed unimpressed, particularly as he had singled out the forensics laboratory in his verdict for severe criticism for contaminating the ossuary inscription during testing, rendering it scientifically worthless.

“If the ossuary is a fake, it’s not an antiquity. How can I not return it to the accused?” he asked.

The judge suggested, only half-joking, that the items be put on display at the Israel Museum in special exhibition of artifacts from the trial. Golan himself says he has not yet decided what to do with them.

But Golan’s attorney Lior Bringer was scathing about the prosecution tactics.

“The prosecution is asking the court to punish the defendant for crimes for which he was acquitted,” said Bringer. “Golan admitted to the three minor charges he was convicted of in the first police interview. On these charges there was no need for a trial at all.”

“He spent more than two years under house arrest and was in prison twice. He has suffered enough,” said Bringer.

But the Antiquities Authority seems determined to enforce its will through the courts rather than academic discussion – and to pursue legal action against anyone who dares to challenge its diktat. The authority ordered the unprecedented prosecution of the late Prof. Hanan Eshel of Bar-Ilan University for buying important artifacts and studying them before handing them over to the state. Last week, the authority was back in court in Nazareth, prosecuting a resident of Zipori for “damaging” an ancient tomb that he discovered and was trying to preserve.

The writer is editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Report. His dispatches from the trial are at