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Thursday, 1 August 2013

Jehoash Tablet no longer a forgery? Israel wants to keep it

An Israel Antiquities Authority official with the Jehoash Tablet at the Israeli High Court on Wednesday. The tablet was broken in two along an existing crack while in the safekeeping of the IAA (Copyright Photo: Matthew Kalman)



JERUSALEM, August 1 - In a stunning about-turn, after losing a 10-year legal effort to prove that an Israeli antiquities collector faked an inscription from Solomon’s Temple, Israel’s deputy state attorney begged the high court in Jerusalem on Wednesday to allow the Israeli government to keep the artifact on the grounds that it is “an antiquity.”

Oded Golan, the Israeli antiquities collector who was acquitted of forging the Jehoash Tablet after a seven-year criminal trial, said he had offered to loan it to a museum for study and public display, but he would fight the attempts by the state to confiscate it.

The rectangular black stone Jehoash tablet - about 12 inches long, 10 inches wide and just over 3 inches thick - is inscribed with a chiselled inscription of 15 lines in ancient script similar to a famous passage from the Second Book of Kings recording repairs made by King Jehoash to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem around 800 BCE. If authentic, it is the only item yet found that may have come from Solomon's Temple, built around the 9th century BCE and destroyed by the Babylonians 300-400 years later.

Golan was acquitted of all forgery charges in March 2012, nine years after he was first arrested on suspicion of forging the inscription. He was also acquitted of forging the words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” on a stone burial box, and dozens of other items including seal impressions linked to biblical figures, inked inscriptions on pottery sherds and a richly-decorated ancient stone lamp.

“Since, according to the state, it is not an antiquity, it cannot now contend that it owns the tablet”

The Jehoash Tablet has never been displayed in public – except in the Jerusalem District Court of Judge Aharon Farkash. It was seized by Israeli police in 2003 together with hundreds of other items, including the James ossuary, in a series of raids on Golan’s home, office and warehouses.

Following Golan’s arrest, a panel of experts appointed by the Israel Antiquities Authority declared the Jehoash Tablet and the James ossuary fakes. Golan and four others were indicted in December 2004 on multiple counts of forgery and accused of being members of an international antiquities forgery ring. None of the charges held up in court.

A year after Golan’s acquittal, Judge Farkash ordered the prosecution to return the Jehoash Tablet, the James ossuary and the other items to Golan.

But after arguing for a decade that the Jehoash Tablet was a fake, the prosecution has suddenly decided it is an antiquity, and therefore the property of the state under the 1978 Israel Antiquities Law.

Israeli prosecutors have reversed a decade-long criminal pursuit of the Jehoash Tablet forgers and now say it is an antiquity that should be in the possession of the state (Copyright Photo: Matthew Kalman)
The stunning about-turn – from branding the tablet a fake and pursuing a decade-long witchhunt for its forger, to deciding that it was a valuable antiquity that must only be under control of the Israeli state – has become the central plank of the government appeal now before Israel’s high court.

The Israeli government is effectively demanding that Golan be punished despite being acquitted by confiscating the Jehoash tablet.

In a scathing departure from his usually cautious comments throughout the case, Judge Farkash accepted that the return of the Jehoash Tablet should await the appeal decision by the high court, but he pointedly dismissed the prosecution argument.

“The state insisted on its view that this was not an antiquity, but a forged antiquity. Since, according to the state, it is not an antiquity, it cannot now contend that it owns the tablet according to the Antiquities Law, and therefore by law it should be returned to Golan,” Farkash wrote in a decision issued on February 12, 2013.

During an appeal hearing in the Israel High Court in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Deputy State Attorney Naomi Katz-Lulav argued that while the state still believed the inscription was fake, the stone itself was “ancient.”

“We say it’s an antiquity,” Katz-Lulav told the three-judge panel. “We want to keep it.”

The words for “ancient” and “antiquity” are the same in Hebrew: atiqa.

“We understand the situation differently now. It’s ours and we have the right to do whatever we want with our property”

The judges pointedly asked how the prosecution could reverse its earlier argument that the tablet was fake, including evidence from its own expert witness that the stone was recently inscribed and came from abroad. They also wondered how the prosecution could argue that the stone came from Israel, and so belonged to the state, when the only evidence attesting to its origins was hearsay defence evidence that the antiquities dealer who sold it to Golan told him it had been discovered in the late 1990s near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Throughout the trial, the prosecution had branded that evidence as manufactured to try and prove the authenticity of the item.

“We understand the situation differently now. It’s ours and we have the right to do whatever we want with our property,” Katz-Lulav said after the hearing “We don’t need to give a reason.”

She suggested that sometime in the future, it may be discovered to be genuine.

“It is unthinkable that such an item should be in private hands,” she told the court.

An archaeologist sitting in the public gallery during the hearing laughed out loud at the prosecution argument, pointing out that all stones are “ancient,” since they were created millions of years ago. It was only the addition of the inscription that transformed an “ancient” stone into an “antiquity” – an inscription that the prosecution continues to denounce as fake. 

“The prosecution wants to have their cake and eat it,” said the archaeologist. “Their argument is complete nonsense.”

But the judges were apparently smitten with the tablet and asked for it to be produced in court so they could handle it themselves. The tablet was once offered for sale to the Israel Museum for four million dollars. It was broken in two while in the custody of the Israel Antiquities Authority and was brought to court in a plain wooden box, protected by plastic wrap.

“Today we felt a piece of history, we held it in our hands,” said Justice Yoram Danziger, chairman of the panel, clearly moved after holding the only item known that may have adorned the temple. “Clearly, the Jehoash Tablet must be considered in a separate category to all the other items.”

After adjourning to chambers to discuss the issue, the judges returned and, defying the logic set out in Judge Farkash’s decision, suggested a compromise whereby the state would keep the Jehoash Tablet and negotiate returning more than 250 other items seized from Golan.

“Their position is ridiculous and the suggested compromise is completely unacceptable,” Golan told this reporter after Wednesday’s court hearing. “I should just give it to the state after they put me through this for the past ten years? Why? I already told them I was willing to loan it to a museum and submit it for testing.”

“Now, after they failed to destroy me, they expect me just to give them the very item they said I faked. The offer suggested by the court will not happen. I will negotiate with the prosecution and try to offer some other possibilities and hopefully the high court will accept it,” he said.


  1. ODED GOLAN cannot have it both ways. If he alleged in court that the tablet was an authentic "antiquity," then he is obligated to return the antiquity to the state of Israel. Your article distorts the pointed issue, "Whether an artifact which is alleged to be authentic by a criminal defendant, is subject to forfeiture to the state pursuant to the relevant provisions of the Antiquities Law?"

    1. Golan is only obligated to return it if the state can show it was found after 1978 and prove it came from Israel. They can do neither. Evidence accepted by the court showed he bought it from an authorised dealer, who had it listed in the inventory submitted to the IAA, who allowed it to be sold. All along they have argued it's a fake, anyway. Their only evidence it's not a forgery is the defence evidence that they have rejected for a decade.

    2. Come on Ray. This article is so to the point and accurate that you look ridiculous as usual, siding against the facts. Golan was found innocent and the IAA never wanted the tablet during the trial. They can't prove he didn't acquire it legally before 1978.

      You must be paid by the IAA to comment.

  2. Your entire report is very skewed.

    First, Golan was not simply acquitted of forgery. He was acquitted due to doubt. What this means is that the court found evidence to doubt the authenticity, but did not feel the evidence extended beyond a reasonable doubt necessary for criminal charges. The bottom line is that the court did find evidence to point to forgery.

    Second, Golan is obligated to return it if the item was found in Israeli territory after 1978. If the state can prove this, it can even force him to do so. But even if it can't prove he stole something doesn't mean he has no obligation to return something that he stole. Of course, 1978 is not a magic date. Before then, taking inscriptions isn't really ok either, ethically speaking. This means, that ethically even if it took place before 1978 he should return it. He may not be a thief under the law, but he is holding property he is not ethically or morally entitled to hold.

    Third, the state argued already beforehand that the patina on the back of the stone was ancient. So it is not making any magical about-face. Also, legally, the attorney has the obligation in representing its client to raise scenarios that the client does not believe are true but which advance the interests of his client. That is, if the attorney believes that the claim "maybe someday in the future it will be shown to be genuine" will advance the interests of its client, then the attorney is required to make that argument. It doesn't mean that the Antiquities Authority believes it will ever be shown to be genuine. Just as legally, the judge may find the evidence to suggest forgery but not beyond a reasonable doubt, so too legally, the state attorney can raise a suggestion that it is not a forgery. (In fact, if it doesn't raise a possible argument that could advance the interests of its client, it is negligent).

    So really, Golan should give up on the inscription from moral and ethical perspectives.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Evidence accepted by the court, and not appealed by the state, showed that Ofed Golan did not "find" the Jehoash Tablet, he bought it from an authorised dealer. He is therefore under no obligation - legal, ethical or moral - to "return" it to anyone.

    2. The court may have accepted it during trial.

      It is hard to say that it accepted it in the verdict. Please see sections #574-580 of the verdict. I will quote in part (it is long):

      "Regarding his claims, Golan's attorney agreed that ... 'things are not clear cut' but he showed a document that was retrieved from Abu Yasser saying an inscribed stone was bought from Hassan Abd al-Jawad of Deir Sammit .. with the signatures of the IAA from 1997 and 1988 (apparently). Golan's attorney agreed that 'inscribed stone' does not prove it is the Jehoash inscription but Abu Yasser's widow testified that it was and adds that he is aware that the widow's testimony is problematic and not clear cut ... Golan's attorney also shows an IAA intelligence report with intel from the late 90s about the discovery of an inscribed stone of importance at the Temple Mount in the early 90s. Because the IAA refused to identify the person who provided the intel, Golan's attorney had to accept Amir Ganor's testimony that i was not the Jehoash inscription. I [Judge Farkash] note that Golan's attorney was not exact since the intel report is from 2003 and not the late 90s. ... After I gave consideration to the arguments of both sides ... I find that Golan is an intelligent man ... Unfortunately, the truth was not his companion... Regarding this particular charge, I accept the plaintiff's accusation that Golan wanted to paint a picture at each point of time that was comfortable to him regarding ownership of the inscription ... [testimony from the trial where Golan admits he said things that were not true] ... "

      It's hard to say that the Judge accepts Golan's testimony regarding this authorized dealer. In fact, even Golan's attorney agrees that this evidence is problematic and Abu Yasser's widow's testimony on the subject is problematic. In the end, the Judge concludes that Golan is a liar in this particular issue. Golan's attorney also suggested that the item was found in the early 1990s (ie, after 1978) in the Temple Mount (where the antiquities law is considered binding by the courts, even if not enforced in practice on the Waqf).

      In any case, you have a different idea of ethics and morals than I do. In my opinion, if someone is holding something that is a state treasure, it is his moral duty to turn it over to the state and he really has no more right than anyone else to hold it. Just like Eshel and Bar Ilan University bought fragments of a Leviticus scroll and turned them over to the IAA, so too any honest person should. But it shouldn't be new that Golan is not honest. Judge Farkash repeats it over and over again in the verdict.

      The verdict in Hebrew -

    3. And yet Judge Farkash's conclusion is quite clear: he instructs in the verdict that the Jehoash Tablet should be returned to Golan.

    4. I think that they should purchase the tablet to compensate Golan for the unnecessary trouble they have caused him and the extraordinary arrogance of their accusations.

    5. Judge Farkash is indeed clear so I don't understand how you got what you got. He ordered the Jehoash tablet to be kept in the state's possession until a decision by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, from the description above, seems to be leaning to confiscate the Jehoash tablet permanently.

      Also, having read more of the court decisions in the case it appears that the onus of proof that the item is before 1978 is upon the defendant, not the plaintiff.

    6. No Yitzhak, he was acquitted of forgery. Those were the charges. What is this BS about being aquitted due to doubt?

  3. Dear Mr./Dr. Kalman, Hi!!! Thank you so very much for all of your very hard work accurately reporting the trial over the years. All of the information stated by Mr. Sapir was before this year's February decision of Judge Farkash. Is this correct? Above you wrote: “The state insisted on its view that this was not an antiquity, but a forged antiquity. Since, according to the state, it is not an antiquity, it cannot now contend that it owns the tablet according to the Antiquities Law, and therefore by law it should be returned to Golan,” Farkash wrote in a decision issued on February 12, 2013. Please correct me if I am wrong. Thank you for all of your time and hard work. With Much Gratitude and Admiration, Michael Welch Deltona, Florida

    1. Thank you for your comment. Mr - and then only just. Judge Farkash clearly thought the prosecution argument to retain the Jehoash Tablet was ridiculous, but said his ruling must await the high court decision on the appeal. The wording of his verdict suggests he expected the appeal to be rejected out of hand. As it should have been