Israeli antiquities collector talks about his trial – and his acquittal
His trial went on for seven years, but collector extraordinaire Oded Golan, who was accused of faking antiquities, never changed his story − and was in the end acquitted.
Three weeks ago, antiquities collector Oded Golan was acquitted, on grounds of reasonable doubt, of most of the charges he had been facing since 2004. The ruling, in what was apparently the country’s largest antiquities fraud trial of all time, takes up 475 pages. Most of it deals with the arguments, sometimes impassioned, among experts from both sides, on matters of archaeology, linguistics, philology, chemistry and geology.
The prosecution witnesses tried to prove that the objects, the most prominent of which are the ossuary, or bone box, said to be of “James, son of
Joseph, brother of Jesus,” and a stone tablet with an inscription said to be from the time of the First Temple, are fakes. The defense experts tried to prove their authenticity. But Jerusalem District Court Judge Aharon
Farkash stressed he was not rendering an opinion on the authenticity of the objects, but rather declaring that the prosecution had not proven beyond reasonable doubt that they were fakes.
One of the most interesting sections in the ruling deals not with an artifact itself but with a black-and-white photo from the 1970s, taken in the home of Golan’s parents. Three shelves are visible in the picture: On the first are some books and a photograph of a young woman; on the second shelf, some ancient pottery vessels; and on the bottom shelf, the above-mentioned, now-famous James ossuary with the inscription in Aramaic, “Yaakov Bar Yosef, ahui diyeshua.”
The photo seemingly contradicts the prosecution’s claim that Golan had acquired the ossuary only after the turn of the millennium and took steps to forge the inscription on it. According to the state, a person who had developed extraordinary skill in forging ancient
Hebrew inscriptions from the 9th century B.C.E. would have no trouble also forging a photograph from the 1970s.
Golan, however, pointed out that among the items on the shelves are two books with call numbers from the library of the Technion − Israel Institute of Technology, where he studied between 1976 and 1978. Another is a 1974 telephone book. Golan also tracked down the young woman in the photo, Jacqueline Schlossberg, who was his girlfriend in the 1970s. Schlossberg testified in court, and said that she remembered not only the photo of herself, but the bone box, as her maiden name was Mar-Yosef and the inscription “Bar Yosef” had caught her attention at the time.
Golan and his attorney, Lior Bringer, did not stop there. They enlisted the aid of Gerald Richard, former head of a special photography unit of the FBI. Richard examined the photo and found no signs that the image had been tampered with. He testified at the trial that the photographic paper on which it was printed had been produced by Kodak until 1979, and that a stamp with the name of the paper appears on the back of the photo.
The picture seemingly contains several elements necessary for establishing its authenticity: the books, the photo of Schlossberg, the name of the photographic paper on its rear. It is too perfect, argued the prosecution, however: Of the thousands of pictures found in Golan’s possession, it is the only one with the name of the paper stamped on the back.
Prosecutor Dan Bahat, of the Jerusalem District Attorney’s Office, also noted the peculiar logic of photographing three shelves for no particular reason. But Judge Farkash rejected that interpretation, and ruled that it had not been proven that the picture was either forged or staged.
Nearly any one of the 18 items listed in the indictment as having been fabricated by Golan could have provided a headline in a news broadcast had it been found in an ordinary archaeological dig. The main question posed by those who do not believe in the authenticity of the finds is: How did Golan come into possession of all these precious objects? Furthermore, determining that the photograph and all the archaeological finds are forgeries would lead one to conclude that Golan is a multidisciplinary genius − able to fake items from different fields at a level so professional that some of the country’s most distinguished archaeologists cannot refute their authenticity.
Golan, 61 and a resident of Tel Aviv, is a wealthy man with many interests who engages in real estate deals and high-tech initiatives. He also established a company for professional tours for architects. He became attracted to archaeology in his youth: At the age of 12 he became the youngest member of the legendary excavation team, led by Yigael Yadin, at Masada.
After the Six-Day War, when Golan was still in high school, he began to scour the Old City of Jerusalem, newly accessible to Israelis, as well as the towns of the West Bank in search of antiquities.
“Every week I’d skip a day or two of school and go to the Old City and from there to Hebron and then to the villages,” he relates. “I didn’t have money then, but people liked me very much.”
It was during that period that he began to establish relations with Palestinian antiquities dealers, who served as the source of most of his collection.
Obtaining such items from the territories also enabled him to evade the strict Israel Antiquities Law, which does not apply there.
Today, Golan is one of the biggest collectors of Land of Israel antiquities in the world. “It’s the most interesting hobby in the world,” he says. “Unlike stamp collecting, in which you try to complete a series of known items, here it is hard to predict what a day will bring. There’s a combination here of thrills and interest, which never ends. When I was just a child, I found I had the intuition to tell what was rare and what wasn’t. When I see a rare object I can hardly withstand the temptation to rescue it. Even though it’s inanimate, there is an element of rescue here. I feel a compulsion not to let it leave the country and disappear, so that we’d never even know that it had existed.”
According to him, he and collectors like him rescue antiquities that otherwise would have been sold abroad. He is frustrated because most archaeological researchers ignore finds that were not discovered in a proper, organized excavation, on the grounds they cannot be authenticated or ascribed to a context. At the Israel Antiquities Authority, they also say that the collectors’ activity
encourages robber excavations and the illegal trade in antiquities.
Either way, Golan’s display cases are beautiful and a tour of them tremendously exciting. It is a kind of private, half-secret museum. The objects are arranged in illuminated display cases without labels, so the owner has to explain to this guests what they are seeing: “Here we have miniature models of the First Temple ... Here are figurines of Ashtoret ... here is the earliest seven-branched candelabrum, and this is a general’s sword from the Late Bronze Age.”
Somewhere, there are also two ossuaries from what he calls “the last years people left the Temple alive before the destruction” in 70 C.E. Golan explains that they contained the remains of sons of the last high priest of the Temple who, according to the writings of Josephus Flavius, left Jerusalem before the destruction in a desperate attempt to save the Temple.
To the question of how all these amazing objects − and especially the ones that appear in the indictment − came specifically into his hands, Golan has a prosaic answer: “I have been an antiquities
collector for 40 years, and among major collectors, I am the only one in Israel.
I have seen or heard about most of the antiquities discovered in this country. It’s hard for an Arab antiquities dealer to get to a collector abroad, so they come to me.”
Truth and lies
Although Judge Farkash acquitted Golan, he did criticize him and concluded that he did not always stick to the truth. Golan admits his hobby is one that involves not telling the entire story all the time − and sometimes lying − in order to obtain an artifact at the desired price. “You can’t always tell 100 percent of the truth,” he admits.
According to the very harsh indictment against him, Golan headed a gang involved in forging and selling fake antiquities. In addition to the ossuary and the so-called Jehoash inscription that appears on a small stone tablet and is supposed to prove the existence of the First Temple (it describes construction undertaken there), which attracted most of the attention, he was also accused of forging the so-called Shishek bowl, with its ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription; a stone oil lamp decorated with a seven-branched candelabrum; ostraca (pottery shards with writing on them); and ceramic seals. He was also accused of interfering with legal proceedings and suborning a witness.
Golan spent more than two years under arrest, about half of that time in his parents’ home. That’s where he says he found the old picture of the ossuary. The trial, which went on for seven years, became an arena for wrestling matches between experts from many fields, as colleagues bad-mouthed one another and experts were embarrassed on the witness stand.
The bottom line is that in nearly every instance, Golan managed to cast doubt on the assertion there had been forgery, whether by biochemical proof of the existence of a patina (a natural coating that accumulates on stone and glass surfaces over the centuries), or by means of evidence that an inscription was appropriate to a period in every respect − from the shape of the letters to the grammar employed.
In one instance, two geologists who appeared as defense witnesses pointed to microscopic bits of gold in the letters on the Jehoash tablet. Gold flecks of this size cannot be created artificially and cannot be scattered so they look random. “This shows the stone was in proximity to a big fire. For example, a structure of wood covered in gold, which suits a building we know in Jerusalem,” says Golan.
At the IAA and the prosecutor’s office, however, they still believe the objects are forged. They are convinced that had they succeeded in bringing as a witness an Egyptian artist, whom they think helped Golan, they would have proven this in court. Throughout, Golan rejected plea bargains offered by the prosecution.
“I refused because they insisted on bending the information,” he says. “There was someone who did agree to a plea bargain: Galileo Galilei. Perhaps he muttered ‘Even though it does revolve ...’ − he went ahead and signed the deal. I couldn’t agree.”
According to Golan, contrary to the argument of the IAA, the world of antiquities forgeries in Israel is very small and makes no economic sense: “In order to make the Jehoash tablet, you would have to work on it for at least a year and keep a team of experts on writing and on biology and geochemistry and archaeology, among others, and in the end you wouldn’t be able to sell it. You have to do everything in secret and you’ll always get someone who will say it is a fake.
“If you can do all that,” he continues, “you might as well go and print yourself dollars.”
According to Golan, the community of antiquities collectors constitutes a very limited group of knowledgeable individuals, all of whom are experts, to whom it is not easy to sell fakes. He also mentions the absence of any logic in the forgery of which he was accused in the case of the Jehoash tablet.
“I said during the investigation that even if I had intended to make forgeries, I definitely wouldn’t have written 200 letters [of the alphabet], in which you can make mistakes in syntax and shape, and all this on stone that’s going to break,” he asserts. “If I were to forge, I’d make do with writing: ‘The Temple, entrance here.’ And if I’ve already written ‘brother of Jesus,’ wouldn’t it have been logical to add ‘of Nazareth’? Without that, it all remains in the realm of fantasy.”