Collector Cleared of Forging Temple, Jesus Artifacts

The Jerusalem District Court acquitted yesterday an antiquities collector of forging two spectacular artifacts, citing the state's failure to prove that the items he sold were inauthentic.

Oded Golan and four others had been indicted for selling forged antiquities, including the Jehoash Inscription, a shoebox-sized tablet inscribed with Biblical-style Hebrew instructions on caring for the Temple. A second item was an ossuary - an ancient chest for burying skeletal remains. It bore the inscription "James, brother of Jesus."

The prosecution said Golan was a self-taught genius who exhibited remarkable knowledge of archaeology, chemistry, geology and ancient Semitic philology. Golan said he was an innocent antique dealer who had bought the artifacts legally.

Judge Aharon Farkash did not rule on whether the items were authentic. But he said that despite the many expert opinions given, the prosecution had failed to prove that the artifacts had been forged.

The decision comes after two committees on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority ruled that the items had indeed been forged. According to state prosecutors, Golan did not forge the items, but added inscriptions.

Both sides agreed that the ossuary was authentic, as was the first half of an inscription. But the prosecution and the Antiquities Authority claimed that Golan added the words "brother of Jesus" from another ossuary.

"I believe that Golan cast a reasonable doubt on the prosecution's allegations," the judge wrote, referring to the burial chest. "This is not to say that the inscription is authentic and 2,000 years old .... Moreover, it cannot be established that the inscription 'brother of Jesus' refers to the father of Christianity."

The 500-page verdict details several scientific findings that imply that the artifacts are authentic. For example, a test found microscopic chunks of gold in the Jehoash item. According to geologist Amnon Rosenfeld, who testified for the defense, these chunks could only have been created following the melting of gold objects and their dispersal in the wind, which is likely to have happened during the destruction of the First Temple.

According to Rosenfeld, it is impossible to create them artificially, and if the inscription had been found in an excavation, it would have been one of Israel's greatest archaeological treasures, because no relics from the First Temple have been found.

Golan was convicted on several relatively minor charges, including trading antiquities without a permit and storing property suspected of being stolen. A hearing on his punishment will take place next month.

Golan said he was "very happy" with the judge's decision. The Antiquities Authority said in a statement it respects the court's verdict and praises the efforts of the state prosecutor and the Jerusalem District Court in "caring for the public interest both in Israel and in the rest of the world."

The prosecution and the Antiquities Authority said their case had been significantly undermined by the refusal of a key witness to testify - an Egyptian citizen who admitted he had forged artifacts for Golan. As a result, circumstantial evidence played a key role.

"We set a precedent by bringing antiquity forgery to the court," prosecutor Dan Bahat said. "But we had immense difficulties after a key witness failed to appear."

Golan was originally arrested in 2002 after the Jerusalem fraud squad searched his home and storerooms. During the searches, Golan led investigators to a room he had built on the roof of his Tel Aviv home, where they found equipment and materials Golan was believed to have used to forge antiquities. They also found a number of other items in various stages of production.

Detectives said they were surprised that the James Ossuary was being stored on Golan's roof without any protection from the elements. Police suspect that Golan has sold millions of dollars' worth of forged antiquities over the years to various museums and institutions abroad.