Faking It?

The case of the Israeli antiquities collector accused of fraud.

Prof. Ronny Reich played a key role in the widely-publicized case of the antiquities collector accused of fraud, which recently came to a close. Reich, who comes from the heart of the archaeological establishment and was one of the founders of the Israel Antiquities Authority, this time found himself on the other side of the barricade.

The affair that had the Israeli archaeological world in an uproar for nearly a decade revolved around a Tel Aviv antiquities collector by the name of Oded Golan. The IAA found that he had in his possession an unbelievable collection of artifacts from different periods, each of which, were it to be unearthed in a standard archaeological excavation, would make news headlines all over the world: an ossuary (known as the James Ossuary) bearing the name of Jacob, the brother of Jesus; the only inscription dating from the First Temple period, which corresponds to biblical accounts of the repair of the Temple by King Jehoash; a bowl with a Pharaonic inscription; a rare candle from the First Temple, and more.

Daniel Tchetchik

Following the revelation of Golan’s collection, two expert committees from the IAA were appointed to determine if the artifacts were genuine. Both committees ruled decisively that they were not, and Golan and his partners were indicted. But earlier this month Golan was acquitted of most of the charges: Jerusalem District Judge Aharon Farkash ruled that it had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the objects were really fake.

Reich was the only member of the IAA expert committees to raise the possibility that the objects were indeed authentic. The committee that Reich was a part of dealt with the writing on, and contents of, the objects, especially with the James Ossuary and the Jehoash inscription. At the committee’s final meeting, Reich told his colleagues that he believed the inscription was authentic, “unless he could be convinced otherwise.” “His colleagues on the committee did not convince him otherwise,” the judge wrote in his ruling.

But Reich was eventually convinced that the inscriptions were not real, based on the findings of the second committee, which examined the materials from which the objects were made. The key part of the investigation centered on the patina – the organic layer that develops naturally on stone surfaces over time. According to the materials committee, the patina “was planted” by forgers into the carved letters. Reich was summoned to testify for the defense.

In regard to the ossuary inscription, he stated: “Based on my reading of it, both forward and backward, and also in terms of how it looks, it appears fine to me except, of course, for one letter which was problematic because it was broken right in the middle.”

He gave similar testimony in regard to the Jehoash inscription. At the end of his remarks, however, Reich raised the most disturbing point about Golan, at least for someone who believes the man to be a forger: “Finally, allow me to play devil’s advocate and say that the inscription appears to me to be authentic, because it’s hard for me to believe that a forger (or group of forgers) could be so knowledgeable in all aspects of the inscription that is, the physical, paleographic, linguistic and biblical ones that they could produce such an object.”

The IAA and the prosecution said in response that Golan is indeed a “genius” who devoted his life to the field.