Antiquities Battle Pits Old City Merchants Against Inspectors

The stock of legal antiquities in Israel has not been depleted, despite 35 years of brisk sales; the Israel Antiquities Authority thinks it knows why.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

At the entrance to The Palace antiquity store in the Old City of Jerusalem, is a display window with 2,000-year-old ancient glass vessels. Or at least they look ancient. A foreign tourist entering the store seeking to buy a tiny Roman glass vial can expect to pay $600 for the privilege.

Yet despite the steep price, owner Yusuf Hamad deliberately smashed one of the vials on the floor when Eitan Klein entered the store.

Klein works for the Israel Antiquities Authority and Hamad's destruction was in protest at the authority’s supervision of the store’s operations.

Other antiquities dealers are also threatening to smash quantities of antiquities, if the authority forces them to use a new computerized management database for the Israeli antiquity trade. The battle over the new system, according to the antiquities dealers, is a fight over the survival of the antiquities business, but the Israel Antiquities Authority sees it as a fight to curb trafficking in stolen archeological finds.

It's not illegal to copy an antiquity...

Eitan Klein, who has a Ph.D. in archeology, is in charge of overseeing the trade in antiquities on behalf of the IAA. He does a tour of antiquities shops on a weekly basis. Last Tuesday, he saw something suspicious in the window of Hamad's store. In addition to what seemed to be authentic Roman glass, there was an object that appeared to be reconstructed from both ancient and modern glass, deliberately made to look ancient.

It’s not illegal to create and sell modern copies of antiquities, as long as they're clearly marked as such. What's illegal is to sell them to customers as genuine antiquities.

Klein confiscated the suspect merchandise, after finding that it was not accurately described in a merchandise stock ledger.

“Last time you took half of our merchandise,” Hamad protested to Klein, “and we said ‘so be it,’ but you’re like a cat. Just when the mouse comes out, you pounce. We are human beings. Mistakes happen. Your job is to find the mistakes and help us fix them. You know what? Better that we just break them into pieces. Here ..” At that, Hamad let a delicate vessel slip through his fingers to shatter on the floor.

The antiquities trade has a shady history in Israel. Even during the Ottoman Turkish period, which ended with World War I, antiquities dealers operated in the country. Along with legitimate business people, a black market of forgeries and genuine but looted objects grew up.

The British Mandatory government that succeeded the Turks regulated the industry and a sizeable number of the dealers today are the third generation of families who were granted licenses by the British.

The state’s approach to the antiquities dealers underwent a total change beginning in 1978, when a law was passed making all ancient objects discovered in Israel from then onwards state property. The trade in newly-discovered antiquities was hencefoth equivalent to the trade in stolen goods. Ever since, the state has been trying to rein in the antiquity merchants. In recent years, the law and official oversight of the dealers have become stricter. The merchants continue to enjoy a thriving business, with both casual foreign tourists and more serious antiquities collectors, but they don’t have a good reputation.

Fuzzy math and archeology

At the heart of the conflict between the IAA and the antiquities dealers is the question of the provenance of the merchandise. The IAA points out a rather strange mathematical phenomenon: The purported stock of totally legal antiquities that existed when the law was passed in 1978 has not been depleted, despite 35 years of brisk sales.

“In 1978, when the law was passed, there was a certain amount of merchandise on the market. Since then, for some reason, it has only increased in size,” Klein noted with irony. Whenever he asks an Old City merchant about an object, he gets the same explanation: “It’s from my dad’s time. It’s been here for a many years.”

The problem is that even if not all of the merchandise predates the 1978 law, it’s hard to prove it. Currently, antiquities are registered in records that provide details on the type of item, where it came from and when. “They sell an object, an oil lamp for example, and instead of deleting it from the list, they just bring in another lamp that was looted and give it the same number. Our only prospect of catching them is to do so in the act - while they are buying the stolen object,” Klein acknowledges. And that is his explanation for how, contrary to all reason, the volume of older merchandise is seemingly growing rather than being depleted.

Most of the antiquities in most of the antiquities shops are looted from sites in Israel or neighboring countries, Klein said, adding that there are groups of Palestinians from the territories who specialize in the trade. In an effort to put a halt to the current situation, the antiquities authority developed a computer database, which the antiquities dealers are required to use. It means their photographing every item that they have - from ancient coins to burial sarcophagi - and entering them into the database, to which the authority has access. In this way, the antiquities authority inspectors can compare the stock entered in the database with the merchandise in the stores and identify pieces that were not acquired legally. Dealers who don’t maintain the database can be denied a trading license.

But the dealers have united to pursue legal action over the new database, which they maintain is a burden they cannot sustain. They have hired a lawyer, Moti Arad, who has delayed enforcement of the database by requiring that the IAA develops regulations for the database and that it gets approval from a Knesset committee.

“There are [government] authorities that begin with the assumption that everyone is cheating and their solution is to impose a terrible burden on everyone to catch those few who are cheating. That’s what the antiquities authority is doing. Anyone who wants to cheat will manage to do so anyway,” Arad asserted.

“There’s a dealer who has 30 objects and 200,000 coins,” said leading antiquities dealer Robert Deutsch, who is coordinating the effort against the IAA. “We’ve calculated that it will take a year and half of a full-time employee’s time just to take pictures of the items.” In addition to which, said Deutsch, the IAA’s claim of antiquities looting is baseless. “The fact is that almost no looters are being caught.”

So where are the antiquities coming from? Unlike other merchandise, antiquities have a nearly endless shelf life and some pieces go back on the market after being sold or after being kept for years at home by a collector, the dealers say. In addition, business is very slow, they contend.

A tour of the antiquities shops in Jerusalem’s Old City tends to bear out a number of the clichés about the dealers. In one neglected-looking store, one only sees an old bookcase at first glance. But a gentle push on the bookcase reveals a small cabinet behind it, brimming with antiquities of impressive quality - arrowheads, coins and small idols.

Another small shop was chock-full of pottery covered with layers of dust. A foreign tourist stops in and shows an interest in a clay item that is thought to be 3,000 years old. “It’s $150 or 100 Euros,” the dealer tells the visitor, who quickly retreats from the store. The merchant doesn’t back down on the price, however. “They think that I’ll give this to them now for two dollars. That’s the reputation that we’ve gotten, because of all the forgers,” Maher Harub, the merchant, lamented.

The son of one of the largest and most veteran antiquities merchant families, Harub inherited his store from his father and was pleased to be able to make the switch in profession. “There’s a grave that you will be dead in. This store is the grave that I am living in,” he says of the subterranean shop, as he interrupts to greet another interested customer.

Another store, that of the Baidun family, another mainstay of the business, has a shop that looks like a small museum. Among the merchandise, is a palm wood cover of a mummy case, a large but delicate pottery pot decorated with Roman figures, Egyptian figurines and Canaanite idols.

An Israel's Antiquities Authority archeologist in the City of David.Credit: AP

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