The Jehoash Tablet is a stone bearing an inscription in ancient Hebrew describing the renovation of the First Temple by the Jehoash, King of Judea. If it is authentic, it is one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the last century. But for many years, in one of the most complex cases ever to come before an Israeli courts, the state has claimed that it was a fake.
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The Jerusalem District Court has ruled that the state failed to prove that the tablet was a fake, paving the way for the defendant, antiquities collector Oded Golan, to be cleared of most of the charges against him. But the state has gone to the Supreme Court to seek possession of the tablet – perhaps because maybe, just maybe, it’s real after all.
The Jehoash Tablet was not the only antiquity Golan was charged with forging. In an unprecedented measure, in 2004 Golan was charged with fabricating and trying to sell a number of fake antiquities, any one of which would have rock the archaeological world had it had been found in the course of an academic excavation.
They included the so-called James ossuary, a limestone box with an inscription implying that it held the bones of the brother of Jesus; as well as a decorated clay lamp from the Second Temple period and a bowl with an inscription in hieroglyphics.
Over the course of seven and a half years, the court heard testimony from 130 witnesses, including dozens of Israel’s most prominent experts in geology, chemistry, microbiology and ancient scripts. In the end, Judge Aharon Farkash ruled that the state had failed to prove its case.
The state did not challenge most of the exonerations, but as for the Jehoash Tablet – that’s another story. The state wants it.
The state still claims that the tablet is a forgery because the letters of the inscription did not have a patina that was consistent with its purported age.
But that is only one element in which the court must be persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt, Golan and his attorney, David Barhum, stated in their response. It must also be persuaded that “scratches on the tablet [which the state claims are signs of forgery] are indeed ‘fresh,’ and that the collective opinions presented to the court, that it impossible for this inscription to have been made in the past 50 years, are baseless and mistaken.”
And even if the state could prove all this, it would still have to prove that Golan was the forger and that the statute of limitations does not apply.
After the prosecution read Golan’s response, the state decided to withdraw its appeal and accept his exoneration. But it still wants the Supreme Court to instruct Golan to hand over the Jehoash Tablet at no cost. Even as a fake the state should have it, as an “item used in the commission of an offense,” the prosecution argues.
Golan counters that even if it was a forgery, experts agree that in light of the condition of the stone and the patina, it could not have been produced in the last 40 years. That means that it was not used in the commission of a crime, at least not by him. Moreover, producing a fake antiquity is not a crime in itself, as every souvenir shop and museum shop that sells replicas knows, he says.
Moreover, Golan says that in buying the stone from a licensed antiquities dealer he is protected by the legal principle according to which “no one gives what he doesn’t have.”
“If you buy a drug at Superpharm, you can’t know whether it is a fake produced in Sri Lanka, and no one can say you did anything wrong,” Golan said. He went on to argue that if the item is genuine the state can only expropriate it if it can prove it was found in Israel and not in the occupied territories after 1978 (when the Antiquities Law was passed). “Even some of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in private hands, and nobody thinks about taking them for the state,” Golan says.
Why is the state willing to face off against Golan in the Supreme Court to take possession of the Jehoash Tablet? “In its heart of hearts, the state thinks, and even alluded to this it in court, that one day it will turn out that the inscription is not fake,” says Barhum.
The Supreme Court last week ordered the state and Golan to negotiate over the tablet, but the two parties have not been communicating - according to Golan, because the state does not want to pay him anything.
“I’m willing to put the stone on long-term display in a museum at no cost. I don’t think it should be shown as an antiquity, but as an item with all the surrounding controversy. I’m also willing to pledge to keep it in the country. But the state only wants to confiscate the stone,” Golan says.
The prosecution responded that the district court had made a “prominent error” in judgment when it accepted expert testimony alone that the inscription was authentic, without conducting tests. Therefore “the prosecution concluded that it was right and proper to appeal on this point alone,” the state responded. As for possession of the stone: “The state insists that the stone itself is an antiquity in keeping with the Antiquities Law, even if the inscription is a fake,” the prosecution told the court.