Can You Buy Genuine Antiquities in Israel?

Even if you're getting a real artifact from Israelite history, chances are it's not kosher.

Marty Friedlander
Marty Friedlander
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An ancient oil lamp. Is it genuine? Probably - it doesn't pay to fake these things.
An ancient oil lamp. Is it genuine? Probably - it doesn't pay to fake these things.Credit: Moshe Gilad
Marty Friedlander
Marty Friedlander

Israel is awash in ruins and plenty of tourists want to take a piece of history home – and they can, sometimes for little more than a history textbook would cost. There are plenty of authorized shops throughout Israel where antiquities are sold. Usually you can be relatively certain that the artifact is genuine, and that it is what the seller says it is. But don’t be surprised if he turns coy on details.

If an artifact is being sold openly in Israel, it must conform with the restrictions imposed by the Antiquities Law of 1978, which forbids the sale of any manmade item from before 1700 CE. However, there was a grandfather clause in the law that permitted the sale of items already in the inventory of the antiquities shops. And there are dozens of authorized antiquities shops, many in the Old City of Jerusalem, and in upscale hotels. All offer a certificate of authenticity with each sale.

The upshot is that the salesman may show you a perfectly genuine Hellenistic oil lamp - that he swears has been sitting on the shelf of his shop since Menachem Begin entered office. “What can I do? Sales have been slow.” [Wink, wink.] This means, of course, that the lamp was almost certainly robbed from a bona fide site.

Israel is blessed with thousands of archaeological sites and many are virtually unguarded. Just this December the police arrested six men from the village of Seir, near Hebron, for robbing a cave high above the Tze’elim stream in the Judean Desert. The unique artifacts they found included a 2,000-year-old lice comb that most probably belonged to a Judean seeking refuge in the desert during one of the revolts against Rome.

Yet the arrest was the exception to the rule. Most of the thievery goes undetected, and the loot makes its way into the antiquities market.

The stolen stele of Seleucus

Consider, for instance, the Heliodorus stele, which according to media reports was purchased in 2007 by New York financier Michael Steinhardt.

The magnificent 2nd century BCE inscription in Greek, which was “of unknown provenance,” included a letter from Seleucus IV to an aide named Heliodorus. But to the frustration of scholars, the bottom of the stele was missing, leaving a gap in the historical tale. No one was saying where the stele was found.

Subsequently, it was realized that three inscribed fragments unearthed in 2005 and 2006 in a cave at Tel Maresha in Israel were in fact the missing pieces of the Heliodorus stele. Tel Maresha head archaeologist Ian Stern distinctly remembers arriving at the site one Sunday morning in 2005 to find that the cave had been “turned upside down”; possibly it was that weekend that the Heliodorus stele was discovered and robbed.

An artifact of "unknown provenance" can be sold; one from Tel Maresha or any other specific place will go to a museum collection or basement.

Which brings us back to the original question: Is that Persian period juglet in the store window genuine?

The shopkeeper will say yes. And most likely, it is. There’s such an abundance of genuine material available that it makes no sense to start making counterfeit pots and vessels.

Ah, but was it robbed as part of an illegal excavation? This is a far tougher question, one that if asked is liable to have you thrown out of the store. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is the byword of this business.

Coins are different. They are more likely to be counterfeit, several Old City antiquities dealers admitted to this reporter. Archaeologists concur.

No export allowed

While the Antiquities Law permits the sale of some the full gamut of artifacts, it forbids the export of some, including columns and ossuaries (stone boxes for secondary burial of bones). A beautifully carved and ornamented Second Temple-era 2nd temple ossuary can be acquired for as little as $1,500, but cannot leave the country.

Perhaps you are wondering about crossing into Palestinian Authority-controlled areas, tjhinking there might be fewer restrictions. But it isn't so. The Palestinian Authority strictly enforces a tough antiquities law of its own.

As for the Israeli law - given the improbability of antiquities shops sitting on inventories for decades, one might ask how such a dubious enterprise is allowed to continue. One answer is that by permitting the sale of items of "unknown provenance," even the academic world benefits, such as in the case of the Heliodorus stele. If the inscription had been sold on the black market, it would have never been displayed in public.

An alternative to acquiring antiquities in the somewhat unsavory retail marketplace is to burrow through the stockpile of less-significant shards at an actual dig site. For instance, at Israel’s most popular hands-on archaeology-for-a-day program, “Dig for a Day” at Tel Maresha, the staff scrubs, examines and catalogs all of the shards found by the volunteers, and then offers the diggers a chance to take home the discards, which consist mainly of shards that lack identifying features.

For the archaeologist, the piece may be no more than a discard. But when the tourist sees it on her coffee table back home, it conjures up the memory of that day when she felt such a strong physical connection to an ancient culture, that is still very much alive.

The author is a licensed tour guide in Israel.

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