Swiss Jail Israeli Antiquities Dealer Over Russian Smuggling Charges

Khazar artifacts specialist accused of hiding treasures under doors of his Mercedes.

Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson

An Israeli antiquities dealer accused of smuggling cultural treasures out of Russia has been imprisoned in Switzerland for the last four months due to a Russian request for his extradition.

The Russian authorities say Menashe Michael Goldelman, 41, is wanted for heading a gang that smuggled antiquities out of Russia and sold them overseas.

Goldelman, who immigrated to Israel from Russia many years ago, is considered an international expert on antiquities originating in southern Russia. His specialty is researching and selling antiquities from the Khazar kingdom, a medieval Jewish kingdom located in the Caucasus.

The Russian indictment, a copy of which has been obtained by Haaretz, accuses Goldelman of smuggling cultural artifacts out of the country by hiding them in concealed spaces under the doors of his Mercedes. It also accuses him of obtaining the artifacts – which include weapons, jewelry, gold vessels and ritual objects – from illegal excavations.

Khazar artifacts generally fetch high prices among global collectors, some of whom are Russian oligarchs.

Russia has been seeking to question Goldelman ever since he was fingered by another member of the smuggling ring, who was convicted in a plea bargain and sentenced to four years in jail. Sources involved in the case said that England, where Goldelman now lives, has refused to extradite him. But when he visited Switzerland four months ago, he was arrested and is being held until a Swiss court rules on Russia’s extradition request.

For the past three years, Goldelman has also been conducting a libel suit in Israel against Dan Shapira, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Bar-Ilan University who accused Goldelman in a group email of “antiquities theft.”

Shapira’s lawyer, Michael Deborin, said Monday that Goldman’s arrest in Switzerland appears to constitute “weighty evidence of Mr. Goldelman’s involvement in the antiquities black market,” thus lending credence to Shapira’s statement.

Goldelman’s lawyer declined to comment.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated case, a Tel Aviv antiquities dealer is suing the Israel Antiquities Authority for 12 million shekels ($3.4 million) over what he says are baseless charges of forging antiquities. The plaintiff, Robert Deutsch, is an archaeological researcher and a veteran antiquities dealer who is known for his public auctions.

The authority had indicted Deutsch on charges of conspiring with antiquities collector Oded Golan to forge and sell antiquities. In March 2012, the Jerusalem District Court cleared Deutsch completely and acquitted Golan of most of the charges against him.

A month ago, Deutsch sued the antiquities authority and its director, Shuki Dorfman, as well as the prosecutor in charge of the case, Dan Bahat. The suit charged that the indictment was never based on any solid evidence, and was submitted mainly to draw public attention to the problem of antiquities fraud and theft.

The suit also says the charges did real damage to Deutsch’s reputation, both as a dealer and as a scholar, and thereby “damaged his financial and academic future,” since other people involved in the field no longer want to have anything to do with him.

The Antiquities Authority responded that it had acted in this case “without prejudice, as Jerusalem District Court Judge Aharon Farkash ruled.” It also noted that Deutsch had asked the court to dismiss the charges soon after the indictment was filed, but Farkash rejected that request, thereby indicating that he saw enough merit in the case to let it go to trial.

“The Antiquities Authority completely rejects any claim that it is ‘persecuting’ the plaintiff,” the authority said in its statement. “For years, the plaintiff received fair treatment and optimal service from the Antiquities Authority on a weekly basis, in his role as a licensed antiquities dealer. The authority believes there is no justification for filing this suit against public servants who were doing their jobs in accordance with the law.”

The ruins of an 11th-12th century house in Itil, a Silk Road city that served as the Khazar capital, in July 2005.Credit: AP

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