Israeli dealers accused of antiquity fraud

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The Independent Online

Israeli police yesterday charged four antiquities collectors and dealers on 17 counts of forging some of the most treasured biblical artefacts to have surfaced in recent years.

They included a limestone ossuary box said to have held the bones of James, the brother of Jesus, supposedly the oldest physical link to the New Testament; a tiny ivory pomegranate bought by the Israel Museum for $550,000 (£287,000) as the only known relic of King Solomon's Temple; and a stone tablet, from the ninth century BC, inscribed in ancient Hebrew with instructions by King Joash for maintaining the Temple.

A 27-page indictment submitted to a Jerusalem magistrate after months of under- cover investigation alleged that the men - Oded Golan, Robert Deutsch, Shlomo Cohen and Faiz al-Amaleh - took genuine antiquities, then added false inscriptions to increase their value. They were clever enough to fool some of the world's most respected experts.

Mr Golan, a leading Israeli collector, owned the "James ossuary", inscribed "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," and the "Joash tablet". Detectives said they found a sophisticated laboratory in his home. The men are accused of painting the "improved" items with a special coating to imitate the patina that would accumulate over thousands of years.

The ivory pomegranate is now thought to be much older than originally believed. The Israel Museum, a public body, paid the money into a numbered Swiss bank account in the 1980s and showed the exquisitely carved ivory, under spotlight and magnifying glass, as one of its most cherished possessions. It has been removed from display. Archaeologists are still trying to work out what it is, pierced as if it fitted on to a priestly sceptre.

Prosecutors said the ring had been operating for 23 years. They added: "These items, many of them of great scientific, religious, sentimental, political and economic value, were created specifically with intent to defraud." Gil Kleiman, a police spokesman, added: "This was an attempt to change the history of the Jewish and Christian people."

Shuka Dorfman, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said yesterday: "We only discovered the tip of the iceberg. This spans the globe. It generated millions of dollars."

Mr Golan denied the charges, accusing the archaeological establishment of spreading lies and rumours to destroy the local antiquities trade. "There is not one grain of truth in the fantastic allegations against me," he said in a statement. He said he believed he would be acquitted.

Israel jealously guards its ancient heritage. The state has first claim on any finds and it is illegal to sell or export antiquities without the Antiquities Authority's permission, but smuggling is widespread.

One of the law's most notorious violators was the late Moshe Dayan, an enthusiastic amateur who used his position as defence minister to acquire objects uncovered in the occupied territories. The Israeli Museum paid his widow $1m for part of his private collection after his death.

The antiquities trade in the Holy Land can be murky. "It's a free-for-all market and there is no control over something that doesn't come from a proper excavation, photographed and documented," Mr Dorfman said. Experts might have made honest mistakes, he added. "But I am not certain that this was always done unknowingly, to give a stamp of approval to enable a sale."