Supreme Court says Israel cannot hold Jehoash Tablet but challenges antiquities trade

Return of disputed Temple treasure ordered over objections of Israel Antiquities Authority - confirms total collapse of decade-long prosecution

See Also: Essays on the James Ossuary and the Temple Tablet from Bible and Interpretation

By Matthew Kalman
Foreign Correspondent In Jerusalem
October 2013

The Israel Antiquities Authority has failed in its last-gasp attempt to confiscate the controversial Jehoash Tablet from Israeli collector Oded Golan. In a verdict handed down on Wednesday, the three-judge appeal panel of Supreme Court justices decided by 2-1 that the inscribed tablet must be returned to Golan, who was acquitted last year of forging after a ten-year prosecution and trial.

The Supreme Court ruling caps a crushing defeat for the Israel Antiquities Authority following the sweeping 2012 acquittal of Golan and dealer Robert Deutsch on multiple charges of archaeological forgery. Israeli prosecutors advised by the Israel Antiquities Authority had argued that even though they continue to believe the inscription is a modern forgery, the reverse of the stone had been “dressed” in ancient times and was therefore classified as an antiquity that should belong to the state. But those arguments were rejected by the majority decision of the court. Oded Golan is now poised to reclaim both the tablet and the more famous item, the James ossuary, along with dozens of pieces confiscated by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israeli police at the time of his arrest in 2003. Golan greeted the decision as “good news.” He says he plans to put both the ossuary and the tablet on public display.

The latest about-turn could be the final twist in a nail-biting finale to the decade-long pursuit of Golan. However, a sternly-worded ruling by the same court in September suggests that the battle over the future of the antiquities trade is just beginning.

In an 8,000-word ruling handed down on September 29, a panel of three Supreme Court Justices rejected Golan’s appeal against his conviction and sentence on three minor charges and used the opportunity to declare war on the antiquities market. Branding the trade in antiquities “damaging” and motivated by “avarice,” the ruling authored by Supreme Court Justice Daphne Barak-Erez depicts “a world of collectors exchanging treasures teeming with trembling hands and heart - often within the law, and sometimes without,” and notes with approval that “in most countries of the world there is a general ban on the trade in antiquities, because of their recognition as a national resource.” She further observed, that this "conception also serves as the basis for the antiquities law” in Israel.

The ruling places the Supreme Court on a potential collision course with the Israel Museum and other major archaeological collections in the country, which all display items purchased from the market. Israel Museum curators and experts have described a complex and well-oiled procedure of verification and testing carried out in the museum laboratories to determine the significance and authenticity of items offered by dealers. Many of the Israel Museum’s most notable archaeological exhibits, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, royal seal impressions and coins were purchased on behalf of the museum from the antiquities market and not discovered in authorized archaeological excavations.

Barak-Erez excoriates the “loopholes” in the existing Antiquities Law, using the bully pulpit of Israel’s highest court, citing material not in evidence during the original trial, to propose a dramatic tightening of Israel’s antiquities trade. Her ruling should not be dismissed as the star-struck enthusiasm of an amateur touched by the magic of a rare antique treasure. Appointed to the Supreme Court in 2012 at the extraordinarily young age of 47, Barak-Erez is widely regarded as a legal genius, the leading Israeli juror of her generation and a future president of the court. If she has marked the antiquities trade as the target of a personal legal crusade, she has the authority and the stature to inspire extensive legal reform.

But in the end her controversial opinion did not affect the court’s decision on the ownership of the Jehoash tablet, a black stone with a 15-line inscription attributed to the Judean king that may have adorned the First Temple. After a decade-long campaign to brand the inscription a fake, the Israeli authorities have now reversed their stance and demanded that the court grant them ownership of the item on the grounds that the stone on which it is inscribed is “ancient” – despite the fact that the 1978 Antiquities Law specifies that an antiquity is “any object, which was made by man before 1700 CE, or any zoological or botanical remains from before the year 1300 CE.” That would seem to rule out a geological item like a stone but, as I reported after the appeal hearing in July, Barak-Erez and her two fellow justices appeared keen to claim the Jehoash tablet for the state, despite the logical and legal contortions required.

At the original trial, all the geologists and experts testified that the stone tablet was prepared and inscribed at the same time, either in ancient times or, at the very latest, at least a century ago. However, at the Supreme Court hearing, the prosecution continued to argue that the inscription is modern while the underneath of the stone tablet was prepared in ancient times – that would allow the state to confiscate it under the Israeli Antiquities Law if Golan acquired it illegally. But all the experts agreed that the underside of the stone remains in its natural state.

In his verdict on the original case, Judge Aharon Farkash explicitly warned the prosecution not to dabble in this double jeopardy. “The state insisted on its view that this was not an antiquity, but a forged antiquity. Since, according to the state, it is not an antiquity, it cannot now contend that it owns the tablet according to the Antiquities Law, and therefore by law it should be returned to Golan,” Farkash ruled.

While Golan has won the battle over his own items, the war over the market trade in antiquities may be just beginning. “Archaeological finds are important public property and should remain as such - for the enjoyment of the general public, the advancement of knowledge, and for their preservation for the benefit of future generations. Furthermore, uncontrolled excavations and the trade that ensues causes not only the theft of resources and their disappearance from the public sphere, but also damage to the study of history and culture,” Judge Barak-Erez observes in her ruling.

Citing a raft of papers on the worldwide trade in antiquities and its effect on cultural heritage, Barak-Erez compares the unauthorized collection of archaeological artifacts to the picking of rare wild flowers – a much-deplored and formerly widespread habit in Israel that was successfully stamped out by means of a public education campaign. She calls for a similar process of public awareness to end the fashion of collecting antiquities.

“Beyond the purely legal aspect, preserving archaeological cultural treasures requires a change of mind in the public sphere,” she concludes. “Archaeology requires a process of winning hearts and fostering the understanding that ‘picking’ the treasures of the ancient homeland is not collecting that indicates love of our country and its history, but harmful avarice, which must be fought.”

Throughout the decade-long investigation and trial of Golan and Deutsch, Israel Antiquities Officials repeatedly expressed their disapproval even of the licensed trade in artifacts regulated under the 1978 Antiquities Law, but claimed that the trial was not an attempt to shut it down. Despite their appeals over the years to committees of Israel’s Knesset parliament that repeatedly discussed restrictions on antiquities trading in Israel, legislators consistently opposed all-out prohibition after concluding that the resulting harm would be immeasurably greater than any potential benefit.

Even so, the proceedings at the District Court in Jerusalem were viewed with dismay by the small community of dealers and collectors in Israel, many of whom predicted that the trial would result in a wave of potentially significant items being smuggled abroad, mostly by the finders or local dealers in the West Bank, where the Israeli authorities have limited influence on local behavior. The latest appeal ruling has sent shock waves through the community, triggering fears that the Antiquities Authority, with the backing of the Supreme Court, will once again push for a complete ban.

The ruling is also a dramatic departure from the basic assumptions on which the original trial was launched amid great fanfare back in 2002 with the high-profile arrest of Oded Golan and his subsequent indictment in December 2004. Golan had been accused of masterminding an international forgery ring that had planted fake artifacts in museums and collections across the globe, garnering millions for their creators. The most notable artifact he was accused of faking was a stone burial box or ossuary with the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Other items included the Jeohoash tablet; seal impressions with the names of Israelite kings; a decanter that may have been used in the Temple service; inscribed pottery sherds from biblical times; an ancient stone lamp with Jewish symbols; and a stone bowl bearing the name of the Egyptian King Shishak.

Golan was arrested, imprisoned for a month, held under house arrest for nearly two years and put on trial from September 2005 to October 2010. In March 2012, Golan and Deutsch were acquitted on all 15 charges of fraud, forgery and obtaining money by deception. Golan was convicted on three minor charges, unrelated to either the James ossuary or the Jehoash tablet – two counts of brokering the sale of an antiquity to fabled antiquities collector Shlomo Moussaieff and handling goods he should have realized were likely stolen from archaeological sites in the West Bank.

Golan appealed the verdict on several grounds, including the fact that since the artifacts originated in the West Bank, they fall outside the jurisdiction of Israeli law. In a legal sleight of hand, Justice Barak-Erez concedes this point, but then claims to be applying the Jordanian law in force since the Israeli occupation that began in 1967. Barak-Erez is a former military lawyer who specialized in the West Bank and international law, so she knows that the law in force in that area is the previous Jordanian law under which the state has first refusal to purchase any antiquities found in its territory. She also knows that Israel has never implemented this law, and has never paid any compensation for any items found in the West Bank. The most notorious example of Israel’s disregard for this law was the arrest in 2005 of Dr Hanan Eshel of Bar-Ilan University on the urging of the Israel Antiquities Authority after he reported and then handed over fragments of scrolls he had purchased from Bedouin who found them in a West Bank cave.

Yet in choosing to appeal his conviction, Golan has inadvertently handed the Supreme Court an opportunity to elevate the proceedings to a major, precedent-setting case on the antiquities trade in general.

“If you are not aware of the whole picture, it is very natural to adopt the view of the court, but if you know the reality, it’s completely different,” says Golan. “From the outside, it seems obvious that every natural resource of the country, including antiquities, should belong to the public.”

According to Golan, in contrast to the Court’s position and what most people believe, most of the antiquities found in Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan are discovered randomly and not in official excavations or by grave robbers. He argues that most archaeological objects are not pilfered with the “avarice” described by Justice Barak-Erez in organized or criminal gangs but are discovered by chance.

“In modern construction sites, burial caves that can contain hundreds of antiquities are routinely discovered when foundations are excavated for new buildings,” Golan says. “Road-building, excavations for water and sewage infrastructure, plating orchards or plowing fields all create circumstances ripe for the random discovery of antiquities. Ancient items are also found by shepherds as in the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls or even in open fields where land is affected by erosion especially after rain.

"Therefore, a sweeping prohibition on the possession, sale, or collection of antiquities might lead to an outcome that would be the opposite of the Court’s intentions, and might cause the disappearance and concealment of those discoveries. The most important items would be removed from Israel before scholars and museums have an opportunity to study them, which is what happened in countries that banned antiquities trading and collecting, including Egypt,” he says.

When trading is legal, as it is in Israel, antiquities collectors say they abide by the law and frequently exhibit, loan, and donate items for the purpose of research and to museums. According to Golan, he and other collectors vehemently object to illegal excavations designed to find antiquities.

“Here in Israel, the enormous contribution of antiquities collectors is that they can purchase important items before they are swallowed up by the international market, and as a result, the items remain in Israel. These efforts should be encouraged, not opposed. This is even more significant since the government, for various political and legal considerations, is unable to purchase these items directly from the finders by itself,” he says.

Significant items purchased from the antiquities market through dealers and collectors include many of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Gabriel’s Revelation – an 80-line inscription engraved in stone, discovered in 2000 and currently on display at the Israel Museum, some of Bar Kochba’s letters, King Uziah’s gravestone, the bullas of King Hezkiyahu and of Baruch Ben Neria the scribe, stamp seals with the names of Jeremiah and Jezebel, and the Heliodorus Stele inscription.

Golan thinks that all finds should be reported to the authorities so that valuable or significant objects can be kept for the nation but says a complete ban will simply trigger the permanent removal of items from access by the scientific community and the general public, and will drive trade underground with the resulting loss of many important items that will find their way into foreign collections. He says that contrary to the picture portrayed by the Supreme Court, regulated antiquities trading is legal in the United States and many European countries, with the result that responsible collectors preserve the items and make them available to researchers and to the public.

“I think the government should have a first refusal option to buy it at full price,” says Golan. “You can’t have a situation where items can be seized just because someone in the Ministry of Education thinks it’s important. Such actions will produce an outcome that is contrary to the interests of the state of Israel and the preservation of the history of the Jewish people.”

James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, says that only “an infinitesimally small number” of the more than 120,000 pieces in the museum’s archaeological collection were purchased on the open market. He believes the acquisition of key items under strict regulation is in harmony with the museum’s effort to preserve the country’s cultural heritage.

“In the rare instances where we benefit from the generosity of donors who buy in the market, it enables items that should be in a museum setting to be in that setting. In our experience it’s always happened with an appropriate kind of control from the state – the items have to stay in the state and that the items are acquired so they can be with us,” says Snyder.

He says he is not convinced that a blanket ban would end the trade in antiquities. “It’s interesting that other countries have taken a strong view in the matter but you still see archaeology in the marketplace in those countries,” he says. “There’s really a distinction between how museums, us and others, follow an appropriate practice, and what happens in a marketplace which may or may not be following guidelines or legal requirements. The more important point there is for museums to be appropriate watchdogs and custodians, which is a role we hope we’re playing all the time.”

Lenny Wolfe, a Jerusalem antiquities dealer who appeared as a prosecution witness against Golan, says the Supreme Court ruling is deeply flawed. “In virtually all countries of the Middle East the trade in antiquities has been outlawed and that has been a contributing factor to the development of a thriving black market,” says Wolfe.

“Many important items in the Israel Museum come from the marketplace and not from controlled excavations, including two very important Semitic inscriptions that passed through my hands. The most prominent example is the Dead Sea Scrolls. If museums were not allowed to acquire items that came from the marketplace, they would have very poor displays,” he says.

“For the sake of the public it’s good to have an efficient enforcement apparatus but it requires a flexible approach so the public is not deprived of important objects. If the law in Israel were different, it would take the trade out of the hands of criminals. If the law in Israel was the same as the UK, where finders are paid the full market value for anything the government wishes to acquire, then everyone would benefit.”

A major international collector who has contributed numerous archaeological items bought on the market for display at museums in Israel and worldwide, says the Supreme Court has raised some important questions “but the answers can’t be as simple as they are putting it.”

“Today if you look at serious collectors then in the end things land where they should land. Serious collectors are sort of NGOs for antiquities. They are supporting the endeavours which the judges want,” he says, asking to remain anonymous. “I look at my collection, there are so many items on display in the Israel Museum, in other museums, going around the world, being made available to the public at no cost. I look at it as rescuing and protecting important cultural heritage.”

“Without the antiquities market we wouldn’t have the Dead Sea Scrolls, we wouldn’t have the Elgin marbles, or many other things,” he says. He also points out that leaving each country to protect its own heritage can be a risky business.

“We see what happened with the Taliban in Afghanistan. We see what happened with the library in Mali. We see what happened in Egypt with the museums, what happened with Iraq. It’s easy to say leave it to the state and they will look after it,” he says. “Even the Silwan inscription if it had been kept in place might have been lost or destroyed between 1948-67. I’m glad it’s in Istanbul. At least it’s protected.”

“On the other hand, one should not encourage illegal digging and destroying of evidence. But there must be a way in between.”

But Professor Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, Director of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, says the benefits of a general ban far outweigh the risks. “Illicit digs destroy archaeological sites,” he says, adding that the existence even of the regulated market fuels the robbery that is stripping antiquities from their context and greatly reducing their scientific value.

“One of the main reasons you have to deal with many of the inscriptions that are found on the antiquities market with suspicion is because we’ve been excavating non-stop for the last 150 years. In controlled excavations, very few inscriptions have been found. All these astounding inscriptions always appear on the market. That’s what rings the warning bells,” says Maeir. “Also we know that when something is found in excavations, very soon after, all kind of things like it start appearing.”

But Golan says the Israeli market is not the problem – it’s simply not large enough to make a difference. The demand for Middle Eastern antiquities comes from abroad. Banning the trade in Israel will merely ensure the immediate exodus of any important items. Nor will an Israeli public awareness campaign about “picking” treasures resonate with Palestinians in the West Bank, where the vast majority of antiquities are found. Golan says the best way forward is for the authorities to work alongside the collectors in a joint effort to preserve the natural heritage and ensure the most important discoveries remain in Israel.

Golan says his entire collection of some 4,000 items is in Israel and will remain here. He makes his collection available to scholars and much of it has been published. One day he will give those famous items to a museum on long-term loan for public display. After the government returns them to him.

Comments (5)

Look at all the major antiquities museums of the World. Over 90% of their most important material came from private collections. They have made these items available for the World community for posterity. The small minded bureaucrats of the Antiquities Authority want to have all these artefacts for themselves for their own satisfaction and they are in fact the new selfish and greedy collectors. They don't really care about the public and are hapy to have these objects in store rooms just for them to look at ocassionally for their own titillation. Their real belief is that these artifacts are really meant only for us academics as we are the only ones who can properly understand them. Their concept of context.

#1 - David Giles - 10/17/2013 - 10:52

This 'Bolshevik' attitude by the judge is offensive. I personally think that private cars and computers should be limited in their use, by government decree, and that public SERVANTS like judges, bureaucrats, govt ministers and others, should be banned from using them, because they should have to live at the lowest level of the those they claim to serve.
Why can she decide to deny me my private property, and I can not deny her hers?
If many objects have come from formerly Jordanian territory not annexed by Israel, Israel can't play it both ways.
What the judge and the Antiquities Authority conveniently leave out of the story, is the simplest way to DESTROY the illegal trade in antiquities in one day:
Open up the storerooms of the IAA itself, which hold over 1.5 million ancient pottery oil lamps, at least that number of pottery vessels, tens of thousands of stone antiquities, glass vessels, etc.,
ALL of it from documented digs.
Let a blue ribbon panel decide on the twenty or thirty percent which are National Treasures which may NEVER be traded;
And let the other 70 % or 80 % be offered for sale via the legal, licenced, regulated dealers.
If you think I or any other collector wouldn't prefer a piece found in Masada or Megiddo or Sha'arayim, or any other legal dig, which is fully documented, over something which I believe is genuine but has no provenance, you are wrong.
The problem is the 'Bolshevik' attitudes of members of the IAA, who themselves have control of vast storerooms full of 'toys' they personally don't 'own' but can 'play' with. They are simply jealous of those of us with the ability to buy and 'own' these objects.
I personally have given major funding to the excavation of Khirbet Qeiyefa/Sha'arayim from 2008 to 2013, getting nothing but thanks in return; I, and my parents before me, have given major pieces of ancient glass to the Israel Museum, the Islamic museum and others, without any quid pro quo.
Would we have done this because of 'avarice'?
The honourable judge should try to emulate countries like the UK, USA, and Canada, rather than Egypt, Romania under communism, and North Korea.

#2 - Joseph B. Silver - 10/17/2013 - 13:28

Hi Mr. Kalman, Thank you for covering this story from beginning to end. Do you know if the IAA is planning on paying Dr. Robert Deutsch and Mr. Oded Golan million$$$ for taking a decade out of their lives and defaming them? Also, towards the beginning of the trial process there was some intelligent scholar(I believe it was an Israeli professor, but I cannot find the comment), who said that the IAA had overstepped their mandate because they were trying to figure out if antiquities were authentic or not. Of course, he was correct because if you buy an antiquity from Israel and get an export license today on the bottom it reads: "This Approval does Not Imply Authenticity of Objects." Authenticity should be left up to the scholars and their publications. There is actually a very low rate of about 1 percent of probable forgeries in our inscriptions corpus. Hopefully, the Chicken Little Philosophy espoused by various scholars over the past decade or so will be put to rest since the IAA was obviously wrong about the "tip of the iceberg." With All My Best Wishes, Michael

#3 - Michael Welch - 10/17/2013 - 14:07

If Golan puts the James ossuary on display, he ought to include the mtDNA test results from the specimen he obtained from inside of it, especially if it matches the one from the Jesus ossuary of the JFT.

#4 - Theodora - 10/19/2013 - 15:35

Since when do studies in law empower a judge to settle a dispute about archeology? I do not know what someone ought to study to become a judge in the State of Israel, but this legal event has left me perplexed.

I knew the Camus’ penitent-judge (The Fall). Now I know the archeologically-judge. It is new for me.

#5 - David Montero - 10/21/2013 - 09:55

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