The History Merchants

By the time the documentary ends, the viewer is convinced that for at least 15 years Oded Golan (and some others) has flooded the antiquities market with forgeries.

Reviewed By Rochelle Altman
February 2004

February 18, 2004
Channel 2 (Israel)
Oded Golan: Another Type of Trustworthy (na'aman ocher)
Uvda Documentary Special,
Moderator, Ilana Dayan

    This documentary is both factual and worth viewing, yet all the same, it is disappointing. The fuller story is buried in snippets lasting for one or two seconds each. As presented, the film turns a monster "forgery machine" involving media "gods," historians, biblical scholars, archaeologists, epigraphers, stupid or even corrupt laboratory scientists, and others who helped to make this monster into the dull story of just another "forger."

    Make no mistake: the documentary succeeds in one very important respect. Viewers are left with no doubt that what the "star" of the show can be trusted to do is to deliver forgeries. The insincerity that Mr. Golan himself displays in his many extended "sound-bites" reinforces the hard evidence displayed for us to see.

    The forged products are not unique in type; they are unique in extent. While this is a money machine on a magnitude that Wilhelm Shapira could never imagine in his wildest dreams, this is also a forgery machine geared to rewrite the history books on an equally vast scale. It is the enormous scale of the operation that is unique.

    When kings and emperors and governments rewrote their histories (as the winners always do), their primary purpose was to whitewash themselves. This is not the case here. Helena started the relics-machine rolling back in the fourth century, but she did not think in terms of money. Shapira, the best known of the 19th-century forgers, thought in terms of money. This time money, yes, but with an agenda aimed at the "creation" of biblical history; a fake history that lets the forgers turn legitimate scientists and scholars into whispering voices trying to be heard above the roar stimulated by the sensational finds and the agenda behind the "finds." And what an ugly agenda it is!

    In a snippet, a take lasting perhaps 4 seconds, Major Jonathan Pagis of the police states the ugly "hidden" agenda: "Antiquities looters tear pages from the book of our history, but this man [Golan] adds to them pages that read what he wants them to read."

    By the time the documentary ends, the viewer is convinced that for at least 15 years Oded Golan (and some others) has flooded the antiquities market with forgeries. These are not just any forgeries, mind you, but primarily Iron Age through Roman Period inscriptions in Hebrew – preferably inscribed in Paleo-Hebraic. And these forgeries are designer items. Each fake is carefully thought out and aimed at a precise target before being manufactured. Each item is designated for a specific "audience," for an audience he has.

    Shots of a procession of Roman monks carrying a cross on the route of the Via Dolorosa and Hassidic Jews praying at the Western Wall appear several times during the program to point to the target audience. Even in this, the producers fail to distinguish religious sects and fall into a trap that can be expected of people who, through lack of contact, are not knowledgeable about the differences among Christian sects. And this lack of knowledge was known to, and used by, the merchants of forged history.

    The target is the religious market. This is a market that Dr. Yuval Goren refers to as "The Jerusalem Syndrome" in his paper presented at the SBL in Atlanta in November of 2003; that paper is available for all to read right here on And there are also most specific markets, one of which Ian Ransom exposed in his book Mary and the Ossuary: Beneath the "Brother of Jesus" Forgery. This market is the key to the entire series of sensational "finds."

    Golan, of course, did not do it all alone; he had help. A forgery ring needs a manufacturer, an authenticator, and a publicity machine. The viewer is treated to a revealing display of how the forgery machine worked. We are taken from when the items were invented and planned through the final production by an artist. One artist in particular is heard on tape discussing the manufacture of bullae with our "star," Oded Golan. The artist learned his trade in Egypt and knows no other. He is an artist who produced some of the bullae for Golan. He might be the "mysterious" Egyptian that Golan claimed made use of the roof above his luxurious apartment in a private apartment building located in an affluent, yet crowded, city neighborhood. We are treated to a demonstration by Amir Ganor of the IAA of how small fakes, such as bullae, are delivered -- hidden inside packs of cigarettes.

 Only glancing attention is paid to gullible or corrupt scholars who lead others to believe in the authenticity of this parade of items for religious, political, and personal reasons. We see only glimpses of publications in pseudo-scientific magazines. We find superficial mention of the fakes appearing in an authenticating and price-elevating process through exhibitions at museums and in catalogues published by home-grown vanity presses -- distributed by gullible respectable houses. Although the international aspects were already clear by November of 2002, we are informed, once again by Major Pagis, that what was at first thought to be only a few items has turned into the opening of "Pandora's Box." These fakes, numbering in many hundreds of pieces, as Eric Meyers has noted, are spread throughout the world in museums and private collections. Epigraphically, they are a disaster area which will entail years of work to clean out the fakes from among the real entries in the data base. Yet such points are totally ignored.

    If, as the saga of Oded Golan unfolds, the story appears to be reduced to black and white, it is because this is a story of extremes. There are white hats and black hats -- with the fools and the gullible in the middle.

    The contrast between the good guys, who risk their lives to protect the sites of antiquities from thieves, and the bad guys, who have made millions of dollars from the fools and the gullible who buy or believe in these doctored stolen artifacts, is the motif. The movement between the extremes, with the gullible and fools as a middle stop, is repeated throughout the documentary.

    The program opens with members of the field force of the IAA doing their dangerous duty of arresting antiquities thieves by night. The scene shifts to where Mr. Shlomo Moussaieff, the gullible collector of unprovenanced items, such as innumerable fake seals and bullae (bought at $10,000 per bulla) and the forged ostracon purporting to be a receipt from the First Temple, is celebrating his 80th birthday -- surrounded by 50 archaeologists and other "friends" -- in his apartment on the top two stories of a hotel. Moussaieff is said to be the largest collector in Israel; but, is he? Although this is precisely what Moussaieff wants to be known as, no, he is not. Contrary to the statements made by Mr. Hershel Shanks, Oded Golan is by far and away the largest collector of these artifacts in Israel, possibly in the world -- if we include the massive number of large cartons filled with artifacts of questionable origin and the shelves lined with larger items in his warehouses and in what had been stored in the rooftop workshop.

    Mr. Oded Golan enters, seated at his blonde grand piano set in the middle of a spacious room and surrounded with tiers of glass shelves, packed with artifacts, set against the distant walls. Golan's apartment, with its rooms running back the length of the building and spanning roughly 25 meters across the frontage, is an apartment with a price tag of at least $800,000 in US currency. Wait! What happened to Golan's "tiny" apartment in Tel-Aviv where he was visited by the reporters from Time magazine?

    Gone is the "handsome" Oded Golan of the media frenzy with his "soft doe-eyes" and his "trustworthy gaze" and his "sincere" demeanor. Here is the real Oded Golan with his beady-brown eyes, bat-wing ears, fleshy nose, and flabby lower lip. Lines of discontent and avarice make grooves in his face. Sincerity is singularly lacking in his demeanor now; this film is shown in Israel, not in the United States or Canada. Here is Oded Golan, who probably would have been better cast as a piano teacher of beginning and intermediate students – at least he displays that he is competent on the instrument for the camera, though he is by no means on a par with a professional concert pianist. Certainly as a piano teacher he would have done less harm to Biblical studies, archaeology, epigraphy, and a history that affects hundreds of millions of believers around the world.

    We now return to the white hats where Ganor of the IAA displays a collection of stolen antiquities, forgers’ tools, and boxes of earth found at one of the warehouses used by Oded Golan. (Golan's claim, which he reiterates in the program, that all antiquities collectors have such tools may be correct; no collector, however, also has boxes of earth from different parts of Israel -- which boxes we are shown -- with which to make fake patinas.) Ganor picks up another item found among the collection – a figurine on which an assortment of heads can be fitted, and he wonders how many of these have been sold. Flashbacks are shown; in one we see and hear the breathless announcement of the bone box given on CNN on October 22, 2002. There is another flashback: this time we go to the SBL and the museum display in Toronto -- where more than 100,000 people saw the box at $20 Canadian a head.

 "Nobody has made any money on this James Box," to quote Ben Witherington III's statement in the Lexington Herald-Leader of Friday, June 27, 2003. "Nobody has made money on it," to quote Mr. Hershel Shanks in his part of the book co-authored with Witherington -- which book sold 76,000 copies in hardcover. "I have not made any money on it," to quote Oded Golan himself in this documentary. "No, he hasn't made any money on it; just millions of dollars," said Major Jonathan Pagis in charge of this investigation.

    Now we have a flashback to Andre Lemaire early in November 2002. Lemaire, who as a seminary student, completed the equivalent of a Ph.D. in the history of the church ministry in the late 1960's -- a specialist in James-era Christianity. Lemaire, who overnight became an "expert" epigrapher by virtue of his find of the fake pomegranate in 1979, the first of the fakes heavily promoted in the Biblical Archaeological Review -- the BAR. Lemaire whose claim in 1979 to being an expert with many years of experience as an epigrapher was based on the publication of his thesis, a small volume published in 1977 (Hebraic inscriptions, introduction, traduction, commentary) in a field he conceived a sudden "passion" for in 1972. (A field your reviewer entered in 1954.) Here we see and hear Andre Lemaire babbling on about how he suddenly made the connection between the forged names on the bone box and James of the church. As if he would not know all about his own seminarist specialty.

    Next comes the "Joash" Tablet offered to the Israel museum for $4,500,000 U.S. -- an offer written on letterhead (shown) through the same law firm that had offered the "Temple Receipt" ostracon, also publicized in the BAR. The "Joash" Tablet was such a poor forgery that it was denounced the same day a photograph of the artifact appeared. (Your reviewer was informed that the tablet was owned by Golan the day after the photograph appeared.) This is the same tablet that we see shown on the cover of the BAR. This is the same magazine whose publisher announced a "Make a Fake" contest; this announcement also flashes by. Perhaps the only amusing scene in the entire documentary is of the real experts looking at the tablet, touching it, and laughing at the obvious fakery.

    It is not, however, amusing that many people knew about the forgeries yet simply laughed at anyone gullible enough to buy them -- or into them. Next we move to the workshop on top of Golan's apartment building, a building that nobody familiar with this type of structure, or Tel-Aviv, will believe could have been used by a mysterious Egyptian without Golan's active participation. This scenario is the equivalent of some mysterious person entering and making use on his own of a private rooftop in an expensive apartment building in mid-town Manhattan. We are treated to a passing view of the dirty, unused toilet chamber in which the "most spectacular find in Biblical archaeological history," insured (after Golan said he would not insure it) for $1,000,000 U.S., was found "enthroned."

    We return to Moussaieff and a fake for which he paid $800,000 U.S. (the approximate cost of Golan's "tiny" apartment). We move back to one artifact, a really beautiful oil lamp shown at intervals for good reason -- a reason we learn when we finally see and hear Mr. George Weill, the duped collector talk about his purchase of the item. The scene flashes to Officer Pagis, who blandly announces that the owner paid cash, $100,000, without a receipt or supporting documentation. We return to the unveiling of the artifact where we watch the owner carefully unwrap the item after taking it from its specially made carrying case. And, along with the owner, we are shown where the patina is fake.

    It is a fitting epithet on the entire business when Mr. Weill vehemently states: "I have collected for 40 years in many fields and I have never seen such monkeys and cowboys and swindlers and liars and money-hungry bums as I find in this field!"

    The final scene is the ossuary being wheeled into a huge storage shed -- if a place can be found for it among the masses of artifacts -- all fakes.

    Will this documentary stop the frauds? Perhaps from this other "type of trustworthy" who can be trusted to deliver fakes; but if the pattern typical of announcing new "sensational" finds in the BAR is any indication, we are in for another media frenzy.

    After milking the question of who conquered Meggido for an artifact stolen all it was worth, the BAR and its publisher went silent for a long time. The public knows from Boaz Gaon's fact-based article in the Ma'ariv of March 28, 2003 that a so-called Shishak-Megiddo bowl was sold, according to Gaon, by Oded Golan to a collector. The bowl now has a forged inscription on it: a dedication written in hieroglyphics purportedly from Pharoah Shishak to the general who "conquered" Megiddo.

    Suddenly, after this long silence on the "Megiddo" question, Mr. Shanks published an article in a very recent BAR entitled, "Who conquered Megiddo of the 10th century BC?" Was it David or Shishak? Should we be amazed and surprised if the question of who conquered Megiddo be "settled" by the fortuitous appearance of this bowl in the BAR?

    The hovering danger of the Megiddo bowl must not permit serious scholars to be deflected. This is not what archaeology, epigraphy, and biblical history are about. These forgeries are peripheral; they are not the core and heart of our disciplines. Because of the publicity the forgery machine can engender, we can no longer afford to laugh at human magpie tendencies and obvious fakes. We cannot tolerate this deliberate destruction any longer. We have to stand together and show that we can be trusted to fight for the truth and the integrity of our work.

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