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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Antiquities Market, Sensationalized Textual Data, and Modern Forgeries: Introduction to the Problem and Synopsis of the 2004 Israeli Indictment

On Christmas Eve 2004, the Israel Museum announced that one of its most cherished acquisitions, the Ivory Pomegranate, was a modern forgery. [1]The inscription reads (arguably); "Qds khnm lb[yt yhw]h"; that is, "Holy (Object) of the Priests, Belonging to the T[emple of Yahwe]h." [2] It has often been referred to as a "prized artifact" and even said to have probably come from a "priestly scepter" used in the "Temple of Solomon." [3] After the Israel Museum's announcement, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Police of Israel subsequently indicted five people for the production and sale of various modern forgeries. The international news media labeled it a "forgery conspiracy."

It is important to note that the Israel Museum's announcement and the subsequent Israeli indictments cannot be understood as the first declarations that the field's dataset was tainted with modern forgeries. During the past few years, several of the authors of the articles in this month's SBL Forum have been urging caution with regard to artifacts from the antiquities market (a broad term for the sale of antiquities that do not derive from scientific excavations), arguing that some of these inscriptions are modern forgeries. We have also argued for some time that forces within the media and even the field that routinely attempt to sensationalize various sorts of textual material, including manuscripts, prior to the completion of systematic and thorough analyses, are most detrimental. Nevertheless, the recent publication of the indictments brings this issue to the fore and provides an occasion for reconsidering traditional approaches to epigraphic and textual data from the antiquities market, especially as it relates to scholarly attempts to interpret ancient culture and society.

Although the raison d'etre for this issue of the SBL Forum is indeed the current crisis revolving around the written materials vetted on the antiquities market, its purpose is not simply to reflect on the crisis. Rather, the larger goal is to consider the factors that have contributed to the problem, to propose the implementation of methodologies for the field that will purge corrupt materials (e.g., forged) from the datasets used for scholarly discussion, and to attempt to reduce the credulousness and sensationalism that has been regnant at times both in the field and in the public realm. The articles published here are intended to be disinterested, and often methodological in nature; that is, there has been a conscious effort to avoid participation in the sensationalism, polar reactions, and misinformation that have plagued many discussions during recent past.

Point of Departure

This introduction will consist of a summary of the Israeli indictments, an introduction to some of the problems revolving around the antiquities market, and a critique of some of the factors that compound the problem. Most of these articles focus on the subject of forgeries, but with differing emphases. This issue concludes with a reflective epilogue. We believe that each contribution serves an important function within this context. Bruce Metzger's seminal contribution does not focus on a forgery or the forgery crisis. Rather, it focuses on an ancient text, namely a parchment manuscript of the Syriac New Testament referred to as the Yonan Codex. This codex was received with great pomp and circumstance, including a press-event at the White House with President Eisenhower, and was touted as being from the fourth century and of great importance and financial value. Ultimately, the Society of Biblical Literature became involved and, with Metzger at the helm, produced an assessment of the codex: the Yonan Codex dated to the seventh or eighth century and there were three hundred similar Syriac manuscripts! The Saga of the Yonan Codex is instructive for the current crisis, demonstrating a fundamental point: sensationalism produces more smoke than light. [4]

Summary of the Israeli Indictment

In late December 2004, five people were indicted by the Police of Israel and the Israel Antiquities Authority. The news media labeled this activity a "conspiracy ring" to fake antiquities. Moreover, various news outlets (e.g., CNN and CNBC) made it sound as if all five people were involved in a conspiracy that lasted for decades, and that this conspiracy had just been uncovered. Unfortunately these news accounts probably take the actual charges further than they should go; that is, all five of the accused were not involved in all eighteen counts as part of an interconnected forgery ring.

A close reading of the actual 38-page Hebrew indictment reveals that the "conspiracy" is much less dramatic than some of the news reports made it seem. The word "conspiracy" does occur repeatedly in the text, but it occurs as a legal term for the crime that is charged and not a "conspiracy ring." None of the charges linked all five individuals together and the vast majority of the charges are related to only one individual, Oded Golan. The five individuals are accused of working together in pairs in separate instances, but this is not a "conspiracy ring" in the sense that all 5 people worked out a plan together.

Unfortunately this myth about the conspiracy ring was given further credence in the most recent issue of BAR. In an eleven-page report on the topic, BAR promoted this misinterpretation of the indictments by stating that these five individuals were indicted "on charges of running a massive forgery ring over several decades." [5] In light of all of this misinformation, one of the first things that we desire to do is to summarize what is actually contained in the indictment in order to balance the rumors that have circulated in news reports, in BAR, and on various web sites.

The indictment begins with an introductory section that describes the alleged crimes and the alleged methods: [6]

In the course of the last few decades, many archaeological objects were sold or offered for sale in and outside of Israel which were represented as [authentic] antiquities. These "antiquities" (many of which had well-recognized religious, emotional, political, and economic importance) were methodically formed for the purposes of fraud.... In the majority of cases, the typical method of forgery was to take an authentic item of antiquity and to add an inscription or design that converted this item into one that would carry a significant price.

The indictment names five people who have allegedly participated in the forging and/or sale of artifacts with inscriptions. The indictment mentions that these people "conspired," but that term is a legal term for planned fabrication of the alleged forgeries rather than pointing to a "conspiracy ring." The following is a list of the individuals named in the indictment:

  1. Oded Golan: a collector from Tel Aviv who is accused of fabricating and selling inscriptions.
  2. Robert Deutsch: an antiquities dealer who has also completed course work in archaeology and epigraphy. In addition, he teaches courses as an adjunct instructor at the University of Haifa. [7]
  3. Rafael Brown: an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem.
  4. Shlomo Cohen: an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem.
  5. Fayez al-Amaleh: a Palestinian antiquities dealer.

The following is a list of the suspected fakes along with the name of the alleged forger(s) for that particular item:

  • James Ossuary (Oded Golan alone is accused): a "bone box" that contains an Aramaic inscription that mentions "James the brother of Jesus." See other essays in this issue for further discussion.
  • Jehoash Tablet (Oded Golan alone is accused): this text, written in stone, contains a list of repairs to the First Temple undertaken by King Jehoash.
  • Various ostraca that relate to biblical references or that could be identified with usages in the First Temple period.

      a. Two Moussaeiff Ostraca (Oded Golan and Robert Deutsch are accused). These are listed as Ostraca #1-2 in the indictment. The indictment states that in 1995 or shortly before, Golan and Deutsch allegedly conspired and later produced two ostraca that came from the days of the kingdom of Judah. In doing so, they allegedly used an authentic potsherd from the First Temple period and added an inscription and patina that were consistent with the First Temple period. The indictment states that Deutsch later showed the two objects to Shlomo Moussaeiff, who bought them in 1997 for $200,000.00. The indictment states that the proceeds were split between Golan and Deutsch.

      b. Ostracon #3 (Raphael Brown and Shlomo Cohen are accused). The indictment states that in 1995 or shortly before, Cohen and Brown allegedly conspired and later produced an ostracon that came from the days of the kingdom of Judah. In doing so, they used an authentic potsherd from the First Temple period and added an inscription and patina that were consistent with the First Temple period. Cohen then allegedly showed this ostracon to Moussaeiff, who bought this item along with another three ostraca for $180,000.00. This amount was allegedly divided between Cohen and Brown. Robert Deutsch later examined the object and gave his expert opinion that it was indeed authentic, but the indictment does not mention him as accused with regards to this item.

      c. Three Additional Ostraca (Robert Deutsch alone is accused). The indictment lists these items as Ostraca #5, 6, and 7. The ostraca include the "Beka Yerushalayim" ostracon. The indictment states that in 2002 or shortly before, Deutsch allegedly planned and later produced three ostraca that came from the days of the kingdom of Judah. In doing so, he allegedly used an authentic potsherd from the First Temple period and added an inscription and patina that were consistent with the First Temple period. The first ostracon contained an inscription of "Beka Yerushaliym," while the other two contained lists of names. Deutsch then allegedly showed these three ostraca to Moussaeiff, who bought them for a total of $90,000.00 The "Beka" Ostracon was later published in a scholarly publication by Deutsch.

  • The stone oil lamp with a menorah (Oded Golan alone is accused). The object is thought to date from the Second Temple period and be associated with the high priest of that period. The indictment states that in 2000 or shortly before, Golan allegedly planned and later produced this item that came from the days of the Second Temple. In doing so, he used an authentic menorah. Golan allegedly later sold part ownership in the object for $100,000.00.
  • The "King Manasseh" seal and 28 bullae (Oded Golan and Fayez al-Amaleh are accused). The seal with a gold casing was thought to have belonged to the king of Judah who was Hezekiah's son. The indictment states that Golan and al-Amaleh allegedly conspired and produced the objects in 2002 or shortly before. Moussaeiff purchased the 28 bullae for $150,000, and a $15,000 commission allegedly went to Oded Golan. The indictment states that Moussaeiff agreed to pay $1,000,000.00 for the seal if it was checked and found to be authentic. Moussaeiff later determined that the seal was a forgery, returned it to Golan, and received his certified check for $1,000,000.00 back. Golan subsequently tried to sell the seal to another buyer, but was again unsuccessful. After the start of the forgery investigation by the IAA and the Police of Israel, Golan allegedly destroyed the seal.
  • The Baruch bulla (Deutsch and Brown are accused). The indictment states that this object was produced in 1996 and that Deutsch sold it to Moussaeiff for $100,000.00.
  • A cache of 162 bullae (Golan and Deutsch are accused). According to the indictment, in 1994 or shortly before, Deutsch allegedly showed this collection of bullae to Moussaieff. Deutsch allegedly presented the collection as if it belonged to an anonymous individual. The indictment states that Deutsch did not report to Moussaieff that the collection was held by Golan, but he allegedly reported that he had received news of the collection from a lawyer who instructed Deutsch to sell the collection for not less than $207,000.00. Moussaieff allegedly refused to buy the collection.
  • The "Shishak" bowl (Oded Golan is accused). This is a quartz bowl that contained an inscription with the head of the army of Shishak. This military leader is known to have destroyed the ancient city of Megiddo. The indictment states that after Golan allegedly failed to sell the item to museums outside of Israel, the object became part of the investigation. Golan allegedly then destroyed the bowl and stopped trying to sell it.
  • The Mattanyahu decanter (Golan and Deutsch are accused). This object was identified in scholarly articles as an object that was presented as an offering in the First Temple. The indictment states that it was allegedly produced in 1995 or shortly before. According to the indictment, this was an authentic First Temple decanter that was allegedly incised with the inscription. Deutsch then published the inscription in one of his books. In 1997, Deutsch allegedly then showed the decanter to Moussaieff, who bought it for $100,000.00, and this amount allegedly was split between Deutsch and Golan.
  • The "Chalcolithic cache" (Oded Golan alone). This was an assemblage of objects put forth as dating from the Chalcolithic period. The indictment states that they allegedly were created in or about 1995.
  • Ivory pomegranate that contained an inscription mentioning YHWH and the First Temple. This inscription was purchased by the Israel Museum for $550,000. This item is not mentioned in the indictment, but it has been identified by the Israel Museum as a forgery. A forthcoming article in IEJ by a team of scholars will provide the detailed reasons that this item was declared a forgery.
  • Other miscellaneous accusations against Oded Golan alone: The indictment also mentions a number of miscellaneous actions that are alleged to have been carried out by Golan-paying bribes and destroying evidence. The indictment lists specific dates and details for these alleged actions.

Background: Illicit Exacavations, the Market, and Forgeries [8]

The illicit pillaging of archaeological sites continues to be rampant in the Middle East. At this juncture, the problem is perhaps most critical in Iraq because of the demise of civil order and the desire for some means of economic survival during desperate times. The problem is also, however, acute in Israel and Palestine, for similar reasons. Nevertheless, it should be noted that those engaging in such pillaging rarely receive compensation commensurate with the market value of their finds. Rather, market mechanisms and socio-economic circumstances normally mandate that pillagers sell such objects to antiquities dealers for modest sums. Then dealers typically smuggle the contraband across borders and ultimately much of this contraband is sold on the antiquities market. [9]

The law of supply and demand is operative on the antiquities market. For this reason, many of the "common" objects sold on the antiquities market can be purchased for modest prices. However, because of the relative rarity of inscriptions, compared with pottery, figurines, etc., inscriptions often garner substantial sums. Moreover, those that refer to Yahweh, the temple, Israelite and Judean kings, prominent non-regal biblical figures, or some biblical custom will attract the most interest and the highest bidders (in the range of four, five, and six figures, as the Israeli indictment details). Due to such a strong market for "biblical" inscriptions, some people have begun to forge inscriptions and sell them on the antiquities market. Some of these modern forgeries are of a high quality—e.g., the script, orthography, syntax, and the medium replicate ancient inscriptions reasonably well—and some are of low quality. In any case, the most fundamental point is this: there are ancient inscriptions (i.e., genuine) and modern inscriptions (i.e., forgeries) on the antiquities market; this constitutes an enormous problem for the field.

There is Nothing New Under the Sun: The Perennial Problem of Forgeries

Based on the discussions in recent months, one might conclude that forgeries are a recent problem. This is hardly the case. Bruce Metzger has noted that in the fifteen massive tomes constituting the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum there are asterisks assigned to numerous inscriptions; these asterisks designate these inscriptions as epigraphic forgeries. Metzger goes on to note that of the epigraphic forgeries in this corpus (ca 3,645), Pirro Ligorio, the successor to Michelangelo at St. Peter's in Rome, produced the majority (ca 2,995). [10] Metzger also stated that during the nineteenth century, a certain Constantine Simonides, an epigrapher of sorts, determined that museums and collectors were willing to pay large sums of money for ancient manuscripts. He thus began to produce large numbers of Greek manuscripts, including a copy of Homer that Metzger has referred to as "an almost prehistoric style of writing" and a copy of Matthew's Gospel that purports to have been "written fifteen years after the Ascension." [11]

Fortunately, scholars deduced the source of the problem and repudiated the forged materials; thus, these forgeries are no longer a problem for the fields of classics. However, the existence of these forged materials is very relevant to the present forgery scandal, for they demonstrate that Greek and Latin forgeries made it into the dataset of classics and corrupted the dataset for a time. Furthermore, this "history" demonstrates that classicists must always be vigilant about the problem of forgery production in the contemporary period as well, because history does repeat itself.

Northwest Semitic forgeries have also been produced. During the late nineteenth century, a Phoenician text purporting to contain an account of ancient Phoenicians "blown far off course" was reported to have been found in Brazil. [12] However, subsequent investigations proved that this document was a forgery. Also during the late nineteenth century, fragments of Deuteronomy written in an archaic script (very similar to that of the Mesha Inscription discovered some years before) surfaced. Wilhelm Shapira, a Jerusalem antiquities dealer, possessed these fragments and he made a concerted effort to find scholars that would "authenticate them." Nevertheless, these too were demonstrated to be modern forgeries. [13]

During more recent decades, some leather fragments surfaced that were touted as ancient Philistine manuscripts from Hebron. However, these were demonstrated to be forgeries as well, with one of the manuscripts actually containing the Siloam Tunnel Inscription written, in essence, backwards. [14] Of late, the problem has persisted, with some of the most famous documents in question being the recent alleged forgeries: the two famous Moussaieff Ostraca, the Jehoash (Joash) Inscription, the James (Ya'akov) Ossuary, and the Ivory Pomegranate. [15] It also appears that numerous seals and bullae have been forged. [16] The point is that for more than a century, forgers have been producing Northwest Semitic forgeries, and there is no reason to think that this activity is not continuing today.

Often the subject of the identity of the forgers arises. It is disturbing to contemplate the possibility that forgers are those associated with the field in some fashion. Therefore, it is sometimes posited that no "knowledgeable person" would engage in the production or vetting of a forgery. [17] Such a conclusion, while it is what scholars would hope to be the case, is hardly tenable. The fact of the matter is that gifted scholars have been implicated for the production of forgeries. For example, the former Princeton classicist Coleman-Norton, Bruce Metzger's Doktorvater, concocted an apocryphal story about finding a manuscript of a Greek translation of the Latin Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum in the North African town of Fedhala; he then published a detailed article about his sensational "find." [18] To assume that intelligent, well-trained scholars are always characterized by professional ethics is belied by epigraphic history.

Moreover, it has also been the case that antiquities dealers have been culpable of the production of forgeries, as was arguably the case with the Shapira Fragments. The clear, historical point is that forgers are often very knowledgeable, often have scholarly experience, come from various backgrounds, and have a multitude of motivations. [19]

Inscriptions from the Antiquities Market and the Scholar: Caveat Eruditus

Those who purchase, collect, and vet inscriptions from the antiquities market often desire for specialists, e.g., epigraphers and palaeographers, within the field to "authenticate" their inscriptions. Furthermore, those that purchase, collect, or vet inscriptions are often also interested in having scholars publish their inscriptions. For owners and custodians of market inscriptions, the motivations for scholarly publication are legion and compelling, and economics are part of the equation. To be sure, some dealers and collectors have suggested that the opposite is the case. Regarding the financial motivation, Shlomo Moussaieff and Robert Deutsch are reported to have stated that "the publication of an artifact, oddly enough, reduces its value on the market"; that is, there is a strong financial disincentive to publish. [20] However, it is readily apparent that the publication of an inscription from the market can dramatically raise the visibility, and thus the market price, of an inscription. For example, the "Ivory Pomegranate" is reported to have been purchased for $3000.00, but after its publication in BAR (and the derivative fame), an anonymous donor on behalf of the Israel Museum paid an exorbitant $550,000.00. [21] Moreover, the Israeli indictment details numerous similar cases. It may well be that dealers and collectors fear reprisal and prosecution at times (and this will account for some of the reluctance to allow publication), but it is not convincing to suggest that publication consistently reduces market value.

For specialists within the field, there are also various motivations that can galvanize the decision to publish an inscription from the market. For example, there is the legitimate desire to "save" important epigraphic data from the obscurity of a collector's private horde. Moreover, because there are relatively few inscriptions found on controlled excavations, there is a natural desire to be granted access to, and publication rights for, "new" inscriptions. Similarly, because opulent collectors often possess scores or even hundreds of inscriptions, specialists might hope that a "benevolent act" for a collector (i.e., publication) might result in access to numerous important inscriptions. Ultimately, specialists within the field must become more cautious about the nexus of problems associated with the publication of inscriptions from the market. There are, arguably, occasions for scholars to publish inscriptions from the market, but circumspection is to be the modus operandi. [22]


It should be noted that the articles in this issue, as well as this introduction and the epilogue, propose that methodological caution is now an imperative for the field. Moreover, it is readily apparent that within some of the articles there is an implicit critique of those semi-popular publications that serve as conduits for the dissemination of the field's research. Rollston and Vaughn, the guest editors of this month's SBL Forum hope that ultimately these articles will serve to provide a fair presentation of the history of the problem, the facts surrounding the current scandal, as well as a platform for reflections on the field's methodologies for coping with the problems of the antiquities market and the presence of forged materials in the dataset.

Christopher A. Rollston, Emmanuel School of Religion,

Andrew G. Vaughn, Gustavus Adolphus College,


1. The pomegranate itself is ancient, but may very well date to the Late Bronze Age, rather than the Iron Age. Regarding the inscription on the pomegranate, though, note that Frank Moore Cross and Christopher Rollston had stated already during 2003 that it was a probable forgery. See Christopher A. Rollston, "Non-Provenanced Epigraphs: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests," Maarav 10 (2003): 182, footnote 115.

2. It is also possible to read: "Lb[yt yhw]h qds khnm" "Belonging to the T[emple of Yahwe]h, Holy (Object) of the Priests."

3. For this sort of assessment, see "BARlines," BAR 22/3 (May/June, 1996): 12.

4. See Bruce Manning Metzger, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1997), 103-116, reprinted here with permission. Rollston and Vaughn are grateful to Robert Hull for bringing Metzger's treatment of the Yonan Codex to our attention.

5. Hershel Shanks, "Update: Finds or Fakes?" BAR 31:2 (2005): 58-69. The article in BAR would seem to indicate that the editor(s) had access to the indictment, but there are several inconsistencies between BAR's account and the actual indictment. For example, the BAR article mentions that Oded Golan alone is charged with regards to the James ossuary inscription, but that the other four individuals "are involved only in the other forgeries" (p. 61). However, the indictment does not list more than two individuals for any one item or groups of items, and no one person is associated with all of the items listed, as the BAR article suggests.

6. Andrew Vaughn did the translation that serves as the basis for this summary.

7. It should be noted that Deutsch is not an adjunct instructor for the Department of Archaeology at the University of Haifa but for another department at Haifa that offers courses in Hebrew language.

8. It should be mentioned in this connection that there is a legal antiquities market in some countries. For example, in Israel artifacts that were pillaged (or were chance-find) prior to 1978 can be sold in the Israel antiquities market. That is, these objects are "grandfathered" in and considered legal.

9. London Collector Shlomo Moussaieff has affirmed that pillaged artifacts from various countries of the Middle East are pouring into London. See Hershel Shanks, "Magnificent Obsession: The Private World of an Antiquities Collector," BAR 22 (May/June 1996): 25.

10. Bruce M. Metzger, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian, 125.

11. Bruce M. Metzger, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian, 126.

12. Frank M. Cross, "The Phoenician Inscription from Brazil: A Nineteenth-Century Forgery," Orientalia 37 (1968): 437-460. For more discussion and bibliography of this, see Rollston's essay in this issue.

13. For a good summary, see N. A. Silberman, Digging for God and Country: Exploration, Archaeology and the Secret Struggle for the Holy Land: 1799-1917 (New York: Knopf, 1982), 131-146.

14. Joseph Naveh, "Some Recently Forged Inscriptions," BASOR 247 (1982): 53-58. For more discussion of this, see Rollston's discussion in this issue.

15. For discussion of these inscriptions, see the discussions above as well as the essays by Goren, and Rollston in this issue. 16.For discussion of the seals and bullae, see especially the discussions by Goren and Vaughn and Dobler in this issue.

17. For precisely this logic, see George E. Mendenhall, "The 'Philistine' Documents from the Hebron Area: A Supplementary Note," Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, 16 (1971): 101-102.

18. Coleman-Norton originally submitted his article to Harvard Theological Review. It was, however, rejected for publication. Ultimately, his article was published under the title "An Amusing Agraphon," CBQ 12 (1950): 439-449. For a detailed summary of the story, as well as reference to numerous Greek and Latin forgeries, see B. Metzger, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian, especially, 136-139.

19. On the issue of motivations, see Rollston's article in this issue.

20. Hershel Shanks, "Magnificent Obsession," 62.

21. For the figure of $3,000.00 and the figure of $550,000.00, see Hershel Shanks, In the Temple of Solomon and the Tombs of Caiaphas (Washington: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1993), 26-27. It is striking that although Shanks reports the dramatic increase of the market value of the Pomegranate after its publication in BAR, he is content to cite (without comment or critique) the statement of Moussaieff and Deutsch that publication "reduces its value on the market."

22. Regarding the publication of epigraphs from the market and the problems and necessary protocols, see Christopher A. Rollston, "Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II: The Status of Non-Provenanced Epigraphs within the Broader Corpus of Northwest Semitic," Maarav 11 (2004): 57-79.

Citation: Andrew G. Vaughn , Christopher A. Rollston, " The Antiquities Market, Sensationalized Textual Data, and Modern Forgeries: Introduction to the Problem and Synopsis of the 2004 Israeli Indictment," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2005]. Online:


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