'Jesus ossuary trial' stalled after more than three years

Antiquities Authority on a 'witch-hunt to destroy me,' says dealer accused of fraud.

amir ganor (photo credit: Matthew Kalman)
amir ganor
(photo credit: Matthew Kalman)
One of Israel's best-known antiquities dealers said this week he was the innocent victim of a "witch-hunt" initiated by the Antiquities Authority aimed at destroying his career and reputation. Robert Deutsch, 58, has been on trial at the Jerusalem District Court since September 2005 on six charges of faking and selling priceless antiquities. He is the owner of the Archeological Center, with shops in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and runs twice-yearly antiquities auctions that attract the world's top collectors of ancient Judaica. Deutsch's co-defendant, leading antiquities collector Oded Golan, is charged with faking the burial box of Jesus's brother and an inscribed stone attributed to King Jehoash that once adorned the First Temple, plus dozens of smaller items. As Deutsch took the stand this week for the first time after more than three years in court, 120 witnesses and 8,000 pages of testimony, he said the charges against him were "lies and hallucinations." Golan, Deutsch and three others were indicted in December 2004 on a total of 18 counts of forgery and fraud. The indictments were announced amid great fanfare, with the police and Antiquities Authority officials claiming they had uncovered a grand conspiracy on an international scale in which fake items had been unwittingly bought by museums around the world. They said the five accused were just the beginning. Shuka Dorfman, director of the Antiquities Authority, described the charges against Golan as "the tip of the iceberg." "These forgeries have worldwide repercussions," Dorfman said when the indictments were filed. "They were an attempt to change the history of the Jewish and Christian people." "This was fraud of a sophistication and expertise which was previously unknown," said the Israel Police's Cmdr. Shaul Naim, who headed a two-year investigation. "They took authentic items and added inscriptions to make them worth millions." But more than four years later, no one else has been charged and no one has been prosecuted over a single fake item from any museum. Charges against two of the five original defendants were dropped, and one man was found guilty on a minor charge. "They fabricated this entire indictment, the whole thing, from A to Z," said Deutsch, who tried to dismiss his lawyer earlier this year because of spiralling trial costs. Deutsch is one of the world's leading experts on deciphering ancient Hebrew and other semitic inscriptions. Of the 1,000 known seal impressions from ancient Israel, he has published about half. According to the Antiquities Authority, Deutsch and Golan conspired to forge an ancient decanter, several inscribed pieces of pottery and dozens of seal impressions - known as bulae - some bearing the names of Israelite kings mentioned in the Bible. They are accused of publishing scholarly papers on the items to enhance their value, and then selling them for thousands of dollars to unsuspecting collectors. After Deutsch was indicted, he was fired from a teaching post at the University of Haifa and dismissed as a supervisor at the Megiddo excavations. "I have never faked anything in my life," said Deutsch. "I'm the first person to call something a fake, because it pollutes the profession that I have made my expertise." On the witness stand, Deutsch said he knew Golan, his alleged co-conspirator, only through business. He said the Antiquities Authority and police had failed to find a single e-mail between the two men, or any evidence linking him to forgery despite repeated raids on his home and shops. Deutsch said the trial was an attempt to shut down the licensed trade in antiquities in Israel, even though it is legal and he has held a license from the authority for the past 30 years. "The Antiquities Authority thinks we are no better than antiquities thieves," he said. "They believe that our legal trade is worse than theft because we are encouraging the robbers." "They went to the Knesset and tried to pass legislation banning trade in antiquities and they failed. Now they are using this trial to destroy our business," he said. "I don't know how much lower they can get, the people who cooked up this trial," he said. "They misled the prosecution, they misled the press and they came up with all sorts of stories with no basis in reality." One charge against Deutsch and Golan is that in 1995 they conspired to inscribe an ancient decanter with a text linking it to the Temple service and sell it to billionaire collector Shlomo Moussaieff. "To increase the significance of the decanter and enhance its price," the indictment charges, "Defendant No. 2 published the decanter in a volume of archeology which he authored on the subject of Hebraic inscriptions from the First Temple period." But Deutsch produced the book in court - exhibit No. 4 - and showed that it was already at the printer in 1994, by which time the decanter was already in the Moussaieff collection. The book cannot have been used to enhance the sale price. In addition, Deutsch and Golan have both produced compelling evidence to show that the decanter, like the rest of the items, is authentic. The prosecution, which took nearly three years to present its case, has had difficulty proving the alleged conspiracy. When Oded Golan took the stand last year, he produced plausible explanations for the all the apparent evidence of forgery found in repeated raids on his home, business premises and storage facilities. Expectations that the prosecution would produce an Egyptian craftsman it alleges actually faked most of the items were dashed when he refused to come to Israel to give evidence. The star prosecution witness, Tel Aviv University's Prof. Yuval Goren, was forced to recant some of his testimony based on scientific tests that showed the patina - the encrustation that adheres to ancient objects - to be a modern concoction. Further scientific evidence based on isotopic analysis of the patina looked increasingly unconvincing after other scientists tested the same items and came to the opposite conclusion. Last October, the trial appeared close to collapse after Judge Aharon Farkash advised the prosecution to consider dropping the proceedings. "After all the evidence we have heard, including the testimony of the prime defendant, is the picture still the same as the one you had when he was charged?" the judge pointedly asked the prosecutor. "Maybe we can save ourselves the rest." "Have you really proved beyond a reasonable doubt that these artifacts are fakes as charged in the indictment? The experts disagreed among themselves" Farkash said. The trial continues. Matthew Kalman is the Jerusalem correspondent of the San Francisco Chronicle. His stories on the forgery trial can be found at jamesossuarytrial.blogspot.com.