Antiquities aren’t what they used to be: An expert tells all

Meet Jerusalem's best-known Scottish antiquities dealer.

Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologist Eli Shukron shows an ancient seal, at an archaeological site known as the City of David in Jerusalem December 25, 2011. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologist Eli Shukron shows an ancient seal, at an archaeological site known as the City of David in Jerusalem December 25, 2011.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
On a sweltering weekday afternoon better suited for a snooze than an interview, I arrive at the Jerusalem home of renowned antiquities dealer Lenny Wolfe, who has in fact chosen the former and forgotten about the latter. After a few persistent knocks on the door, Wolfe awakes and invites me in to his stately home, built more than a hundred years ago by a member of the Greek Orthodox community, in the city’s Musrara neighborhood.
The temperature is a bit more comfortable in Wolfe’s basement office and as we sit among the mid-afternoon shadows, Wolfe, speaking with a rich Scottish brogue, explains his origins, how he arrived in Israel, what it means to be an antiquities dealer and how he views Israel almost 45 years since he first arrived.
Born in Glasgow 65 years ago, Lenny Wolfe describes the Jewish community of his Scottish youth as a “very strong, very Zionist, active community,” with over 13,000 Jews in Glasgow alone. Wolfe relates that there were nine synagogues in Glasgow, along with all the other institutions that one would find in a Jewish community. His upbringing was traditional, and he attended synagogue every Shabbat and heder (religious classes) four times a week. While Wolfe’s mother “was the religious one in the family,” his father, the chairman of the Glasgow Zionist Organization and founder of the Glasgow Aliya Group, provided him with the inspiration and impetus for aliya.
In October 1972, Wolfe moved to Israel, where he enrolled at the Hebrew University, studying archeology.
“I was always interested in history and material culture,” he says, referring to the physical objects, resources and spaces that people use to define their society. Toward the end of his studies, he became the assistant to the chief curator in the coins department at the Israel Museum. Wolfe entered the IDF in 1977, and upon his discharge left the university and began dealing in antiquities.
As a dealer in antiquities, he has special expertise in First Temple-period seals and short inscriptions, amulets from the late antiquity period and other periods. Wolfe also deals in ancient coins as well as arts and crafts of Israel, and pilgrim souvenirs of the Land of Israel. He says that there are only between 10 and 20 full-time antiquities dealers in Israel today.
In his day-to-day work, Wolfe deals with Jews, Arabs, tourists, international collectors, museum representatives and people from universities. He says that Jews are not as interested in antiquities as they once were, because the level of interest in Jewish culture has gone down.
“In order to enjoy antiquities, you have to have a deep level of knowledge and appreciation,” he says.
The world of antiquities transcends all political differences, says Wolfe, and he maintains good relations with everyone, no matter their background. “I have Arabs who are certainly not Zionists, and also hassidim who are also very much anti-Zionist. I have cordial relations with them, and it makes life very interesting,” he smiles.
One of Wolfe’s major finds was the Afghan Geniza, the archive of a Jewish family of traders who lived on the Silk Road in Afghanistan, which was the ancient network of trade routes connected Asia and Europe. The manuscripts were written in a wide variety of languages – Aramaic, Hebrew, Persian, Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Persian, and provided a treasure trove of information about the Jewish community in Afghanistan of a thousand years ago. Wolfe sold the Afghan Geniza to the National Library in 2016. Another landmark acquisition of his is a papyrus from the First Temple period that contains the earliest mention of Jerusalem in Hebrew.
Wolfe says that the market for antiquities is far smaller than it once was. The primary buyers of antiquities in the 1970s and ’80s were Jewish collectors. Now, he says, the principal customers for antiquities are Christian evangelicals who are interested in items connected to the Bible and the New Testament, along with a cross-section of international buyers who come from different backgrounds and different interests. While there are sons of dealers that are going into the antiquities business, he reports, “It is not what it used to be.”
He has two words of Latin advice for anyone who wants to go into the world of antiquities dealing. “Caveat emptor – let the buyer beware,” he says. “Today the market is flooded with fakes.”
Veteran antiquities dealers utilize their knowledge, experience and skills to distinguish between a genuine item of antiquity and a clever forgery. Wolfe, who has visited many of the countries in the region, including Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, among others, relates how he was invited to Kuwait to examine a Torah scroll, which the seller asserted was the original scroll given to Moses at Mount Sinai more than 3,000 years ago. After a quick inspection, Wolfe realized that the Torah scroll dated from the 19th or early 20th century. Chuckling, he says, “They only wanted $50 million for it. I had to couch my words very carefully when I told them.”
According to Wolfe, Israel has changed a great deal since his arrival in the 1970s.
“It was a different Israel,” he says. “Jerusalem was a small village. It was quiet, with very little entertainment… Israel has always been a warm country; in those days, it was warmer.”
He continues his lament.
“Israel has lost its innocence. Once upon a time there were values. Today, you have to search for them… There may be ideals, but they have certainly changed since the 1970s.” He reserves some of his harshest words for today’s politicians, who, he says, “would sell the country for a pruta [coin of little value].”
Despite his dissatisfaction with much of contemporary Israeli society, he concedes that just as in the ancient world, “Things are cyclical. In days of yore, you had good periods and bad periods, the same as today.”
Wolfe is proud of his Scottish heritage. Every January, he hosts a traditional Robert Burns supper, a birthday celebration of the life and poetry of the famous 18th-century Scottish poet, at his home. Typically, a Burns supper includes a recitation of some of Burns’ poems, drinking of Scotch whisky, and consumption of haggis, a traditional Scottish dish made from sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, together with oatmeal and spices, which in its original form is not kosher. In consideration of his Jewish legacy, he offers both kosher haggis and vegetarian haggis.
Summing up, he says, “I am happy. I like it here."