Court says ‘not guilty,’ Antiquities demands punishment

Antiquities Authority determined not to return dozens of items to Israeli collector accused of faking burial box of Jesus's brother.

Antiques collector Golan  (photo credit: Reuters)
Antiques collector Golan
(photo credit: Reuters)
The Antiquities Authority, backed by State Attorney Moshe Lador, has launched a desperate rearguard action to reverse its humiliating defeat in a seven-year trial that ended with the acquittal of an Israeli collector accused of faking the burial box of the brother of Jesus and an inscribed stone tablet that may have hung on the wall of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.
The latest twist came during a routine sentencing hearing at the Jerusalem District Court last Tuesday, two months after the stunning collapse of the high-profile prosecution.
Prosecutor Dan Bahat revealed that the Antiquities Authority was determined not to return dozens of items, including the burial box and the stone tablet to their owner, despite his acquittal on all the relevant charges.
Bahat compared it to returning drugs to a dealer acquitted on a technicality.
Oded Golan, 60, was cleared in March on 41 counts of forgery, fraud and other serious crimes related to what antiquities officials and police had described as a worldwide, multi-million-dollar network designed to falsify history and dupe museums and collectors into buying worthless fakes. Golan was convicted on three minor counts of handling goods suspected of being stolen and dealing in antiquities without a license.
The case attracted worldwide attention because of a stone burial box, or ossuary, inscribed with the Aramaic legend “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus.”
The prosecution was unable to prove its assertion that the words “brother of Jesus” were a modern addition and Golan was cleared of faking them.
If genuine, the ossuary is the only known artifact that could be directly connected to the family of the historical Jesus.
Golan was also acquitted on all charges relating to a black stone tablet inscribed in ancient Hebrew recording repairs to the Temple carried out by King Jehoash around 800 BCE. If genuine, it is the only item yet discovered that may have adorned the First Temple.
In December 2007, Amir Ganor, head of the antiquities authority anti-theft unit and the architect of the fraud trial, said the Antiquities Authority would return return more than 200 artifacts seized from Golan.
“I am holding the exhibits under a court order,” Ganor told the court. “When the trial is over, I imagine I will be happy to get rid of everything I have in the storeroom and return it to Oded Golan, including the ossuary.”
The trial has now ended, but even though Golan was acquitted on all charges related to the most important artifacts in the case, the prosecutor demanded the permanent confiscation of all the items. He also urged the judge to impose a maximum sentence for the three minor misdemeanors even though it was Golan’s first offense.
“I do not agree that there is an absence of a criminal history. There were illegal activities,” Bahat charged, prompting a sharp rebuke from Judge Aharon Farkash.
“You are trying to mount a new trial,” said the judge, who even referred to a “witchhunt” against Golan.
The Antiquities Authority has shown no sign that it accepts the not guilty verdict. Its spokesmen continue to describe the items in the trial as fakes and the authority appears to be determined to punish Golan despite losing the case.
Bahat said the decision to seek confiscation of the property and a harsh sentence had been taken personally by the state attorney.
GOLAN, WHO was imprisoned twice by police for short periods during the investigation and then held under house arrest for more than 700 days, as well as losing untold income over the 10-year investigation and trial, said he had expected the court to order the immediate return of the hundreds of items and documents taken by the police and hoped the judge would not impose further punishment.
Bahat presented two apparently contradictory arguments to the court. First, he said that since the judge had ruled the items were not fakes as charged in the indictment, they were in fact real antiquities and Golan was therefore not a collector but a dealer and so had an obligation to maintain a full inventory of his stock.
Judge Farkash pointedly reminded him that this accusation had not even been hinted at in any of the 44 crimes listed in the indictment.
“I don’t recall that in any of the charges you accused him of this crime of being an unlicensed dealer. How can you now ask me to consider this when deciding on the sentence?” asked the judge. “You are now asking me to take into consideration that he didn’t maintain an inventory. I don’t recall that was included in any of the 18 counts, either as a specific charge or within any of the charges on the indictment.”
Bahat then performed an abrupt about-turn, arguing that, despite Golan’s acquittal, the “likelihood” is that the items were fakes.
“In my opinion, it is inconceivable that the items should be returned to the accused,” said Bahat. “I say there is no choice.”
Bahat said it would be unacceptable for Golan to benefit from the ossuary or other artifacts.
“He can sell it, exhibit it. I cannot countenance that if the item is fake that he should get it back,” said Bahat, suggesting the items be given to the Israel Police forensics laboratory for educational purposes.
But Judge Farkash seemed unimpressed, particularly as he had singled out the forensics laboratory in his verdict for severe criticism for contaminating the ossuary inscription during testing, rendering it scientifically worthless.
“If the ossuary is a fake, it’s not an antiquity. How can I not return it to the accused?” he asked.
The judge suggested, only half-joking, that the items be put on display at the Israel Museum in special exhibition of artifacts from the trial. Golan himself says he has not yet decided what to do with them.
But Golan’s attorney Lior Bringer was scathing about the prosecution tactics.
“The prosecution is asking the court to punish the defendant for crimes for which he was acquitted,” said Bringer. “Golan admitted to the three minor charges he was convicted of in the first police interview. On these charges there was no need for a trial at all.”
“He spent more than two years under house arrest and was in prison twice. He has suffered enough,” said Bringer.
But the Antiquities Authority seems determined to enforce its will through the courts rather than academic discussion – and to pursue legal action against anyone who dares to challenge its diktat. The authority ordered the unprecedented prosecution of the late Prof. Hanan Eshel of Bar-Ilan University for buying important artifacts and studying them before handing them over to the state. Last week, the authority was back in court in Nazareth, prosecuting a resident of Zipori for “damaging” an ancient tomb that he discovered and was trying to preserve.
The writer is editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Report. His dispatches from the trial are at