How forgers made grime seem ancient.
December 31, 2004
By Brendan I. Koerner
The Israel Antiquities Authority has advised museums worldwide that their Bible-era relics may be fakes produced by a team of forgers now under indictment. These forgers are charged with concocting the so-called James ossuary, which purportedly held the bones of Jesus' brother. According to the AP's account, they were skilled at creating "ancient grime" that fooled many scientists into authenticating their wares. How might a forger go about making grime that seems ancient?
For starters, with a bit of chalk and water. The forgers' key to tricking the archaeologists was crafting an authentic-looking patina. Like copper or bronze statues, which develop a green sheen after years of oxidization, stone slowly builds up a layer of geological soot as the centuries reel by. This is caused by the chemical reaction of elements like air or water with the minute traces of metals and other elements within the rock. To the naked eye, a thick patina is an immediate sign that an artifact is aged.
Yet a skilled forger can fake a stone patina, at least convincing enough to fool all but the most advanced analysis. In the case of the James ossuary, for example, it's alleged that the forgers took an authentically old box that was inscribed simply "James, son of Joseph." According to Avner Ayalon of the Geological Survey of Israel, who studied the ossuary, the forgers may have then added the inscription "brother of Jesus" to the end of the sentence and used a solution of chalk and hot water to create a coating of calcium carbonate—a substance frequently found in stone artifacts excavated in and around Jerusalem. On cursory inspection, the patina appeared to be legitimate. Conventional verification means like ultraviolet light or simple chemical analysis could not differentiate the patina covering the first half of the inscription.
Museums warned on Bible-era relics
Israel says important artifacts may be forged
JERUSALEM (AP) -- Experts advised world museums to re-examine their Bible-era relics after Israel indicted four collectors and dealers on charges of forging some of the most important artifacts of recent decades.
The indictments issued Wednesday labeled as fakes perhaps the two biggest biblical discoveries in the Holy Land -- the purported burial box of Jesus' brother James and a stone tablet with written instructions by King Yoash on maintenance work at the Jewish Temple -- and many other "finds."
The forgers "were trying to change history," said Shuka Dorfman, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The forgery ring has been operating for more than 20 years, Dorfman said.
Scholars said the forgers were exploiting the deep emotional need of Jews and Christians to find physical evidence to reinforce their faith. "This does not discredit the profession. It discredits unscrupulous dealers and collectors," said Eric Myers, an archaeology professor at Duke University in North Carolina.
The announcement of the indictments capped a two-year probe. The indictment listed 124 witnesses, including antiquities collectors, archaeologists, officials from Sotheby's auction house in Israel and representatives of the British Museum and the Brooklyn Museum.
Dorfman said the Israeli investigators had limited resources, and "we discovered only the tip of the iceberg. This spans the globe. It generated millions of dollars," Dorfman said.
The forgers would often use authentic but relatively mundane artifacts, such as a plain burial box, decanter or shard, and boost their value enormously by adding inscriptions, Dorfman said. Once the words were engraved, the forgers would try to recreate patina, or ancient grime, to cover the carvings, the indictment said.
The four men indicted were Tel Aviv collector Oded Golan, owner of the James ossuary and the Yoash tablet; Robert Deutsch, an inscriptions expert who teaches at Haifa University; collector Shlomo Cohen, and antiquities dealer Faiz al-Amaleh. The four are free on bail, police said.
A fifth person was indicted, but his name was not released because he is not in the country. Additional indictments were to be issued in coming days, said Shaul Naim, the chief investigator of the Jerusalem police.
Golan said in a statement Wednesday that "there is not one grain of truth in the fantastic allegations related to me," and that the investigation was aimed at "destroying collecting and trade in antiquities in Israel." Deutsch dismissed the indictment as "ridiculous."
The probe began after the Yoash tablet was offered for sale to the Israel Museum for $4.5 million two years ago. Uzi Dahari, a top official in the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a recent lecture that some of the forgeries were done by an Egyptian artisan who has worked in Israel for the past 15 years. The Egyptian went out drinking in a Tel Aviv pub from time to time and would brag about his exploits, until some of the pub's patrons alerted police, Dahari said.
Naim said many more fakes are apparently in the possession of collectors and museums worldwide.
Shimon Gibson, an Israeli archaeologist, said museums should review items of questionable origin. "Now it looks like we are going to have to go backward and double-check all our facts to make sure that what we thought was real really is," he said.
Last week, the Israel Museum said one of its most prized possessions, an ivory pomegranate scholars long believed served as the tip of a scepter for Jewish Temple priests, was also a fake.
The indictment listed the pomegranate as one of the items forged by the ring, but no charges were brought in this case because the statute of limitations expired. The pomegranate was bought by the Israel Museum in the late 1980s from an anonymous collector for $550,000.
In a statement, the Israel Museum expressed support for efforts to "end such criminal activities," adding that its investigation of the authenticity of the pomegranate was its own.
Hershel Shanks, the editor of the Washington-based Biblical Archaeology Review, said he was not sure Israeli authorities had solid proof against the suspected forgers. "Either this is going to be proven a horrific scandal or the greatest embarrassment to the Israel Antiquities Authority," Shanks said in a telephone interview.
Shanks disclosed the existence of the James ossuary in November 2002. Scholars said that if proven authentic, the ossuary would be the first physical link between Jesus and the modern world.
Dan Rahimi of the Royal Ontario Museum said it displayed the ossuary only after the Israeli government "reviewed the artifact and its provenance."
The investigation trained a spotlight on the sometimes murky antiquities trade in the Holy Land.
"It's a free-for-all market ... and there is no control over something that doesn't come from a proper excavation, photographed and documented," Dorfman said.