Mideast Antiques Roadshow
Upheaval in Egypt and Libya has led to widespread looting—and the plunder is being sold on the Israeli market
Tourists purchasing objects receive a license to export the goods, which are then replaced by dealers with newly looted items. Smaller, more rare, or exceptional items are often smuggled out of the country and resold in the vastly larger markets of Geneva and London, usually after a cooling-off period. Diplomats also transport materials in and out of the country without inspection.
It is a system filled with contradictions and legal fictions that has worked to everyone’s relative advantage for decades. Palestinians and Israelis make money; Israel exports a nonrenewable commodity and markets itself as an open, capitalist society, rich in heritage. The best objects are purchased by collectors or by the state for its museums. It is an economic and political equation. The great losers are the archaeological sites themselves, which are ruined, and archaeologists, who are bereft at the destruction of data.
There has always been a connection between antiquities and power, including in Israel. The collection of Moshe Dayan, the former chief of staff of the IDF, was an especially notorious example. Dayan’s home outside of Tel Aviv was a veritable museum filled with pieces he had illegally excavated from sites all over Israel, Sinai, and Gaza, often with the help of the Israeli army, as well as those he had obtained from Cyprus, Jordan, and Iraq. Dayan also sold, traded, and gifted antiquities, including to the Louvre.
A study by Israeli archaeologist Raz Kletter showed that from the early 1950s onward Israeli archaeological officials repeatedly caught Dayan in the act. Demands that he stop were rejected on the spot, and pleas from antiquities officials to prime ministers and the courts produced nothing. They were essentially powerless against this national hero, general, member of the Knesset, and defense minister. The final indignity, and source of public controversy, was that his collection had to be purchased by the Israel Museum from his widow after his death in 1981.
During Dayan’s life, his looting was of interest mostly to archaeologists and left-wing journalists who hated his politics. But it wasn’t just Dayan. The late Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek was also a noted collector, and the Bible Lands Museum was built to house the collection of antiquities dealer Elie Borowski after the Israel Museum declined, largely on ethical grounds, to give it a home.
In recent years, less visible connections between antiquities and the powers of wealth and religious belief have also been on display in the Holy Land. A Tel Aviv court recently concluded a monumental case against Oded Golan, an engineer and antiquities collector and the alleged forger of some of the most spectacular objects of recent years, including a stone ossuary, or bone box, bearing the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
Unveiled with great fanfare in 2002 by the Discovery Channel and the Biblical Archaeology Society (which produces the popular magazine Biblical Archaeology Review) the James ossuary was instantly touted as evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was real. But as soon as the ossuary went on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2003, scholars began to question whether the words “brother of Jesus” had been added to an existing inscription, or whether all the words had been carved into a real but uninscribed ossuary.
Clumsy police work had contaminated the crime scene, as had Golan’s handing of the artifacts. Most scientific investigations of the objects indicated that the inscriptions were forgeries, but others produced tantalizing evidence that they were real. Golan himself claimed he acquired the artifacts years before from Arab dealers in Jerusalem and had forged nothing.
In the end, after eight years, the Tel Aviv court convicted Golan of illegal dealing in antiquities but acquitted him of having forged the artifacts, while at the same time carefully stating that their authenticity had neither been proven nor disproven. The decision was an embarrassment for the Israel Antiquities Authority and for the prosecution. But the objects themselves remain tainted and are hidden from display by the Antiquities Authority.
The Israel Antiquities Authority claims that increased publicity from the affair has helped reduce looting. The marketplace for biblically significant artifacts has also been partially exposed and wealthy collectors put on alert that they may have spent millions on fakes.
Would a legal state-owned market in antiquities help? Critics point to overflowing storehouses of essentially identical pots from hundreds of excavations that are unlikely ever to be examined by scholars and ask: Why not sell some? Most archaeologists, like David Ilan, now director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, remain opposed, believing that such a market would “legitimize the private, underground trade.” Ilan suggests that “antiquities departments can and should continue to enforce existing laws and to bring culprits to court, but there should be large budgets to publicize the nature of plunder, trade, and collection and to defame these activities, at home and abroad.” By some estimates, more than 100,000 artifacts are sold every year in Israel. At that rate, the storehouses would be emptied quickly.
In contrast, New York art lawyer William Pearlstein argues that “permitting a legal private market in redundant objects is superior to a system of blanket national ownership.” Even DePaul’s Prof. Kersel, a leading specialist in looting, has asked whether antiquities dealers are merely exercising their right to free enterprise as guaranteed under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The fact is that appreciation of the past as an independent entity, worthy of being protected to some extent from uncontrolled landscape development and unfettered markets, is very much a value for people who can afford it. Nation-states and archaeologists have been mostly unsuccessful at inculcating this value, which is not shared by poor people or religious ideologues—or even by a vast swath of people who simply want to make money by exploiting resources, even nonrenewable ones. Whether a government-managed antiquities market or further crackdowns on looting would change this is unknown.
For now, the seized coffin lids sit in a climate-controlled room awaiting repatriation to Egypt, where they face an uncertain fate, especially with Islamists poised to take full control. But the problems they symbolize are only becoming more acute across the region.
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