Hershel Shanks: Trial Reaching Climax?

Israel Antiquities Authority vs. Conspiracy of (Alleged) Forgers

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The criminal case in a Jerusalem court against what was ballyhooed as a major ring of forgers and forgery dealers has now had its third birthday. And it is about to reach a climax of sorts.

The indictment lists 124 witnesses. So far, the prosecution has called only about 70, but has indicated that it will rest after a few more witnesses.

That will trigger a critical point in the trial. The remaining defendants will almost certainly file a motion to dismiss the indictment on the ground that the government has failed to make even a prima facie case; if the judge agrees, there would be no need for the defendants to put on their case.

The one to watch is defendant Robert Deutsch.

The 27-page indictment charges five defendants, in various combinations, with either forgery or conspiring to sell artifacts they knew to be forgeries. Among the defendants is Robert Deutsch, one of Israel’s leading antiquities dealers. Other defendants included a former chief conservator at the Israel Museum, Rafi Braun (or Brown); antiquities dealer Shlomo (“Momi”) Cohen; a Palestinian worker named Faiz El-Amlah; and antiquities collector Oded Golan.

Two defendants (Braun and Cohen) have been dismissed; the charges were simply dropped. The government induced a third defendant (El-Amlah) to plead guilty to a minor charge that had nothing to do with forgery; in exchange for leniency; he received a fine. So he, too, is out of the case.

That leaves two defendants left in the case—Robert Deutsch and Oded Golan. Deutsch may be the more interesting. A Romanian immigrant to Israel, Deutsch is a successful antiquities dealer with shops in some of the most exclusive hotels and areas of Tel Aviv. But Deutsch is—or, at least before this case, was—also a respected scholar. He has written a bundle of books on seals and inscriptions, some with highly regarded Haifa University professor Michael Heltzer and another with internationally renowned Sorbonne scholar André Lemaire. Deutsch himself taught at Haifa University—at least he did before this case. He is also an archaeologist. He served as an area supervisor in the excavation of Megiddo—before this case. In short, this case has been devastating for Deutsch. In many ways, it has destroyed his life.

According to observers of the trial, in three years the government has really produced no evidence against Deutsch. Or has it? We may soon know.

The government is said to be two or three weeks away from concluding its case. When that happens, it will be time for motions to dismiss the indictment. The government will then file its opposition to the motions to dismiss. Then we will have a better idea of the case, if any, against Deutsch. If the indictment against him is dismissed, only defendant Oded Golan will be left.

The case against Golan is different. He is charged with actually forging something—the famous ossuary, or bone box, inscribed, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” The government claims it found in his apartment forgery instruments and materials to make forgeries, as well as some partially completed forgeries. On the other hand, some very prominent paleographers, including André Lemaire and the highly regarded Israeli paleographer Ada Yardeni, are convinced that the James ossuary is authentic. No expert paleographer has testified otherwise. Normally, the testimony of Lemaire and Yardeni would come as part of the defendants’ case. But, for some strange reason, the government called them as its witnesses. Their testimony that the inscription is authentic would in itself seem sufficient to raise a “reasonable doubt” concerning the government’s allegation that the inscription is a forgery, thus requiring dismissal of the charge.

Experts who have insights into the trial or the alleged forgeries are invited to submit their comments to BAR’s website. This case has been called “the forgery trial of the century.” Why has it taken so long to try? Why is the government failing to call so many of the witnesses listed in the indictment? Are the items charged as forgeries in the indictment authentic or not? What, if anything, lies behind this case; why was it brought?

Did Horace have this case in mind two thousand years ago when he wrote: “Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus”—Mountains are in labor, a ridiculous mouse is born?—H.S.

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