How to legally buy ancient artifacts in Israel
Tourists, collectors and even scholars have long purchased ancient artifacts for sale legally in Israel. Some of these ancient antiquities for sale, such as the James Ossuary and the ivory pomegranate, are well known to Biblical Archaeology Review readers.* Most people who legally buy ancient artifacts, however, purchase simple coins, oil lamps and clay pots, the everyday items of ancient life that, millennia later, become the treasured possessions of their new owners.
But what exactly makes it legal to sell and buy ancient artifacts in Israel?
This issue of ancient artifacts for sale in Israel made headlines recently when American John Lund, a longtime tour guide to Israel and retired university lecturer, was arrested in Israel on charges of illegally providing ancient antiquities for sale. In May, the 70-year-old Lund was arrested by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and Israeli customs officials as he attempted to leave the country with ancient coins, lamps and scores of checks totaling $20,000. The IAA claims Lund obtained the money by illegally offering ancient artifacts for sale to tourists.
According to Israeli officials, who had been monitoring Lund’s activities for several weeks prior to his arrest, Lund was caught earlier in the month selling antiquities in a Jerusalem hotel to members of his tour group who wanted to buy ancient artifacts, but was released with only a warning. When Lund continued offering ancient antiquities for sale, however, authorities decided to arrest him and seize the coins and checks they claim he had obtained illegally. In a separate operation, they seized dozens of artifacts Lund allegedly sold to members of his most recent tour group who had wanted to buy ancient artifacts while in Israel.
After paying a $7,500 bond, Lund was allowed to leave Israel, although he will have to return to face charges later this year for illegally offering ancient artifacts for sale. If convicted, Lund could face up to three years in prison in Israel for illegally offering ancient antiquities for sale.
Lund claims he was unaware the he was doing anything wrong. The checks, he says, were not from the “sale” of artifacts, but simply money paid back to him by tourists who wanted to buy ancient artifacts from antiquities dealers. And the ancient coins and lamps? He claims they were from his own private collection, which he takes on his travels to educate tourists about the world of the Bible. In any case, he says, he had no idea that permission was needed to take antiquities out of the country.
Ultimately, an Israeli court may decide if Lund is simply a naïve, uninformed tour guide or a serial antiquities trafficker out for personal gain.
But since buying ancient artifacts and providing ancient artifacts for sale are both legal in Israel, what exactly did Lund do (or not do) to get arrested? And why were his coins, as well as the artifacts he allegedly sold his tour members, seized by authorities?
The simple answer is that Lund was not registered with the IAA as an authorized antiquities dealer. In order to sell antiquities legally in Israel, according to scholar and (authorized) Tel Aviv antiquities dealer Robert Deutsch, the seller must have an official license issued by the IAA (see Deutsch’s license below). In order to obtain and keep their licenses, dealers pay an annual fee of 1,880 shekels (around $550) and provide the IAA with an up-to-date inventory of their collections. The licenses also have to be prominently displayed in the dealer’s shop.
And because Lund was not legally authorized to sell antiquities in Israel, he was also not legally authorized to provide the tourists who purchased his antiquities with another key document: an export permit (see an example below). According to Deutsch, anyone purchasing antiquities from an authorized dealer must obtain an export permit to take their new treasure out of the country.
The free, IAA-issued permits can be obtained either through the e-mailed request of the dealer or by visiting the IAA office at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. Deutsch says most permits are issued within one to three days, although permits are only issued for those objects purchased from authorized dealers. In addition, certain antiquities, like large architectural pieces, stone or clay ossuaries or anything deemed by the IAA to include an important or unique inscription, cannot be taken out of the country, even if purchased legally.
*André Lemaire, “Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2002 and Lemaire, “Probable Head of Priestly Scepter from Solomon’s Temple Surfaces in Jerusalem,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 1984.
Based on Strata, “The Do’s and Don’ts of Buying Antiquities in Israel,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2011.
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