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Monday, 27 December 2004

Temple antiquity a fake, Israeli experts say

December 27, 2004

Special to The Globe and Mail

JERUSALEM -- The Israel Museum has discovered that the most important item in its priceless collection of biblical antiquities is a fake.

An ivory pomegranate originally thought to have adorned a sceptre carried by the high priest in Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem is to be withdrawn from public exhibition.

The withdrawal of the pomegranate, which was on display during an exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization last year, is the latest in a series of embarrassing scandals which have rocked the quiet but high-spending world of antiquities collectors. Other suspected high-profile fakes include the burial box of Jesus's brother first displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2002, and a series of ancient seals bought by private collectors in New York, Paris and London.

The pomegranate was the only original artifact ever discovered from Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, built around 800 BC. It was the most important piece in the museum's priceless collection of antiquities.

Experts fear that the astounding discovery is just the tip of an international industry of archeological forgeries which has defrauded leading museums and collectors of millions of dollars.

Several dealers who allegedly forged the relics are expected to be indicted on criminal charges this week by Israeli police.

The thumb-sized pomegranate, only 44 millimetres high, is inscribed with ancient Hebrew letters said to spell out the words "Sacred donation for the priests in the House of Jehovah." It was purchased 15 years ago by a private philanthropist for $550,000 (U.S.) and donated to the museum after it was verified by experts.

There is a small hole in the base of the pomegranate, which had led scholars to suggest that it was the tip of a sceptre used by the high priest during Temple services.

The item was first discovered in July, 1979, by French paleographer Andre Lemaire, who said an antiquities dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem showed him the tiny ornament over a cup of tea. Lemaire said he photographed it and published his findings two years later in the respected Revue Biblique journal. In 1984, Lemaire published his findings in English, triggering worldwide interest.

Soon after, it was smuggled out of Israel and put on display in a Paris Museum. The purchase of the item was shrouded in mystery and conducted through a series of shadowy middlemen. The museum and the donor never knew the identity of the owner. They were instructed to pay the money into a numbered Swiss bank account and then directed to a safety deposit box containing the pomegranate.

But recently doubts have been raised about its authenticity. A panel of Israel Museum experts have now concluded that the inscription is a modern forgery.

The ivory was found to be several hundred years older than the First Temple.

The lettering, said by Lemaire to match an inscription from a Jerusalem tunnel built during the First Temple period and now in the Istanbul Archeological Museum, was shown to be markedly different. One expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the letters on the pomegranate bore a striking resemblance to inscriptions on a well-known series of ancient seals sold to a private collector a decade ago, and which have also been exposed as fakes.

Israeli police are nearing the end of a two-year-long investigation into a sophisticated forgery ring which has fooled experts and scientists for decades.

In a raid last year on the home of Oded Golan, a prominent antiquities dealer and collector in Tel Aviv, police found chemicals, soil samples and tools which they believe were used to fake a string of artifacts sold to museums and private collectors for millions of dollars.

Police are expected to charge the man with faking the ossuary with the inscription "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus." The limestone burial box had been touted as the oldest physical link between the modern world and Jesus -- and displayed at the ROM. But after it was returned to Israel, experts said that while the ossuary was indeed 2,000 years old, parts of the inscription were added later.

Golan has denied any wrongdoing.