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Thursday, 1 August 2013

Jehoash Tablet no longer a forgery? Israel wants to keep it

An Israel Antiquities Authority official with the Jehoash Tablet at the Israeli High Court on Wednesday. The tablet was broken in two along an existing crack while in the safekeeping of the IAA (Copyright Photo: Matthew Kalman)



JERUSALEM, August 1 - In a stunning about-turn, after losing a 10-year legal effort to prove that an Israeli antiquities collector faked an inscription from Solomon’s Temple, Israel’s deputy state attorney begged the high court in Jerusalem on Wednesday to allow the Israeli government to keep the artifact on the grounds that it is “an antiquity.”

Oded Golan, the Israeli antiquities collector who was acquitted of forging the Jehoash Tablet after a seven-year criminal trial, said he had offered to loan it to a museum for study and public display, but he would fight the attempts by the state to confiscate it.

The rectangular black stone Jehoash tablet - about 12 inches long, 10 inches wide and just over 3 inches thick - is inscribed with a chiselled inscription of 15 lines in ancient script similar to a famous passage from the Second Book of Kings recording repairs made by King Jehoash to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem around 800 BCE. If authentic, it is the only item yet found that may have come from Solomon's Temple, built around the 9th century BCE and destroyed by the Babylonians 300-400 years later.

Golan was acquitted of all forgery charges in March 2012, nine years after he was first arrested on suspicion of forging the inscription. He was also acquitted of forging the words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” on a stone burial box, and dozens of other items including seal impressions linked to biblical figures, inked inscriptions on pottery sherds and a richly-decorated ancient stone lamp.

“Since, according to the state, it is not an antiquity, it cannot now contend that it owns the tablet”

The Jehoash Tablet has never been displayed in public – except in the Jerusalem District Court of Judge Aharon Farkash. It was seized by Israeli police in 2003 together with hundreds of other items, including the James ossuary, in a series of raids on Golan’s home, office and warehouses.

Following Golan’s arrest, a panel of experts appointed by the Israel Antiquities Authority declared the Jehoash Tablet and the James ossuary fakes. Golan and four others were indicted in December 2004 on multiple counts of forgery and accused of being members of an international antiquities forgery ring. None of the charges held up in court.

A year after Golan’s acquittal, Judge Farkash ordered the prosecution to return the Jehoash Tablet, the James ossuary and the other items to Golan.

But after arguing for a decade that the Jehoash Tablet was a fake, the prosecution has suddenly decided it is an antiquity, and therefore the property of the state under the 1978 Israel Antiquities Law.

Israeli prosecutors have reversed a decade-long criminal pursuit of the Jehoash Tablet forgers and now say it is an antiquity that should be in the possession of the state (Copyright Photo: Matthew Kalman)
The stunning about-turn – from branding the tablet a fake and pursuing a decade-long witchhunt for its forger, to deciding that it was a valuable antiquity that must only be under control of the Israeli state – has become the central plank of the government appeal now before Israel’s high court.

The Israeli government is effectively demanding that Golan be punished despite being acquitted by confiscating the Jehoash tablet.

In a scathing departure from his usually cautious comments throughout the case, Judge Farkash accepted that the return of the Jehoash Tablet should await the appeal decision by the high court, but he pointedly dismissed the prosecution argument.

“The state insisted on its view that this was not an antiquity, but a forged antiquity. Since, according to the state, it is not an antiquity, it cannot now contend that it owns the tablet according to the Antiquities Law, and therefore by law it should be returned to Golan,” Farkash wrote in a decision issued on February 12, 2013.

During an appeal hearing in the Israel High Court in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Deputy State Attorney Naomi Katz-Lulav argued that while the state still believed the inscription was fake, the stone itself was “ancient.”

“We say it’s an antiquity,” Katz-Lulav told the three-judge panel. “We want to keep it.”

The words for “ancient” and “antiquity” are the same in Hebrew: atiqa.

“We understand the situation differently now. It’s ours and we have the right to do whatever we want with our property”

The judges pointedly asked how the prosecution could reverse its earlier argument that the tablet was fake, including evidence from its own expert witness that the stone was recently inscribed and came from abroad. They also wondered how the prosecution could argue that the stone came from Israel, and so belonged to the state, when the only evidence attesting to its origins was hearsay defence evidence that the antiquities dealer who sold it to Golan told him it had been discovered in the late 1990s near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Throughout the trial, the prosecution had branded that evidence as manufactured to try and prove the authenticity of the item.

“We understand the situation differently now. It’s ours and we have the right to do whatever we want with our property,” Katz-Lulav said after the hearing “We don’t need to give a reason.”

She suggested that sometime in the future, it may be discovered to be genuine.

“It is unthinkable that such an item should be in private hands,” she told the court.

An archaeologist sitting in the public gallery during the hearing laughed out loud at the prosecution argument, pointing out that all stones are “ancient,” since they were created millions of years ago. It was only the addition of the inscription that transformed an “ancient” stone into an “antiquity” – an inscription that the prosecution continues to denounce as fake. 

“The prosecution wants to have their cake and eat it,” said the archaeologist. “Their argument is complete nonsense.”

But the judges were apparently smitten with the tablet and asked for it to be produced in court so they could handle it themselves. The tablet was once offered for sale to the Israel Museum for four million dollars. It was broken in two while in the custody of the Israel Antiquities Authority and was brought to court in a plain wooden box, protected by plastic wrap.

“Today we felt a piece of history, we held it in our hands,” said Justice Yoram Danziger, chairman of the panel, clearly moved after holding the only item known that may have adorned the temple. “Clearly, the Jehoash Tablet must be considered in a separate category to all the other items.”

After adjourning to chambers to discuss the issue, the judges returned and, defying the logic set out in Judge Farkash’s decision, suggested a compromise whereby the state would keep the Jehoash Tablet and negotiate returning more than 250 other items seized from Golan.

“Their position is ridiculous and the suggested compromise is completely unacceptable,” Golan told this reporter after Wednesday’s court hearing. “I should just give it to the state after they put me through this for the past ten years? Why? I already told them I was willing to loan it to a museum and submit it for testing.”

“Now, after they failed to destroy me, they expect me just to give them the very item they said I faked. The offer suggested by the court will not happen. I will negotiate with the prosecution and try to offer some other possibilities and hopefully the high court will accept it,” he said.