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Posted: 8/8/03

Owner of James ossuary suspected
in far-reaching antiquities fraud

By Elaine Ruth Fletcher

Religion News Service

JERUSALEM (RNS)–Israeli investigators are exploring the possibility antiquities dealer Oded Golan, now in police custody, was the leader of the alleged forgery of the purported first century A.D. inscription on the famous James ossuary, which included a reference to Jesus.

The bone burial box bearing the words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” had been insured by Golan for $1 million. After previously being displayed in a museum, it was found sitting on an unused toilet seat on the roof of Golan's Tel Aviv apartment building in a police raid in late July.

The James Ossuary, having been returned to its owner, was found stored on top of a toilet, adding to suspicions that it is a forgery.

Based on evidence seized in the late-night raid, investigators now suspect Golan may have been systematically counterfeiting antiquities and selling them for a number of years. They also believe other professionals, including possibly specialists from abroad, collaborated with him in the alleged scam of the James ossuary.

A panel of Israeli experts has determined the James ossuary inscription, along with a second inscription, supposedly written by King Joash of Judah in the ninth century B.C., both were fakes.

But the circle of inquiry now appears to be widening beyond Golan, said Amir Ganor, an Israeli Antiquities Authority officer.

“We now believe that he had partners who collaborated with him, people from the world of science, academia and also professionals,” Ganor said. “We think we know who they are, but we are not willing to publish it at this point.”

While most of the inquiry was focused in Israel, personalities from other countries also had been questioned regarding the alleged scam, Ganor said. But so far, the Israeli police have not officially turned to any police agency abroad in connection with a possible international conspiracy.

The Israeli police, in their raid on Golan's apartment, discovered a rooftop storage room containing various items that appeared to be in the process of being doctored, some with so-called “ancient” inscriptions, he said.

Although police had searched Golan's apartment six months ago, the rooftop storage room was a new discovery.

“We found in this room other inscriptions and antiquities that appeared to be in various stages of being counterfeited,” Ganor said. “We also found a lot of equipment for the process.

“We are investigating suspicions that beyond the two artifacts that have received so much publicity, there was a process of counterfeiting antiquities that was going on for years,” he said. “There are witnesses and evidence that support the suspicion that this is part of something systematic that happened over many years.”

By far the most bizarre discovery in the raid, however, was the location of the famous James Ossuary–sitting in an unused bathroom adjacent to the rooftop storage room. The bathroom was locked by a simple skeleton key. The ossuary sat on a platform perched atop the toilet seat, exposed to the summer heat and humidity of Tel Aviv.

“The picture speaks for itself,” Ganor said. “If this was indeed such an important artifact, I'm sure no normal person would have put it on the roof of a building in a toilet.”

The famous bone burial box was first publicly unveiled last year at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum and displayed before tens of thousands of admirers before returning to Israel for a full examination by Israeli Antiquities Authority officials. About a month ago, after a panel of experts had concluded their examination of the artifact, it was returned to Golan.

The panel determined the ossuary itself is genuine, but the all-important inscription had been applied only recently and covered with a “patina” that was supposed to make it look aged. Following the mid-summer raid, the ossuary is once again in the custody of Israeli police and antiquities officials, where it may be used as evidence in possible criminal proceedings, Ganor said.

“This whole episode constitutes a serious blow to archaeological history, to the people of Israel and to Christians around the world,” Ganor said. “If he (Golan) had succeeded in his initiative, he would have changed the archaeological world.”

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