Hundreds of biblical artefacts in museums all over the world could be fakes, it has emerged after Israeli investigators uncovered what they claim is a sophisticated forgery ring.
Four men have been charged with the faking of some of the most important biblical discoveries in recent years.
The artefacts in question include an ossuary which was believed to contain the bones of James, the brother of Jesus, and a tablet with a written inscription by a Jewish king in the ninth century before Christ.
The indictment against the men in Jerusalem says: “During the last 20 years many archaeological items were sold, or an attempt was made to sell them, in Israel and in the world, that were not actually antiques. These items, many of them of great scientific, religious, sentimental, political and economic value, were created specifically with intent to defraud.”
The forgers not only conned buyers out of of millions of dollars, said officials of the Israel Antiquities Authority, but also damaged the science of archaeology, casting doubt on the authenticity of every artefact not uncovered in an authorised dig.
Doubts about the artefacts emerged after Israeli police began to hear rumours of an Egyptian craftsman living in Israel who would boast of his part in the forgeries while drinking in Tel Aviv. Detectives launched an investigation two years ago which rapidly became a global exercise.
The indictment lists 124 witnesses, including antiquities collectors, archaeologists, officials from Sotheby’s auction house and representatives of the British Museum and the Brooklyn Museum.
The forgers were accused of using an authentic artefact and then adding an inscription. They would then add a coating to emulate the grime that accumulated over centuries.
The fakes fooled experts for years and the virtually worthless artefacts were grossly multiplied in value.
The four men indicted are a Tel Aviv collector, Oded Golan, owner of the James ossuary and the Yoash tablet; Robert Deutsch, an inscriptions expert who teaches at Haifa University; Shlomo Cohen, a collector, and Faiz al-Amaleh, an antiquities dealer.
Mr Golan said in a statement on Wednesday that “there is not one grain of truth in the fantastic allegations related to me”, and that the investigation was aimed at “destroying collecting and trade in antiquities in Israel”. Mr Deutsch dismissed the indictment as “ridiculous”.
Shuka Dorfman, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the forgery ring had been operating for more than 20 years and had been “trying to change history”. Scholars said the forgers were exploiting the deep emotional need of Jews and Christians to find physical evidence to reinforce their faith.
“This does not discredit the profession. It discredits unscrupulous dealers and collectors,” said Eric Myers, an archaeology professor at Duke University in North Carolina.
Other forgeries included an ivory pomegranate which scholars believed was the only remaining artefact from King Solomon’s Temple. The James ossuary, with the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”, was thought to be the only physical link in existence today to the life of Jesus 2000 years ago.
Shaul Naim, of the Israeli police, said: “We have reason to believe that many more forged antiquities which we haven’t uncovered yet are being held by private collectors in Israel and abroad, and in museums in Israel and abroad.”
Shimon Gibson, an Israeli archaeologist, said museums should review items of questionable origin. “Now it looks like we are going to have to go backward and double-check all our facts to make sure that what we thought was real really is.”