JERUSALEM – The Israeli police have filed criminal indictments against four antiquities collectors, accusing them of forging biblical artifacts, many so skillfully that they fooled experts. Some were even celebrated briefly as being among the most significant Christian and Jewish relics ever unearthed.
The police and the Israel Antiquities Authority said their investigation focused on several major forgeries, including a limestone burial box, or ossuary, bearing an inscription that suggested that it held the remains of Jesus’ brother James. The Antiquities Authority declared the ossuary a forgery last year.
The authorities also described as counterfeit a small ivory pomegranate and a tablet known as the Yoash stone, both bearing inscriptions referring to the First Temple in Jerusalem. The tablet had been hailed by some as the first archaeological proof of the Temple’s existence.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” Shuka Dorfman, head of the Antiquities Authority, said at a news conference. “We believe this is happening worldwide and has generated millions of dollars.”
The indictment filed on Wednesday alleges that Oded Golan, a major Israeli collector and dealer, was the leader of a forgery ring that operated for more than two decades and included at least three other men, Robert Deutsch, Shlomo Cohen and Faiz al-Amaleh.
Jonathan Pagis of the police department’s Jerusalem fraud division said he expected additional indictments to follow.
Golan firmly denied the accusations against him, saying in a statement, “There is not one grain of truth in the fantastic allegations related to me.”
The suspects produced counterfeits using a single, well-honed method, the Israeli authorities said.
First, the authorities said, the ring obtained genuine artifacts. For example, the ossuary was indeed ancient, of a kind commonly used in Jewish burial ceremonies 2,000 years ago. Then they painstakingly engraved markings on the relics that linked people or places of great significance, the authorities said, adding a coating to match the patina that would accumulate over the centuries.
The suspects presented their counterfeits to antiquities experts for authentication. It is not clear whether any of the experts knew that they were examining forgeries, the police said.
Eventually the items were circulated on the international market, accompanied by forged paperwork intended to dispel any doubts about their origins, the authorities said.
The doctored artifacts sold for tens of thousands of dollars or, sometimes, hundreds of thousands, according to the authorities.