This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on March 28, 2005. Partner content is not updated.THE MAN ACCUSED of standing at the centre of the greatest forgery ring of our time, perhaps all time, doesn't appear to be holding up so well.
James Ossuary Declared a Fake
THE MAN ACCUSED of standing at the centre of the greatest forgery ring of our time, perhaps all time, doesn't appear to be holding up so well. In books and movies, criminal masterminds - the label Israeli police are freely applying to Oded Golan - are effortlessly suave, or carelessly brutal, confident in the extreme. In real life, this 54-year-old antiquities collector seems as brittle as the Bible-era vases and figurines that fill the display cases in his otherwise modest Tel Aviv apartment. On the white message board in his kitchen, a female friend has left a long list of life instructions: "Go to bed on time. Try to get 8 hours of sleep. Don't be nervous. Drive carefully, do up your seatbelt. Don't eat too much chocolate or cheese. You should smile at least 15 times a day." Everything will be fine, it concludes.
Golan, a slight man with cauliflower ears and a dark brown Mr. Spock-style toupée, doesn't seem to be taking the message to heart. The room smells of sweat - he's been at his desk all day, poring over binders filled with the evidence against him, looking for loopholes and contradictions. Now, against the fervent wishes of his latest lawyer, he's talking to yet another journalist. It's more of a dramatic performance: an elliptical, four-hour soliloquy about the perversity of the forces arrayed against him - the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the police, some of the world's top experts in archaeology and ancient inscriptions. It's only when the talk turns to the objects that surround him - the 2,500-year-old clay animals, the model of a temple from the 10th century BCE, the ossuaries - that he seems to come back down to Earth. "Almost all of us collect something - people just don't recognize it. They collect shares, or houses, or money," he says, trying to explain the compulsion. "I have seen so many interesting pieces over the past 30 years. I believe this is the most fascinating hobby in the world."
The problem for Oded Golan is the allegation that many of the pieces he handled over the past decades got a lot more noteworthy - and valuable - after he and his friends were finished embellishing them. On Oct. 21, 2002, his James ossuary, a stone box with an inscription suggesting it once contained the remains of Jesus's brother, was unveiled to the media. It became the centrepiece of a blockbuster exhibition at Toronto's ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM that ran from Nov. 15 of that year to Jan. 5, 2003. Soon after, Golan was unmasked as the man behind efforts to sell to Israel's national museum an inscribed tablet - the Jehoash stone - that appeared to offer archaeological proof of the existence of Solomon's temple. Those pieces, along with dozens of others, are cited as forgeries in the lengthy indictment delivered by Israeli authorities last December. (Also on the list, although none of the defendants are specifically tied to it, is an inscribed pomegranate carved from a hippo's tooth that was long touted as the sole authentic relic of the First Temple, and which remains part of the Israel Museum's collection.) "Oded Golan played with our beliefs," says Supt. Jonathan Pagis, head of the Jerusalem fraud squad, who led the investigation. "The beliefs of Jews and Christians. This is why it's the fraud of the century."
Authorities allege that Golan and his co-defendants - Robert Deutsch, a Tel Aviv antiquities expert and trader, Rafi Brown, the former chief conservator at the Israel Museum, and dealers Shlomo Cohen and Fayez al-Amaleh, along with some as yet unnamed conspirators - formed a loose confederacy that churned out and marketed fake or enhanced Biblical artifacts for at least the past two decades. Many ended up in the hands of wealthy collectors or prominent institutions. Police say the fraud artists made millions.
When the case goes to trial, perhaps as early as this spring, the prosecution may call as many as 124 witnesses, and enter hundreds of exhibits - seized antiquities, tools, blueprints, documents, surveillance tapes - that it claims will prove the existence of a concerted effort to change history. Last week, Golan was being held by police, charged with obstruction for attempting to interfere with his own case; authorities were seeking a court order to keep him jailed until the end of his trial. On the original charges, he and his co-accused have said they will plead innocent, and that they are victims of bad science and a witch hunt by overzealous bureaucrats who want to end the legal but highly controversial trade in the Holy Land's archaeological heritage. The debate that has raged in scholarly circles about the authenticity of the James ossuary will spill into the public spotlight. If Golan and the others were to be found guilty, it would expose some of the biggest names in archaeology as being naive, perhaps greedy, or possibly worse. Reputations will suffer. And the Royal Ontario Museum's looks to be at the head of the line.
IT WAS NOT an auspicious beginning. When workers at the loading dock unlocked the doors of the Brinks truck on the morning of Oct. 31, 2002, Dan Rahimi, then the ROM's director of collections, blanched. The priceless James ossuary, trumpeted on the world's front pages only 10 days before as the first historical evidence of the existence of Jesus Christ, was packed in a cardboard box like a discount-store toaster oven. The normal protocol for shipping an antiquity is to put it in a foam-lined wood or metal crate, placed inside yet another sturdy foam-lined crate. "I looked at it and said 'Oh, fuck!' " Rahimi recalls. "I mean, it was so bizarre."
The next day, in a special climate-controlled room, employees cut away the cardboard. Inside were several layers of bubble wrap. The large cracks that criss-crossed the previously intact stone box were visible through the plastic. The biggest went right through the Aramaic inscription, Ya'akov bar Yosef ahui d'Yeshua - "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." The ossuary was, says Rahimi, shipped in such an "extremely unprofessional" manner that "it was almost guaranteed to break."
The bad news did have a silver lining, though, bringing even more media and public attention to the extraordinary box. A ROM conservator recommended emergency repairs; Lloyd's of London, which had insured the piece for US$1 million, and Golan agreed. It was announced that the box would go on public display on Nov. 15, as previously envisioned.
The ossuary had come to public notice with dizzying speed - and limited scientific scrutiny. In late May, Golan attended a dinner party at the Tel Aviv home of Shlomo Moussaieff, reputed to be the world's biggest collector of Biblical antiquities. André Lemaire, a specialist in Semitic writing at the Sorbonne in Paris, was there. Golan asked him to come to his apartment to decipher an inscription, and a few days later, Lemaire did. Golan showed him photos of the James ossuary and other items he was keeping in a warehouse. Lemaire wanted to see the ossuary, and when he did, he declared its inscription authentic, even dating it to 63 CE, right around the time James the Just, Jesus's brother, is said to have been killed after being thrown from the roof of Jerusalem's Second Temple. Lemaire passed the news on to Hershel Shanks, founder and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, a popular history magazine based in Washington. Shanks was excited, and agreed to publish an article by Lemaire in the fall edition of his magazine as a world exclusive.
In mid-September, Shanks arranged for two researchers at the Geological Survey of Israel to authenticate the inscription. They examined the box's patina - the natural coating that builds up on objects over time. After a single day of tests, they said it was consistent with 2,000-year-old stone and didn't appear to contain any modern materials. Shanks showed photographs of the inscription to two other well-respected specialists in ancient scripts and the Aramaic language. Both gave it a provisional thumbs-up. Shanks sold the film rights to Simcha Jacobovici, an award-winning documentary filmmaker from Toronto. He struck a book deal with Harper Collins. Then, on Oct. 10, he called the Royal Ontario Museum.
"I thought he was a crank," says Ed Keall, then head of the ROM's Department of Near Eastern and Asian Civilizations and now curator emeritus. A few minutes' conversation convinced him otherwise. He sent an email to William Thorsell, the museum's director and CEO, slugged "Jesus Christ." The exhibition concept was approved within a few days. Shanks demanded a mid-November opening date to capitalize on three coinciding conferences (including a meeting of his Biblical Archaeology Society) that would bring 9,000 scholars and interested amateurs to Toronto. It took less than two weeks to hammer out the deal. Shanks was relentless, says Keall, threatening to unveil the ossuary at the Smithsonian or New York's Metropolitan Museum unless the ROM agreed to his terms. "There was something of a fire-sale element," the curator says.
The whole affair came together with unprecedented haste - most major ROM exhibits take two years to plan. But the James ossuary was a godsend for a struggling institution (the ROM's funding from the Ontario government - half of its operating budget - has been frozen since 1995, it now has 110 fewer staff than it did at the beginning of the '90s, and the last time it mounted a big, prestige-building touring show from its collections was 1983). The museum's attempts at due diligence were rapidly completed. Rahimi made some discreet inquiries to Israeli colleagues about the ossuary. No one had heard any hint of the box before it was unveiled to the press.
Museum officials asked for Golan's permission for further tests, stipulating that if they could not determine authenticity the exhibit would be cancelled. Although repairing the box was the first priority, the museum did conduct some examinations and decided the ossuary was authentic. The ROM made one other demand before agreeing to the exhibition: an export permit from the IAA. It arrived soon after. "Our assumption was that the IAA examined the ossuary," says Rahimi. It hadn't: the agency had no idea of its importance.
But even before the exhibit opened, there were suggestions that everything might not be kosher. Golan began giving interviews, and his story seemed to vary. The most consistent version had him purchasing the ossuary for a few hundred dollars from a dealer - he couldn't remember whom - in Jerusalem in the early 1970s. It sat on his parents' balcony for years, where, apart from some occasional scrubbings administered by his mother, it received little care. Although he reads Aramaic, Golan said he failed to recognize the importance of the inscription until Lemaire pointed it out some three decades later. Being Jewish, he explained, he was unacquainted with the notion that Jesus Christ had siblings.
The interviews drew the attention of the IAA. Under Israeli law, it is illegal to possess any object excavated after 1978. Suspicious of Golan's story, and perhaps stung by the fact that they had unquestioningly allowed such an important artifact to leave the country, investigators hauled the collector in for a talk. Questions about the ossuary's murky provenance began to surface in the media. The Toronto Star reported on the IAA investigation. The Globe and Mail did a story on the box's possibly dubious past, although it found someone who backed up Golan's claim that it had been in his collection for decades: Deutsch, the trader now charged along with Golan, and alleged to have been one of the key marketers of the fake artifacts.
Despite the growing doubts, the museum forged ahead with the exhibition. It was an unqualified success, with the ROM drawing some 95,000 visitors during the show's six-week run. People lingered by the stone box, which sat inside a clear case. Many soaked up the information posted on the walls - Biblical passages about James, what scientists did and didn't know about the origins of the ossuary. Some stood in silent prayer. "I'd never seen anything like that," says Keall.
"INEXCUSABLE" IS the word some critics now use to describe the decision to put the box on display. Eric Meyers, a professor of Judaic studies and archaeology at Duke University, questioned the authenticity of the inscription at one of the Toronto conferences held when the ossuary went on display. Since then, his belief that alarm bells should have been ringing has only hardened. "I think the ROM was reckless," he says. The museum displayed what was essentially an unprovenanced item, he says, and now its reputation is suffering: "You go to bed with dogs, and you wake up with fleas."
Joe Zias, a former curator of anthropology and archaeology for the IAA, is even more blunt. "What are these guys, a bunch of whores?" he says. "They saw the opportunity to make a fast buck and they did it." Zias, a Michigan-born anthropologist, spent 25 years working for the man who literally wrote the book on ossuaries, L.Y. Rahmani. He figures he's seen and handled hundreds of them. The Jewish burial boxes, which were used from about 30 BCE until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, are cheap and readily available in Israel. Zias takes me to the courtyard of my hotel to show me three that are serving as planters. Relying on geologists to authenticate one, as Shanks did, is like going to a podiatrist for a headache, he says.
In the summer of 2003, Zias bought a copy of Shanks's book and finally saw a picture of the James ossuary. It seemed familiar, and eventually he remembered seeing the box in a Jerusalem dealer's store in the mid-'90s. Back then, he recalled, the inscription simply read, "James, son of Joseph." He went to the police with his story.
Zias doesn't blame the public for falling in love with the idea that the box could be connected to Jesus. He blames Shanks, his experts, and the ROM for rushing the ossuary into the spotlight. "Nietzsche said there are two different types of people in the world, those who want to know, and those who want to believe," he says. "For those who want to believe, it's James the Just. For those who know, it's a forgery."
THERE ARE TWO large and richly coloured mosaics propped against the wall of the dining room of Shlomo Moussaieff's beachfront Tel Aviv penthouse. One is of a robed figure: the archangel Michael. Its twin features the archangel Gabriel. They are Byzantine, Moussaieff says, purchased just two weeks prior. From where? "That I cannot tell you," he says. He takes a drag from his Marlboro Light - one of the 60 cigarettes the 82-year-old smokes each day. "Let's just say it was somewhere in the Fertile Crescent."
Moussaieff likes to cultivate an air of mystery. Until very recently the owner of an eponymous and very exclusive jewellery shop in London, he is a fixture on the list of Britain's wealthiest residents. There are a lot of competing and entertaining narratives about his hardscrabble past and how he became so successful - tales of jail cells, smuggling, rich Arabs, and the Israeli secret service. Most of them he spun himself.
What is not in doubt is that Moussaieff is one of the world's elite collectors. He started trading antiquities as a 12-year-old in Jerusalem, and for seven decades they have been his one consuming passion. "My aim is to buy everything related to the Bible," he says. "I prove the Bible is genuine. That is my duty in this world." Every surface in the apartment, from the niche behind the toilet to the nook under the stairs, displays a piece of history - bronze lions, glass amphoras, marble statues. I tell Moussaieff that the place puts most museums to shame. "This is not my collection," he says. "This is for the burglars to take. If they take it, it won't break my heart." The really good stuff decorates his other homes abroad.
According to the prosecution's indictment, Moussaieff was the forgery ring's favourite pigeon - a man who was always in the market and willing to pay top dollar. Several dozen of the alleged fakes became prize parts of his collection. In 1997, the jeweller paid US$200,000 for two ostraca - shards of pottery that were used for messages, like ancient Post-it Notes. In 2002, Moussaieff paid US$165,000 for 28 bullae - small lumps of impressed clay that were affixed to official documents - and was set to fork over $1 million more for a seal attributed to King Menashe, an ancient Judean ruler, before he developed cold feet.
All told, the indictment cites US$858,000 of his purchases as frauds. In a recent newspaper interview, Moussaieff, who will be the prosecution's chief witness, estimated that he has bought US$7 million worth of antiquities from Golan and the other defendants, though he still believes most of them are genuine. "Suppose they sold me a fake, it's my fault," he says. "I have nothing against them - I should know better. Every dealer has fakes. The world is full of fakers."
When it comes to Biblical relics, the world is also very small. Among the many books that are piled on the burn-scarred dining room table is one simply titled Shlomo. It's a collection of 19 academic papers about Moussaieff's collection, written by 24 of the world's most prominent archaeologists. Deutsch, a long-time friend, pulled together the volume as a surprise for Moussaieff's 80th birthday. The pair even continue to do business. The week before our interview, the dealer sold him a coin for $80,000, Moussaieff tells me.
The IAA and Israeli police have never been shy about suggesting that relations between dealers, collectors and academics are a little too cozy, if not downright suspicious. When a newly discovered antiquity is given an unequivocal authentication, everyone involved benefits. Dealers can fetch a higher price. An owner gets bragging rights, plus the promise of a bigger tax writeoff if the item is eventually donated to a museum. The academic gets to publish, building a reputation and a case for more grants. "It so happens that certain scholars were very enthusiastic about a lot of these items," says the fraud squad's Pagis. "We see the same names over and over again."
Israel's nudge-nudge-wink-wink antiquities policies only seem to exacerbate the problem. Dealers' shops are filled with items from illegal post-1978 excavations, most purchased from poor Palestinian diggers who have taken advantage of the intifada and looted almost every archaeological site in the West Bank. "Everyone's a crook in this business," says Gil Chaya, a nephew of Moussaieff's and owner of an antiquities shop. The paperwork necessary to keep the authorities at bay can be obtained for a modest investment. "Archaeologists don't get paid that much," says Chaya. "For a few thousand shekels, you can find one who will write whatever you want." No one, it seems, has an interest in asking too many questions.
And, even though the integrity of the vast majority of experts is beyond reproach, few have the specific training to sniff out a truly sophisticated forgery. The genius of Golan's ring, say police, was how it exploited the fact that scholars tend to have very focused areas of knowledge. An epigrapher may know everything about ancient Hebrew inscriptions, but very little about the stones they are written on or their patina. A geologist, vice versa. Neither is looking at the objects as a whole. A declaration by one scientist that something seems authentic can have a spillover effect, colouring the opinions of experts in totally different disciplines.
In the case of the James ossuary, authorities charge that Golan started with a real 2,000-year-old box bearing the inscription "James, son of Joseph." They allege that, using a computer graphics program, he scanned existing inscriptions from L.Y. Rahmani's catalogue of the Israeli state collection, and reformatted and rearranged their letters to form a new phrase, "brother of Jesus." Then the words were added to the box, and a camouflaging layer of phony patina - rock ground into a paste - was baked on or otherwise applied. Police say that, among the items seized from Golan's apartment and two warehouses, were carefully labelled envelopes of earth from digs around the country, and ancient charcoal, which they allege was used to make ink for the ostraca.
Yuval Goren, a professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, was a member of the special committee that the IAA established to examine the Jehoash inscription and the James ossuary, which was seized in March 2003 (authorities say they found it on a toilet on Golan's roof, where they photographed it, but Golan says that was set up). A specialist in micro-archaeology, the optical method of studying minerals in artifacts, Goren also examined the alleged fakes from Moussaieff's collection, as well as the Israel Museum's famous pomegranate. Sitting in his basement lab, he says the fakes were stylistically well-executed. But the ostraca clearly showed that a layer of wax had been placed over the ink, he says, to prevent the writings from smearing when the new patina was applied. The bullae, newly made rather than altered, contained high levels of the type of lead that used to be added to gasoline, meaning the clay had to have been fired within the past 100 years.
The James ossuary and the Jehoash tablet had different types of patinas inside their inscriptions than on the surrounding stone. They were grey and granular and could be wiped away with a finger, entirely unlike a coating that has naturally developed over centuries. Further analysis showed the patinas in the inscriptions contained many more microfossils than the patinas on the rest of the two artifacts, or on other ossuaries (the regular patination process dissolves the traces of ancient sea life within the limestone). A study of oxygen isotopes from within the James inscription showed values that were out of keeping with the age of the box and the conditions - a dark, damp tomb - it would have been kept in for a couple of millennia.
Goren makes it sound like such a slam dunk that I wonder aloud how so many people - academics, promoters, curators - could have failed to see the ossuary's shortcomings. He asks if I've ever heard of Jerusalem syndrome, a psychosis that occasionally afflicts pilgrims to the Holy Land. "Scholars are like that, too," Goren says. "They become overwhelmed when they see a pomegranate from the First Temple or an ossuary with the name of Jesus on it. It's tempting for people to buy into it. Archaeologists dream at night of making the great discovery of their lives. It's not a secret."
ON THE PHONE from his Washington offices, the man who sold the ROM on the James ossuary is making his case. "My pitch is this: the IAA has badly bungled this investigation," Hershel Shanks says. "And they haven't demonstrated by a long shot that this is a forgery." He has prepared a thick packet of information to back up his claims, which arrives the next day by courier. It contains copies of the indictment and the official reports submitted by the IAA scientists. There are statements from two of Golan's former girlfriends saying they remember the ossuary as a long-time fixture of his collection. And there is a critique by a University of Toledo geologist of the science behind the oxygen isotope test, the IAA's smoking gun.
For true believers, the isotope test has taken on the status of the bloody glove that O.J. couldn't pull over his hand. Scientists scraped patina from seven different spots inside the ossuary's inscription. Six of the samples came back with oxygen values way outside the norm. The seventh, taken from the very last letter, was in the same range as the coating on the rest of the box, or other ossuaries. The IAA has dismissed that result as an anomaly. But Shanks and his supporters say the periodic scrubbings that Golan's elderly mother is supposed to have given the box when it sat on her balcony could have accounted for the changed oxygen isotope values. They have even tested four popular Israeli cleansing powders to see what role the abrasives could have played. "They never explore the innocent explanation," says Shanks. "They never explore the alternative."
The IAA has had difficulty concealing its disdain for such it-doesn't-fit-so-you-must-acquit theories, employing terms like "bizarre," "pathetic" and "totally crazy." Shanks doesn't seem too upset. A Harvard-trained trial lawyer, the 75-year-old became enamoured with the Holy Land during a sabbatical in Israel in the early 1970s. In 1974, he launched the Biblical Archaeology Review, writing the first issue entirely by himself, and printing it for just $600. Today, his not-for-profit Biblical Archaeology Society publishes three glossy magazines with a combined circulation of 200,000, and markets Bible-themed books, DVDs, seminars, cruises and Holy Land tours.
Over the years, Shanks has proven adept at keeping his varied endeavours in the news. When oil lamps decorated with erotic scenes (including anal sex) were discovered at a dig in Israel, he presided over a headline-grabbing debate on whether the Review should publish photos. It eventually printed tiny ones, on an easy-to-tear-out perforated page. Academics don't consider the Review a scholarly journal, but they still like to publish in it. The full-colour articles look great, and the readers - more than half are evangelical Christians - are known for donating money and free labour to Holy Land excavations. The ostraca bought by Moussaieff both received their popular debut in the magazine. So did the pomegranate, in an article written by André Lemaire.
Shanks hasn't been shy about firing back at the ossuary's more vocal critics. The package he sends me helpfully includes a scathing review of a book by Rochelle Altman, a specialist in writing systems who has frequently asserted that the inscription is full of errors and was written by two different hands. In the May/June 2004 edition of the Review, he launched a sharp attack on Meyers and Zias under the headline "Lying Scholars." He dismissed Zias's claim that he had seen the unaltered ossuary in a Jerusalem shop, quoting the dealer as saying he "had never heard" of the former curator. Next to the story, Shanks published an old photo of the man standing in the door of his shop chatting with an unidentified man. Unfortunately for Shanks, the other figure was Zias (whom Shanks has known for decades).
Throughout the ossuary debate, it is Shanks who appears to have benefited the most. His book, which had an initial run of 75,000 copies, is now out in a revised second edition. Half of the profits went to his society, Shanks says without discussing figures, with the remainder split evenly between himself and his co-author. Jacobovici - still a strong believer in the authenticity of the box - tells me he paid Shanks the equivalent of an executive producer's fee. (The documentary was aired in more than 150 countries, and Jacobovici's exclusive behind-the-scenes footage has frequently been used by news programs like Dateline NBC.) And it was Shanks's society, not Golan, which received the ROM exhibition fee.
Publicly available documents of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service show that the Biblical Archaeology Society generated just under US$5 million in revenue in 2003. Shanks, whose job is described as a weekly "20-hour" position, received $162,000 in salary, while the organization paid a further $66,000 in rent to a company he owns. The charity, which lists grants to "worthwhile projects in the field of archaeology and the Bible" as one of its principal activities, handed out just $7,109 to such projects in 2003. In 2002, when Shanks made $150,000 in salary and $67,000 in rent, it gave away $8,500. One of the biggest beneficiaries was Lemaire, who received a $1,000 "travel scholarship for James ossuary work."
Through his magazines, Shanks has been trying to whip up pressure to force the Israeli authorities to hand over the ossuary for further testing - the type of methodical scrutiny by international experts so neatly side-stepped when the box was first trumpeted to the world. Even if other items connected to Golan are proven to be fakes, he says, it doesn't mean the ossuary isn't linked to Jesus. The IAA and the police have their agendas, and dissent within the investigating committees was stifled. "I don't say that there's a conspiracy, I don't say that they're in cahoots. I'm just pointing things out," says Shanks.
He's even got a suggestion for another story that I might find more interesting. The Biblical Archaeology Society is offering to purchase the forged pomegranate from the Israel Museum for US$550,000. If successful, Shanks plans to put it on display. After all, there are still a lot of people out there who believe it's real.
THERE'S A white construction hat atop the reproduction Roman bust that sits on William Thorsell's desk. Along with the many drawings of the ROM's $200-million expansion that line the walls, it's a clear sign that under this CEO's watch the grand dame of Canadian museums is more concerned with the future than the past. It's been over a year and a half since Israeli authorities publicly denounced the James ossuary as a fake. The ROM's official position hasn't changed: it's not so sure, and in any case, it doesn't believe it has anything to apologize for. "I want to put the muse back in museum," says Thorsell, a former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail. "We should be doing more of that, bringing things forward that are under debate." As he points out, the museum did host a well-attended and hotly contested forum on the ossuary when the show opened. And the text that accompanied the exhibition noted that questions remained about its authenticity. Following the bad publicity generated by a Rodin show in 2001 - many of the casts were said to have been made long after the sculptor's death - the museum has been extra cautious in such matters.
Looking back, however, it's easy to see where such disclaimers might have been lost on the paying public. The most prominent words in the full-page newspaper ads that ran that Christmas season were "brother of Jesus." In slightly smaller letters was the question: "Is this the first archaeological link to the existence of Jesus?" Only in the fine print were people invited to "explore the fascinating theories" surrounding the box that "some scholars believe" may be linked to Christ. The ROM's current website still has a section devoted to the ossuary. It says "There is evidence to support that the James ossuary is authentic." The website acknowledges that the IAA has declared it a fraud, but expresses doubts until the ROM can analyze the full report. Nowhere is there mention of fraud charges in Israel.
Golan's trial, and what might emerge from it, could end up being a problem for the ROM. Both the Israeli police and the IAA have alleged that the museum made "millions" on the exhibition, even after paying Shanks a six-figure fee that included a percentage of every ticket sold. ROM officials call such speculation "total rubbish." Shanks was paid US$25,000 up front, plus another $3,000 when the show was extended for an extra week, says Rahimi, who is now overseeing the development of the museum's new galleries. There was no commission, nor did the museum pay any of the incidental costs. Keall says that after the show closed, there was an internal estimate that it had made a $270,000 profit - a huge success by ROM standards, since exhibitions usually need corporate sponsorship just to break even. But the museum now downplays that figure.
Potentially more damaging are allegations that museum staff harboured deep suspicions about the inscription, but the ossuary was put on display anyway. Uzi Dahari, the deputy director of the IAA, recounts an August 2003 meeting he had with the ROM's Rahimi in Jerusalem. He says Rahimi told him that a conservator working on the damaged box came to museum officials with his concern that the "brother of Jesus" portion of the inscription appeared fresher, and clearly cut through the existing patina. Rahimi, Dahari says, approached Shanks with the concerns. Shanks called Golan. "Golan told them that before shipping it to Toronto, he asked his mother to clean the inscription, and that was good enough for them," says Dahari. "They wanted to make money."
Thorsell says no such concerns were ever brought to his attention. Rahimi acknowledges that there were worries, but says the IAA is leaving out one crucial detail - he and other curators examined the inscription under the microscope and found what they believed to be traces of patina deep inside the grooves. "We all wholeheartedly believed it was real," he says - it seemed consistent with Golan's story that his mother had used a nail to scrape away the dirt from the priceless discovery. "There was a lot of pressure, but I don't think it changed our opinion." Keall tells a similar story, and remains among the shrinking minority who believes the box is authentic. "I'm ready to accept the idea that I was duped by a brilliant forger," he says. "But I haven't been given unequivocal scientific evidence that it's a fake."
Rahimi is no longer quite so sure. "I have no doubts that the box itself is an ancient ossuary," he notes carefully. Would he display it now? The answer is no.
ODED GOLAN complains bitterly about a "Kafkaesque" ordeal that has included 30 interrogations and three police raids, though he is resisting a tendency to compare his suffering to Christ's. ("I had no idea that I would have to undergo my own via dolorosa," he told a Michigan audience this past spring.) The charges in the indictment are crazy, he says. "Look at the pieces they are alleging. The only common thing is that there is nothing in common."
He's right. Unless, like the authorities, you believe that the glue that bonded everything together was money. The ossuary was offered up for sale to the International Christian Embassy, an evangelical organization in Jerusalem, for US$2 million. (Golan says an acquaintance made the sales pitch without his knowledge.) The Tel Aviv private detective that Golan hired to approach the Israel Museum with the Jehoash tablet made inquiries on his behalf about the possibility of exchanging the artifact for a famous painting, perhaps a Van Gogh. One of the other artifacts in the indictment, a quartz bowl with a hieroglyph inscription that appeared to answer a question that had long plagued scholars - who destroyed the city of Megiddo? - was allegedly offered for sale to several museums around the world. And Israeli investigators say they have been contacted by a number of other institutions that are worried about items in their collections.
Still, for all the other charges, the item Golan spends most of his time talking about is the James ossuary. "It changed my life, not for the better," he says. If someone wanted to fake such an inscription, wouldn't they make it more explicit, he asks, perhaps have it say "James the Just," or "brother of Jesus Christ"? He mentions the testimony his former girlfriends are willing to give, and says there's an old photograph of him and the ossuary that will come out at the trial.
What he's most excited about, however, is a fax that has just arrived from a religious studies professor in France. The scholar writes that two decades ago, his brother-in-law, a former French diplomat in Israel, told him about an ossuary inscribed "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," that was in the possession of a Tel Aviv collector. Golan's eyes are shining. He breaks away at one point to take a call from Shanks and fill him in on the latest development.
It's not until I'm well down the highway back to Jerusalem that the tumblers click into place. If Golan never recognized the significance of the inscription until just a few years ago, how would anyone else come to know that he owned such a box? And wouldn't a scholar be interested in following up such a story? Later on, I look up the professor on the Internet. He teaches at the Sorbonne, and once wrote a book with André Lemaire.
Maclean's March 28, 2005