An Israeli collector accused of antiquities fraud was acquitted Wednesday in a packed Jerusalem courtroom after a trial that lasted seven years — a stunning reversal for the prosecution and a victory for a defendant maligned as an arch-forger who falsified history for personal gain.
Oded Golan had been charged with faking biblical artifacts, including the “James ossuary” – a stone box bearing an inscription identifying it as containing the bones of James, brother of Jesus. The ossuary became an international sensation a decade ago after it was hailed by some scholars as the first physical evidence for the existence of Jesus.
Golan was also accused of forging a second famous piece, the so-called “Jehoash tablet,” with an inscription supporting the biblical narrative about the Temple in Jerusalem.
The judge, Aharon Farkash, acquitted Golan of all charges of forgery and fraud. He convicted the collector only of lesser charges of selling antiquities without a permit and possession of items suspected to be stolen. A co-defendant, antiquities dealer Robert Deutsch, was acquitted of all charges.
Reflecting the unique nature of the case against Golan, the ruling in Jerusalem’s District Court mentioned not only criminal law but 9th-century Phoenician script, isotopes, Egyptian hieroglyphics, ancient kings of Judaea, and Jesus of Nazareth.
In his decision, the judge was careful to say his acquittal of Golan did not mean the artifacts were necessarily genuine, only that the prosecution had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Golan had faked them.
The legal saga began in 2004 with Golan’s indictment and with accusations from the government’s Israel Antiquities Authority that he ran a sophisticated forgery ring that had succeeded in planting fakes in museums worldwide. The Antiquities Authority’s director said at the time that the original indictment was “the tip of the iceberg,” and police promised more suspects would be charged.
As Farkash read his ruling Wednesday, it became clear that nearly nothing of the state’s case remained.
The judge took Golan to task for giving different accounts to authorities at different times, saying he “tried to create facts that were convenient for him.” But the judge ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove Golan had faked the ossuary, the tablet, or any of the other artifacts included in the indictment.
He said police had badly bungled a forensic check of the famous ossuary and might have contaminated the Aramaic inscription, making it impossible to reach a clear conclusion about whether the words “brother of Jesus” had been forged as the prosecution alleged.
The trial stretched over more than 100 hearings and 12,000 pages of transcripts. It involved policemen, scientists, archaeologists, a photography expert and one of Golan’s ex-girlfriends, who testified that she remembered seeing the ossuary and its inscription in Golan’s parents’ house when they dated in the 1970s – testimony that, if true, meant the inscription could not be a recent forgery.
At one point there was a lengthy discussion of the amount of local rainfall in Roman times: This was relevant to determining if the chemical makeup of a film of dirt covering the ossuary’s inscription was genuine or forged.
“It is not every day,” the judge wrote in his decision, “that a court hears a case involving as many topics as this one: archaeology, history, Bible, chemistry, geology, linguistics and more. Testimony was heard on subjects never before discussed or ruled on in court.”
His ruling was 475 pages long.
“I am very happy that I was fully and completely acquitted of all of the serious charges against me,” Golan, an elfin man with a shock of dark hair, said outside the courtroom. He described himself as an honest collector persecuted by the government and described the case against him as a “balloon” created by the Israel Antiquities Authority. “This balloon just popped,” he said.
The Antiquities Authority said in a statement that it “respected” the ruling.
“The Antiquities Authority will continue to fight those who steal or forge antiquities in order to ensure that the historical truth of the three religions is preserved for future generations,” the statement said.
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