Buyer Beware: Shopping for Artifacts in the Holy Land

Posted in: Antiquities Market, ASOR
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Morag M. Kersel
DePaul University

Although the recent outcome of the “Trial of the Century” did nothing to settle debate over the authenticity of the inscription on the James Ossuary, this case confirms that artifacts that are purchased on the market are entangled in webs of intrigue. We will never know the exact archaeological provenience (findspot) of this ossuary or the many other artifacts for sale in the licensed shops in Israel. Unsuspecting tourists, collectors, dealers, museums, and educational institutions all take a chance when purchasing artifacts on the Israeli market with no accompanying background information. Buyers should beware.

 The Israel Antiquities Law 5738-1978 establishes that, among other things, ownership of cultural heritage found after the benchmark date of 1978 is vested in the State of Israel. The law also enshrines the legal trade in antiquities: it is legal to buy and sell artifacts from collections (private, museums and existing shop inventories) acquired before the Antiquities Law of 1978. After that date, all newly discovered antiquities are the property of the state. The origins of this legal market can be traced back to the Ottoman occupation of the region, which encouraged the movement of artifacts from the hinterlands to the capital (Constantinople). Through the years and through various governments the trade has continued to thrive, with the support of avid collectors like former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek and Knesset member Moshe Dayan.

Those in positions of political power acted on behalf of the dealing and collecting communities to ensure that the traditional enterprise of dealing in antiquities would be allowed to continue. While supporting a trade, the Antiquities Law of 1978 was passed with the intention of putting a stop to the illegal excavation of artifacts – by allowing a legally available supply of artifacts there should be no new looting. But various legal loopholes in the law and the ongoing battle to monitor the thousands of archaeological sites and monuments results in the ongoing destruction of the archaeological landscape in order to supply the burgeoning market demand.

For the last ten years I have been examining the antiquities trade in the Middle East. This research has led me to conclude that illegally excavated and stolen material is entering the legal market at a sustained and rather alarming pace. Many of the artifacts for sale in the legal market have falsified records of ownership and archaeological findspot. Looters illegally excavate items, which enter well-organized networks of trade allowing them to be laundered along the way, and finally sold to unsuspecting tourists and collectors with a clean bill of sale in a state-sanctioned shop.

High profile cases like the James Ossuary brought the issue of illegal artifacts to the forefront of public awareness. In response to the outcry over the loss of cultural heritage, the Israel Antiquities Authority increased the number of employees in the anti-theft unit, a team tasked with oversight of the market and the protection of archaeological sites and artifacts. An additional outcome of this heightened understanding is a set of new regulations (which should take effect in late April 2012) aimed at closing some of the ambiguities in current archaeological site protection in Israel. A recent IAA press release stated that the IAA discovered that licensed antiquities dealers are using the loopholes in the 1978 law to “launder” artifacts from places like Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories, thereby introducing “new” (illegally excavated and stolen) material into the market. A cooperative effort between the IAA and the Israeli Customs and Tax Authority resulted in the requirement of proper importation documentation. No longer will licensed Israeli dealers be able to import artifacts from free ports (a port, port area or other area with relaxed jurisdiction with respect to the country of location), like Dubai, without proof that the objects were legally exported from their countries of origin.

The legislative legacies of a trade in antiquities are historically deep-rooted, but the jury is still out on how best to protect artifacts and archaeological sites that are threatened as a result of the unbridled demand for relics from the region. Interagency cooperation and regulations targeted at illegal importation are important developments in the fight against looting of archaeological sites and thefts from cultural institutions. When Oded Golan (“owner” of the James Ossuary) enquired about the archaeological findspot of the “James Ossuary” the dealer stated that it came from Silwan, a Palestinian village and now a Jerusalem neighborhood dotted with tombs from the first century CE. The “James Ossuary” was purchased on the market and we will never know the true archaeological context; without the background information of a controlled, documented excavation, the authenticity of the inscription will always be in doubt. Purchasing artifacts is a complicated business contrary to all appearances on the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City. Due diligence (asking the difficult questions about the object’s history) on the part of the buyer is crucial to ensuring that the purchase is authorized, that the item was not recently looted, and that it was legally exported from the country of origin. After years of legal wrangling one might wonder if Oded Golan is now a convert to the doctrine of caveat emptor (buyer beware).


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