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One Man's Forgery is Another Man's Antiquity

If a group of suspect objects were sold to one collector who was buying primarily from one man, we have more information. Yet, some of the most successful peddlers of fakes have been first-rank dealers who exploited their reputation of handling the finest merchandise.

By L. Alexander Wolfe
November 2005

I deal in antiquities in Jerusalem, specializing in Semitic inscriptions and stamp seals; presently, I am completing the publication of a private collection of Iron Age glyptics from the late 9th to the early 6th centuries BCE. In addition, I am writing a book on controversies and forgeries in biblical archaeology, and that is what concerns us here.

I am often asked to air an opinion on a purported antiquity, mainly an inscribed object. Since the object in question is usually an inscribed seal or bulla, I shall detail the criteria employed specifically for these objects.

  1. Palaeographic/epigraphic nuances
  2. Linguistics
  3. Orthography
  4. Iconography
  5. Material
  6. Shape
  7. Techniques of manufacture
  8. Perforation (if it exists)
  9. Provenance.
  10. Statistical data
  11. Impression on back (in the case of bullae)
  12. Objective scientific testing.

First, I look at the seal to gain a familiarity with it and then examine each aspect closely. Sometimes one single factor can rule out the possibility of the seal being genuine. For example, if the stone comes from the New World or Australia, then the piece is fake.

  1. I compare the letter forms with those appearing on monumental inscriptions (the Joash inscription excepted) on provenanced seals and on unprovenanced seals that came onto the market before 1967.
  2. If the name or language employed does not make sense linguistically, then we have a problem.
  3. Wrong spelling by itself is not a sufficient indication if all the other factors are compatible; it could be miscopying by a literate engraver or the mistake of an illiterate engraver.
  4. If the iconography employed on a seal is from a far-removed culture, then there are grounds for suspicion. On the other hand, an 8th-century seal with Urartian motifs and an ancient Hebrew inscription, WSS 173, is genuine and demonstrates the high mobility of seals. More disturbing are seals with anachronistic iconography such as the seal of Ma`adana, daughter of the king, WSS 30, which is now agreed to be false.
  5. The material should be compatible with the known body of material. As I mentioned above, a stone from the New World certainly taints the seal.
  6. Most stamp seals are scaraboids. There are a small number of tabloids and prisms. In addition, many stamp seals hailing from the East are octagonal conoids. A shape not conforming to the shapes obtained in the family of seals to which the seal being inspected belongs is a red light.
  7. The fingerprints left by the manner of manufacture are telling. The letters on the two bullae of "Berkyahu son of Neriyahu the scribe," who purports to be the secretary of Jeremiah, are thinner than those on any provenanced bullae. The only other bullae with such thin unsubstantial letters are WSS 413, 535, 584, 615, and possibly WSS 495 and 496, which are too weak to enable one to make a sound judgment. Interestingly enough, all of them came to the market at around the same time.
  8. Most stamp seals are perforated lengthwise, many are unperforated, and very small minorities are perforated breadthwise. A cause for concern could be a bore hole with an unusually large diameter.
  9. The best provenance is a controlled excavation. The worst provenances are dealers who are associated with, at best, controversial objects. All other provenanced material falls somewhere between depending on the material itself and depending upon the reputation of the dealer and the provenance he can furnish. Provenance has a number of facets: where the object was found; in which collection it reposed and for how long; the dealer’s hands through which it passed; and also to whom it was sold. To elaborate on the last facet, if a group of suspect objects were sold to one collector who was buying primarily from one man, we have more information. Yet, some of the most successful peddlers of fakes have been first-rank dealers who exploited their reputation of handling the finest merchandise. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, "The only thing they could not resist is temptation." The provenance of the bulla of Birkiyahu WSS 417 is cloudy as is the provenance of all those bullae related to it and listed in section 7. Furthermore, they all reached the market at around the same time, close to the year 1975.
  10. When a group of unprovenanced inscriptions reaches the market within a short space of time and they share characteristics which were hitherto unknown, then there is certainly a cause for concern.
  11. There are many different types of bullae: for sealing documents, doors, windows, storage vessels, and fiscal bullae. The bullae which concern us here are inscribed bullae, most of which were used to seal documents. In turn, most bullae used to seal documents are inscribed. A papyrus document was sealed with string, a small nodule of clay was applied on to the string, and it was subsequently sealed with a stamp. Therefore, the back of the bulla shows a canal where it was pressed over the string and the crisscross of the papyri fibers. The backs of the bullae of Berkyahu WSS 417 and WSS 413, 584, 615 do not correspond with the backs of provenanced bullae or those known from before 1967.
  12. Objective scientific testing can supply us with answers as to the authenticity of an object, often much more quickly than the process of academic discussion and argumentation. Two of the problems involved here are as follows:

    1. How does one interpret the results?
    2. If we know that we can rely on scientific testing, then perhaps there is a danger that we shall weaken our reliance on discussion and argumentation with the consequent blunting of our ability to deal with the evidence. Scientific evidence should not be allowed to become a crutch.

When one of the criteria listed above is incorrect, that might be pure happenstance. When a number do not feel right, then there is cause for alarm.

Before we engage in the main course, I would like to give a brief survey of controversies and forgeries in biblical archaeology. The crusades witnessed a frenzy of peddling relics and objects related to both the Old and New Testaments. There was a vast industry making bronze reliquary crosses in, among other places, Asia Minor and Bulgaria. These reliquary crosses might contain the alleged bone of a saint or a piece of the true cross. A veritable forest would have had to be felled to supply the wood for all these cruciform reliquaries. In order to fully appreciate the extent of this medieval craze for relics, one should pay a visit to the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul and be regaled by the swords of the companions of Mohammed, a hair from the beard of Mohammed, the arm of John the Baptist, the sword of King David, the turban of Joseph, and the cooking pot of Abraham. Strangely enough, the swords and the turban of Joseph look very Ottoman. What is a minor anachronism in the face of both deep religious fervor and deep financial fervor?

Such skullduggery was perpetrated on the crest of the wave of Messianism that swept Europe from before the end of the first millennium. Furthermore, there were certain economic interests that recognized the almost inexhaustible potential in this wave. These economic interests represented the hawkers, hucksters, and peddlers whose descendents, both biological and ideological, are to be found in every Middle Eastern market.

Getting to the bottom of the Shapira affair is essential in understanding the phenomenon of faking biblical antiquities. Comprehending Shapira starts with understanding Jerusalem at the end of the 19th century. When the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, the European powers began to realize the strategic importance of the Holy Land. The Sick Man of Europe (the Ottoman Empire) had one foot in the grave. Therefore, many of the European powers created a foothold in Jerusalem to forward their interests and grab a piece of the action when the Turkish presence finally evaporated. At the same time, many of them had institutions promoting the study of archaeology, primarily biblical archaeology.

Within a half kilometer radius of the 5th-century Armenian mosaic on the corner of Prophets’ St. outside the Damascus gate, there is an unparalleled kaleidoscope of architectural styles. Archaeological research was a respected field of scientific endeavor. Archaeologists from all over Europe and America were competing with each other to find and publish sensational discoveries. This constituted a fertile hunting ground for someone of Shapira’s criminal bent. Since the Mesha stele, a monumental Moabite inscription, had been discovered in 1868, the motley international set hanging out in Jerusalem was well primed to react positively to a new material culture, the Moabite culture. Without an intuitive understanding of human psychology, a fledgling antiquity dealer is doomed to mediocrity. Shapira was far from mediocre, and he well understood how to pitch one national museum against another. The outcome was that the Berlin Museum bought between 1400 and 1700 objets d’art from this new culture, "new culture" being the operative words here. Furthermore, a suburb of Berlin was named "Moabitica."

Three lessons to be learned from the Shapira affair are as follows:

  1. Archaeological or biblical fever makes fertile hunting grounds for the forger, as did the Messianic fever of the Middle Ages. The common denominator here is a receptive emotional state.
  2. Competition among potential buyers makes the conman’s work much easier.
  3. A sensational new discovery acts as a catalyst for an already receptive audience.

Far be it from me to slight the dignity of those involved in one of the world’s oldest professions, forgery, but I am unaware of any large scale operation that took place until the late 1960 s after the Six Day War. Like the Middle Ages and like the end of the 19th century, the Land of Israel, the Holy Land, was witness to a certain Messianic fervor after 1967. Israeli military control of the West Bank with the resultant open borders meant that a steady stream of antiquities flowed from there into the Israeli antiquities’ market which was centered in Jerusalem. Whereas in economic textbooks one is taught that price is in indirect proportion to supply, the lesson to be learned from the antiquity market is that very often price is in direct proportion to supply. The rationale is that large quantities of merchandise reaching the market stimulate interest, which in turn pushes up prices. This "Klondike" atmosphere is often exploited by certain individuals. When there is a vast supply and the market is burning with enthusiasm, it is much easier to slip in fakes and other dubious pieces. For example, often, when one buys a large quantity of coins, a number of forgeries are interpolated into the group. The crooked vendor assumes that one will not check every coin meticulously. By the same token, when the market is saturated with many goods, all of them vouched for by serious dealers and collectors, then one’s defenses are down, and one often takes it for granted that there is no need to pedantically examine every object. This was indeed the situation after 1967.

On page twelve of the foreword to WSS, Prof. Yosef Naveh figures forty-nine seals and bullae are suspect. Furthermore, Prof. Benny Sass in OBO 125, very eloquently and with no little tongue-in-cheek, casts aspersions on several of the same seals. Let us try to understand why two top scholars should entertain such suspicions. We shall focus on a number of the seals and bullae mentioned by Prof. Naveh and Prof. Sass, applying the criteria enumerated above. We shall explain why we believe the seals or bullae to be fake, and at the same time, we shall act as the devil’s advocate by showing examples that, prima facie, confound our reasoning.

Palaeographically, the "bet" on the bulla of Baruch, the secretary of Jeremiah,

WSS 417, has no parallels, neither in monumental inscriptions, nor on provenanced seals, nor on seals that came to the market before 1967. It is, however, closely related to the "bet" on a number of suspect seals that appear in Prof. Naveh’s foreword to WSS. It is also closely related to the "bet" on bullae WSS 413, 495, 535, 615.

The engraving technique employed on this group of bullae has resulted in letters that are unquestionably thinner than those on provenanced bullae or bullae that appeared in the market before 1967.

Vis-à-vis provenance, Prof Avigad’s card index gives no indication of who brought him these bullae. Statistically, it is an almost impossibility that letters exhibiting a different engraving technique or, conversely, the fruits of a very different engraving tool would appear on the marketplace in one very short period. Granted, we are dealing here with a case of argumentum ex silentio. The backs of the aforementioned bullae are once again strikingly different from provenanced bullae or bullae that appeared on the marketplace before 1967. Benny Sass gives a good summing up of the group in WSS pp. 175-6.

The seal of Ma’adanah, daughter of the king, exhibits characteristics useful to the fledgling epigrapher. Palaeographically, it could almost pass as genuine today. The "heh" is particularly well executed. The other letters are simply convincing, with the exception of one, our old friend, the "lame bet." The leg of the bet does not have the sharpness expected of a genuine letter. Furthermore, the head of the bet is too rounded and somewhat disproportionate. Iconographically, it is impossible. Batya Bayer, a musicologist, said that such a lyre did not exist in the First Temple period. When she succumbed to cancer, Prof. Joachim Braun took up the baton. There are signs of abrasion on the seal which are not natural. I do not recollect seeing such abrasion on the hundreds of hard stone seals, both epigraphic and anepigraphic, that I have examined. I presume it was an attempt of the forger to give age to the seal. Like all the other objects discussed here, the seal of Ma’adana appears as an orphan in the late Prof. Avigad’s card index. There is no mention of the fellow who brought it in.

As we mentioned above, when the museum in Berlin acquired a monopoly of objects from the "newly discovered" Moabite culture, there was such great excitement that a suburb of Berlin was named Moabitica. Polybius and Toynbee would have chuckled to learn that soon after the seal of Ma’adana, daughter of the king, came on the market, a half sheqel coin was struck depicting the lying lyre that appears on it. History invariably repeats itself.

The inscribed ivory pomegranate is a veritable conundrum for the simple fellow who merely wants to know the truth. The history of the pomegranate from a certain point in time is well documented in a number of publications. Before that time, its history is a black hole. Prof. Andre Lemaire first published it and was the first epigraphist to see it with a Jerusalem antiquities’ dealer; to the best of my knowledge, he has never mentioned the shop where he first saw the object. The tourist-guide-turned-art-broker who consummated the deal is quoted as saying he was not allowed to say who the owner is. Therefore, from the get-go the provenance is shaky.

Palaeographically, the letter "mem" is quite different from any other "mem" from this period. However, one can attribute such an aberration to a caprice of the engraver. The "bet" belongs to that class of bets which I dealt with above and stands out like a sore thumb. The "heh" lacks the fluidity of the practiced hands seen on the inscribed bone and ivory seals in WSS. That Prof. Lemaire should have said in his 1984 BAR article that palaeographically it was very close to the Siloam inscription is strange.

Linguistic and orthographic aspects are beyond me but have been dealt with by the many scholars who commented on the object. None of them, not even Aharon Kempinski, condemned the object on either of these two grounds.

The glyptic workshop with the most prolific output in 8th-century-BCE Judah specialized in bone and ivory seals. It would be fair to assume that the technique employed on the seals would be identical or very close to that on the pomegranate. I examined the pomegranate last week in the Israel Museum. The cross section of the letters on the pomegranate bears no relation to that on the letters engraved on the bone and ivory seals.

When an unprovenanced "lame bet" comes to the market after 1967, then there are serious grounds for suspicion. Once again statistics rule out the likelihood of the object being authentic. The results of the test carried out on the pomegranate by Prof. Yuval Goren and his team relegate it to the league of fakes (IEJ vol. 53).

We believe that the above objects were made in the same workshop by a single individual. Every person has his own particular way of doing something, which leaves fingerprints. The fingerprints in this case include the "lame bet," the incompatible reverses of the bullae, which by the way appear on all the bullae published in Qedem 4 (Hebrew University Jerusalem 1976), and an iconography which Benny Sass has variously called the "tasteful group," or the "nouveaux riches group."

Caveat emptor.



BAR - Biblical Archaeology Review

IEJ - Israel Exploration Journal

OBO - Orbis Biblicum Orientalis

WSS - Avigad, N. and Sass, B. Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals, Jerusalem, 1997.