Acquittal has made forgery low-risk

By Nathan Jeffay, March 15, 2012
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Oded Golan (right) after his acquittal with his lawyer Lior Bringer

Oded Golan (right) after his acquittal with his lawyer Lior Bringer

It was meant to be the trial that put a stop to theft forgery of historic artefacts in Israel. But did the so-called forgery trial of the century backfire?

On Tuesday, a Jerusalem court acquitted Oded Golan, a collector who was accused of forging artefacts, including a casket with an inscription identifying it as containing the bones of James, brother of Jesus.

In 2002, the Jerusalem Fraud Squad raided Mr Golan's home and found what it thought were forgeries. The trial began seven years ago after the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) convened experts who concluded that the lettering on the ossuary had been added recently and a tablet with a supposedly important inscription was an outright forgery.

The IAA put on a brave face on Tuesday, claiming that even without the conviction it had hoped for, "the benefits of placing the issue on today's agenda were immense and have led to a dramatic change in the conduct of archaeological research in Israel and abroad". The trial had the effect of almost killing the market for documents and seals derived from illicit antiquities excavations, it claimed.

But when it comes to forgery as opposed to robbery, the story is not so rosy.

The court did not rule that Mr Golan's artefacts are genuine, just that it did not have the evidence required for a conviction. "For certain items, I decided that it was not proven, as required in criminal law, that they were fake," wrote the judge, Aharon Farkash. "But there is nothing in these findings which necessarily proves that the items were authentic."

He went on to state: "All that was determined was that the means, the tools and the science available at present, along with the experts who testified, was not enough to prove the alleged fraud beyond reasonable doubt."

Put in simple terms, the judge was saying that proving an artefact to be a fake in a court - even if the IAA, experts and police believe it is a forgery - is ex difficult. This had become evident in the progression of the trial, even before we learned the verdict.

Even if it is proved conclusively tomorrow that every one of Mr Golan's artefacts is genuine, the trial has exposed just how ill-equipped the Israeli courts system is for dealing with complex cases of alleged artefact fakes.

Forgery just became a low-risk profession.

    Last updated: 3:30pm, March 15 2012