Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Abdi Seal: Another Forgery?

In view of the fact that the indictment of the suspected forgers lists officials at Sotheby's, the London auction house, as witnesses, it is natural to ask whether an unprovenanced seal sold by Sotheby's is suspected of being a forgery.

It was first published by Andre Lemaire (there's a caveat right there) in Biblical Archaeology Review (another caveat). But let Lemaire tell the story:
The name of the northern kingdom of Israel’s last king has turned up on a beautiful seal from the eighth century B.C.E.! Although the seal did not belong to the king himself, it was the property of one of his high-ranking ministers....

The seal surfaced at a Sotheby’s auction in New York City at the end of 1993. Neither Sotheby’s nor the owner of the seal apparently knew what they had. The title of the catalogue—“Antiquities and Islamic Works of Art”—gave no hint that one of the items was a rare Hebrew seal. Although the catalogue correctly dated the seal to the ninth-seventh centuries B.C.E., it misidentified the seal as Phoenician and estimated its value at between $1,200 and $1,800. An excellent picture of the seal was enough, however, to alert one member of the small community who follow these things; when the hammer fell on December 14, 1993, the seal fetched $80,000. Even at this price, most experts agree, the purchase was a steal. The winning bidder—and now owner of the seal—was Shlomo Moussaieff, an Israeli collector living in London, who has made it available to me for study and publication.
The inscription on the seal reads לעבדי עבד הושׁע, "(Belonging) to Abdi servant of Hoshea." Lemaire took the "Hoshea" of the seal as the name of the last king of Israel (the Northern Kingdom), as, perhaps, he was intended to. This seal has entered the lore of apologetics as one more proof of biblical accuracy, as in this site (which has an illustration) and a dozen others. And in fact, for all I know, this seal might indeed be authentic, though unprovenanced. But the circumstances of its becoming known are similar to the cases of the suspected forgeries.

It would be good to have a list of exactly what antiquities are under suspicion. But even when such a list is made public, I hope scholars never again treat unprovenanced material, even in the absence of indications of forgery, as evidence on a par with artifacts discovered in situ.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Lemaire, "Royal Signature: Name of Israel's Last King Surfaces in a Private Collection," BAR 21:6 (Nov./Dec.), 1995.


Yuval Goren said...
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Yuval Goren said...

Obviously, there will be many stales to wash now. Museums will need to re-examine the unprovenanced items from their collections. The indictments made in Israel expose only the tip of the iceberg.

Anonymous said...

If you look at the pictures of the IAA News conference closely you will see a photo of this seal on the table with its gold setting. It matches the cover of Robert Deutsch's book on the Mouseiff collection of seals