Friday, December 31, 2004

How It All Began: Hershel and the Pomegranate

Readers may have been wondering if I was exaggerating yesterday when I pointed the finger at Hershel Shanks as a principal, although unwitting, enabler of the trade in stolen and forged antiquities. It is worth going back 20 years or so and examining the role that Shanks and Biblical Archaeology Review played in the case of the Ivory Pomegranate.

The story begins with Andre Lemaire, who was later to regain the spotlight by being the first to publish information about the James Ossuary. Lemaire is a good scholar, but he has had one bad habit: by his own admission, he haunts the antiquities shops of Israel, always on the look-out for unpublished epigraphic material. On one such jaunt in 1979, a dealer showed him the small engraved ivory pomegranate. He determined, by himself, that the piece was not a fake, that the inscription dated from the 8th century BCE and had adorned the scepter of a priest in the Temple of Solomon. He published an article in 1981 in Revue Biblique about it, and, in 1984, he published an article describing the find in BAR. On the basis of photographs alone, Frank Moore Cross also pronounced the find authentic, calling it "priceless."

In a later issue of BAR, Shanks called on the unknown owner and the unidentified dealer to come forward with the piece:
We can only plead with the owner to identify himself—or at least to allow the Israel Museum to display the inscribed ivory pomegranate anonymously, so that the public can view this beautiful relic, which can now be seen only in BAR’s lifelike color photographs.

The Israeli Attorney General and the Director of the Department of Antiquities should also look into the situation. Is it legal for a private individual to keep to himself a priceless artifact like this, which is part of the heritage of all Israelis and of the millions of visitors who could view it in the Israel Museum? If it is legal, should it be? Perhaps the Israeli law should be changed. In any event, the Israeli authorities should be investigating
Not a word here about the possibility of a fake or an illegal excavation.

Five years later, Shanks and BAR announced that the Israel Museum had purchased the pomegranate for $550,000 from an anonymous collector in Switzerland. Shanks wrote at the time:
The pomegranate first received widespread attention in the pages of BAR. Without this coverage, the object would have commanded a far lower price. Indeed, the owner undoubtedly made the pomegranate available for BAR’s beautiful color pictures precisely for this purpose—to enhance the value of the artifact by giving it public attention and scholarly confirmation....

BAR participated in this process—at least to the extent of substantially increasing the value of the pomegranate on the illegal antiquities market—by publicizing the find. Yet the alternative was to refrain from telling the world about it. Were we right? Or were we wrong?
Shanks obviously felt he was right. Yet BAR did have the gumption to publish a scathing letter from Ricardo Elia, Director of the Office of Public Archaeology at Boston University. The letter read, in part:
... there can be little doubt that BAR contributed to the problem of illicit looting of Israel’s archaeological heritage.

By publishing an object without provenance, one that was still in a dealer’s hands, and almost certainly (if the object is genuine) the product of illegal looting, BAR played into the hands of the dealer/owner of the object by authenticating the piece, publicizing its supposed importance and thereby increasing its sale value. In effect, BAR provided free consulting services (by authenticating the object) and free advertising to the dealer/owner of this probably stolen antiquity. The result was a half-million-dollar sale, which can only encourage looters (and forgers) to step up their activities [emphasis mine--EMC].

But there is more than enough blame to go around, even if we omit the finder/looter and the dealer/owner, from whom we can expect such behavior. The author of the original article, AndrĂ© Lemaire, should consider his role in encouraging looting when he makes his habitual “rounds of the antiquities dealers,” and when he publishes objects held by dealers knowing full well that they come from an undocumented and, very likely, illegal source.

... In addition, we must honestly communicate the very real possibility that any objects of uncertain provenance may be forgeries; unless proven authentic by physical or chemical tests, let the buyer (and scholar) beware. Ultimately, we will only be able to make a dent in the illegal antiquities trade when the value of an object—to dealers, collectors and scholars alike—is inextricably linked to its provenance and archaeological context.
Had Elia's letter been taken to heart, the entire James Ossuary fiasco could have been avoided, since the same script was played out years later, even with some of the same actors. But it was not taken to heart, and BAR always continued to refer to the pomegranate as the "sole surviving relic of the Solomon's Temple." Will Shanks still do so, now that new examination suggests that it has been forged?

Oded Golan was not involved with the Pomegranate, but it is possible that the case of the Pomegranate inspired forgers and thieves to try their luck, with the prospect of free publicity from BAR and a large museum check waiting at the end of the day. It is time for this to stop.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: A. Lemaire, "Probable Head of Priestly Scepter from Solomon's Temple Surfaces in Jerusalem," Biblical Archaeology Review 10.1 (1984), pp.24-29; A. Lemaire, “Une inscription paleo-hebraique sur grenade en ivoire,” Revue Biblique 88 (1981), pp. 236–239; H. Shanks, "Was BAR an Accessory to Highway Robbery?" BAR 14.6 (November/December 1988); Elia's letter is found in BAR 15.4 (July/August 1989): "Illegally Excavated Artifacts Should Not Be Published; Lemaire, Cross and Israel Museum Share Blame for Looters." Information on the Ivory Pomegranate can be found here, with the presumption that it is genuine.

UPDATE: My inference about Golan not being involved with the pomegranate is derived from these passages in the New Yorker article by David Samuels.
The pomegranate was purchased on behalf of the museum in 1988 for more than six hundred thousand dollars, by an anonymous collector who was represented by intermediaries for Raffi Brown, an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem and a onetime colleague of Oded Golan and Robert Deutsch.

In February, when I spoke with Brown about the pomegranate, he said, "It came from a French collector, bless his soul, who left it with his brother." Brown ... added, "I saw it first fifteen years earlier, in the seventies. His brother sold it. I showed it to Andre Lemaire on his instructions. The brother sent him to me."

... The Antiquities Authority says that it does not suspect Golan of being involved in the sale of the pomegranate.
I'm not sure what the force of "colleague" is in the above quotation. Does it mean that Brown, like the other two, was an antiquities dealer in Israel, or does it imply a closer collaboration? Presumably, all the details will come out eventually.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: David Samuels, "Written in Stone," New Yorker (April 12, 2004), p. 57.

UPDATE II: A story in the New York times yesterday states that in fact, as I suggested above, Golan and his team have not been charged with forging the pomegranate:
The criminal charges filed Wednesday were the first in the case, and they came just days after the Israel Museum said an independent panel had concluded that the ivory pomegranate, which it bought in 1988 from an unknown seller by depositing half a million dollars in a Swiss bank account, was not authentic.

The pomegranate is believed to date back 3,400 years, but its inscription was added recently, the museum said. The Wednesday indictments cited the pomegranate as an example of a high-profile forgery, but did not charge any of the four suspects with counterfeiting it.


Stephen C. Carlson said...

Ed, can you clarify something for me? You say "Oded Golan was not involved with the Pomegranate" but the Haaretz article on the indictments seems to imply otherwise: "The forged treasures include an ivory pomegranate touted by scholars as the only relic from Solomon's Temple, an ossuary that reputedly held the bones of James, Jesus' brother, and a stone tablet with inscriptions on how to maintain the Jewish Temple, officials said."

Is it is a case of the newspaper being a bit sloppy and conflating different forgeries, or do the police have evidence actually linking Golan's team to the ivory pomegranate?

EMC said...

I am relying on the New Yorker article I mentioned a while back, which states, "The Antiquities Authority says that it does not suspect Golan of being involved in the sale of the pomegranate" (p. 57). I suppose that that could mean that he was involved in the forgery but not the sale, but I took it (perhaps too hastily?) to mean that he was not involved at all. The antiquities dealer who brokered the purchase of the pomegranate was named Raffi Brown.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Thanks for the clarification. I suppose we'll know better as more information is released. A lot could have changed since April 2004, and they may have uncovered new evidence. On the other hand, denials from officials always have to construed narrowly particularly when the suspect was still under investigation.

Anonymous said...

I'd be a bit more careful in citing the New Yorker
article of March 12, 2004. If you knew a bit more
about the hidden activities, you would know that the Samuels article is just more propasganda in the Shanks machine. Just note how, coincidentally, it is the nay-sayers who are trashed and misquoted. Eisenman's letter to the editor on the Samuels article (published)
may prove to be an eye opener.

Incidentally, since when is the New Yorker a reliable
scholarly source?

EMC said...

Hey Anonymous, it's the issue of March 12, not April 12. If you know a lot about the secret activities, why not tell us? And why not say who you are next time?

EMC said...

Sorry, other way around. April 12, not March 12.

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