Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Antiquities Trade: My Big Adventure

Back in the '80's, when I was a newly-minted Ph.D., I had my one and only encounter with the antiquities market. It was pretty innocent, very interesting and — to be frank — a lot of fun.

A professor that I knew offered to put me in touch with a man in Los Angeles (where I then lived) who sold ancient artifacts in his gallery and who had an interesting collection of ancient Judean weights. Since I had just finished working on an article on "Weights and Measures" for the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, I jumped at the chance to examine some actual examples of inscribed shekels, bekas, pims, nesephs, and gerahs.

The dealer, who was perfectly nice, left me alone in his office with the 12-piece collection and a jeweler's scale and other instruments so that I could weigh and measure the pieces and take notes. When I finished, he asked if I would like to write up this collection for his collectors' journal. I don't remember if I hesitated — very likely not — but I think even then I knew that I would never be able to list an article about unprovenanced artifacts seen at a dealer's shop in my curriculum vitae.

But I wanted to thank him for giving me such unfettered access to his weights, which were very interesting (and which, if memory serves, he was not putting up for sale). So I wrote it and it was published in his magazine; I never have included it in any list of my writings.

Recently, with all the hoopla about the forgeries going on, I dug the article up and re-read it. I was pleased to see that, for all my youthful enthusiasm, I had not forgotten to be critical. One entry reads:
No. 7. Weight: 6.01 g; [description follows]. The stone is clearly marked to be one shekel. However, its weight places it among the beka-class of weights, whose average weight is 6.112 g. It is possible that an original shekel was ground down to a beka after wear and abrasion had made it unsuitable for use as a shekel... On the other hand, the peculiar placement of the numeral — to the right of the shekel-sign, instead of to the left, as is normally the case — might mean this stone is inauthentic.
We probably know more about both shekels and bekas than we knew then, and maybe the placement of the numeral actually means "half a shekel." I don't know. But I'm relieved that I was aware of the possibility of forgery.

I don't remember when I learned that being involved with unprovenanced artifacts was fun but slightly disreputable, and that the information they provide is possibly tainted. It seems to be a hard lesson to learn for many people in our profession.

(I'm not going to name the dealer, whom I have no reason to suspect of any kind of illegal activity; but he might be embarrassed at being mentioned in this context on this weblog.)

BIBLIOGRAPHY: If you want to learn more about shekels, bekas, pims, nesephs, and gerahs, I unblushingly recommend my own "Weights and Measures," in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume 4 (revised edition), 1988.

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