Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land

Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land

by Nina Burleigh

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In 2002, an ancient limestone box called the James Ossuary was trumpeted on the world's front pages as the first material evidence of the existence of Jesus Christ. Today it is exhibit number one in a forgery trial involving millions of dollars worth of high-end, Biblical era relics, some of which literally re-wrote Near Eastern history and which could lead to the

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In 2002, an ancient limestone box called the James Ossuary was trumpeted on the world's front pages as the first material evidence of the existence of Jesus Christ. Today it is exhibit number one in a forgery trial involving millions of dollars worth of high-end, Biblical era relics, some of which literally re-wrote Near Eastern history and which could lead to the incarceration of some very wealthy men and embarrass major international institutions, including the British Museum and Sotheby's.

Set in Israel, with its 30,000 archaeological digs crammed with biblical-era artifacts, and full of colorful characters—scholars, evangelicals, detectives, and millionaire collectors—Unholy Business tells the incredibly story of what the Israeli authorities have called "the fraud of the century." It takes readers into the murky world of Holy Land relic dealing, from the back alleys of Jerusalem's Old City to New York's Fifth Avenue, and reveals biblical archaeology as it is pulled apart by religious believers on one side and scientists on the other.

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Editorial Reviews

Roger Atwood
Burleigh skillfully navigates the theological dilemmas that attended the "discovery" of the ossuary and the forensic evidence that finally sank it. She leads readers through the murky world of Holy Land relic-looting, forgery and smuggling and delves deep into the mix of vanity and delusion that leads people to buy fakes.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

In November 2002, the public display of an ossuary (an ancient burial vessel) inscribed "James, the brother of Jesus," sent ripples of excitement, doubt and consternation through both the religious and scholarly worlds. But when scholars took a close look, they declared the inscription a forgery based on the lack of provenance and a tremendous disparity between the physical writing of the word "James" and the rest of the inscription. In her captivating chronicle, veteran journalist Burleigh (Mirage) enters a dark world full of shady dealings, illicit collectors and monomaniacal archeologists. Along the way we meet an improbable cast of characters, including Oded Golan, the ossuary's owner; André Lemaire, an epigraphist who early on testified to the authenticity of the ossuary's inscription; Shlomo Moussaieff, a billionaire collector with a warehouse full of artifacts of uncertain value; and Israel Finkelstein, a maverick Israeli archeologist who questions the historicity of many biblical events. Burleigh draws readers in from page one and brilliantly captures the compelling debates about archeology's relationship to narratives of faith. (Nov.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Fascinating bad guys; exotic locations; lost religious treasures too good to be true; and a cast of characters made up of scholars, religious believers, antique dealers, cops, and millionaires make this book a strange-and true-tale and a delight to read. In 2002, the James Ossuary, an ancient limestone box for bones with an inscription on it that said "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" was publicized as the first real physical evidence of Jesus Christ's existence. The plot thickened when the ossuary went on tour, creating lots of publicity, a book by advocate Hershel Shanks, and a Discovery Channel documentary. Then the ossuary's owner, Oded Golan, and his antique-dealer associates were charged with forgery. The trial of Golan and a colleague has lasted years (and has also led to the uncovering of other important forgeries). Burleigh (staff writer, People magazine) does a fabulous job of tracking down and talking to the major players in what the Israeli authorities call the "fraud of the century." Whether or not readers believe the ossuary is authentic, they will thoroughly enjoy this book. Highly recommended for public libraries and academic libraries supporting classes on archaeology.
—Melissa Aho

Kirkus Reviews
People staff writer Burleigh (Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, 2007, etc.) digs into the burgeoning trade in fraudulent religious relics, warning readers not to be too trusting. She highlights the saga of the James Ossuary, a limestone box promoted as the resting place for the bones of Jesus's brother. (Burleigh never explains why the name Ya'akov inscribed on the container is translated as James, rather than more directly as Jacob.) Amid a plenitude of Iron Age bone boxes, this particular ossuary was, according to many experts, treated to an additional modern-day inscription to link it to Jesus Christ. The author also looks at the cases of a stone tablet and an ivory pomegranate, each said to be from Solomon's Temple, that were also apparently amended recently. Her discursive, sometimes repetitive text relates conversations with stalwart detective Amir Ganor, chief of the Israeli Antiquities Authority's Theft-Prevention Unit, and with collector Oded Golan, indicted in 2004 for "creating a series of forgeries [including the James Ossuary] and scheming to sell them." Burleigh also interviewed biblical scholars, demure professors, looters and liars and many shadowy figures. She touches on museum operations and the Bible-land tour business as well as Hebrew and Aramaic orthography, paleographics, archeology and allied scriptural forensic studies. She finishes by noting that the trial of Golan and several other accused perpetrators has been underway in an Israeli court for years. The stories of those unprovenanced relics are not yet completed. A dramatic narrative, though its coverage of such a wide field makes it occasionally reductive. Agent: DeborahGrosvenor/Grosvenor Literary Agency
Wall Street Journal
“[A] lively account”
Washington Post Book World
“A bracing account...Burleigh skillfully navigates the theological dilemmas....and leads readers through the murky world of Holy Land relic-looting, forgery, and smuggling.”
Matt Beynon Rees
“A real-life Da Vinci Code told with the tension of a top thriller. Nina Burleigh uncovers the mysterious secrets, the dirty deals, and the personal hatreds at the heart of the trade in biblical antiquities.”
Christopher Hitchens
“In this brilliantly absorbing book, Nina Burleigh shows us that the sacred and the profane are not opposites but twins.”
Neil Asher Silberman
“A fascinating journey through the labyrinth of biblical forgery, fakery, and archaeological adventure. Nina Burleigh skillfully guides us through twists and turns of this bizarre tale of big money and headline-grabbing discoveries—and its colorful cast of modern collectors, clerics, scholars, detectives, and con men.”

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Unholy Business
A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land

Chapter One

The Billionaire's Table

Spring 2002

That's the stuff that dreams are made of.
—Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon

At sunset, the collector and his lucky guests can't help but notice the primal kaleidoscope in the heavens above the Mediterranean Sea. Three walls of floor-to-ceiling penthouse glass front the westward horizon, and every afternoon shades of vermilion and violet, pink and indigo streak the sky and sea. Anyone witnessing the celestial display from this vantage point feels enriched, but the old man who owns the view, Shlomo Moussaieff, is in fact one of the world's richest men.

People tell two versions of how Moussaieff made his billions, with a twist depending on whether the teller likes or dislikes the old man. The nice version is that for four decades he sold pricey jewelry to oil sheiks from a tiny shop on the ground floor of London's glittery Hilton Hotel, and also knew the prostitutes they employed. The sheiks paid the girls in jewelry because they deemed it more honorable to give their "girlfriends" presents than to pay them hard cash. After these transactions, the unsentimental ladies rode the mirrored and gilt elevators downstairs and sold the jewelry back to Moussaieff, at prices far lower than what the sheiks had paid. Then Moussaieff sold the pieces again at full value. The nastier version of the story, told by men who think the old man has crossed them, is that the jeweler sold the sheiks precious jewelry and then the escorts stole the baubles andbrought them back to the shop.

At eighty-five, Moussaieff's labyrinthine life story is made up of a thousand and one equally fantastic and unverifiable tales. As he tells it, an abusive rabbi father kicked him onto the streets of 1920s Jerusalem when he was a boy of twelve, so he slept in dank, ancient tombs on the Old City's edge with homeless Arab urchins, plucking his first Roman-era coins out of that hallowed dirt. He passed his teenage years lice ridden and deprived, sometimes sleeping rough in a synagogue where he overheard and memorized the Talmud, sometimes in an Arabic reform school memorizing the Koran, and sometimes in a Christian hospital. After fighting in Europe in World War II, he was briefly jailed by the Allies for attempting to smuggle valuable Judaica from synagogues the Nazis somehow hadn't plundered. He fought in the streets of Jerusalem's Old City during Israel's War of Independence, becoming friendly with general Moshe Dayan, another lover of antiquities. Together the men made forays into Gaza to acquire archaeological treasures. In London a few years later, he began amassing enormous wealth through intimacy with the world's richest Arab potentates. A stint in the Israeli Secret Ser-vice fits in somewhere. What is certain is that by the 1980s, he had created a colossal fortune from a jewelry business that landed him in the cosmopolitan upper echelon. One of his daughters is married to the president of Iceland.

These days, the old man spends less time making money and more time disbursing it to enlarge his vast collection of biblical antiquities. He doesn't care what people say about him, either. His only interest in life now, besides smoking and flirting, he says, is "proving the Bible true"—an odd pursuit for an avowedly unreligious man, but an offshoot of an early obsession with finding God. He believes completely in the historical reality of biblical characters, but Yahweh remains beyond his reach. The antiquities inside his Tel Aviv apartment would keep a team of museum curators busy for decades. Among them are a pair of three-foot-high iron lions from what was supposedly the Queen of Sheba's palace in Yemen, chunks of long-demolished Syrian Jewish temples on the walls, whole slabs of Assyrian cuneiform from Iraq, vitrines packed with pre-Canaanite pagan cult figurines, intact tile friezes taken from Roman baths in Israel. But these artifacts are only a small sampling of the six hundred thousand Bible-era relics he has collected over the years and that he stores in warehouses in Geneva and his London townhouse. Almost all of them, he readily admits, were removed illegally from their countries of origin.

Moussaieff's collection, quirks, and financial might are well understood among the antiquities traders in Israel. On most nights when Moussaieff is in Tel Aviv, a revolving cast of dealers and collectors drop in to sell, buy, or simply sip Diet Coke, enjoy the sunset over the sea, and watch the old man in action. His guests may also include socialites, politicians, and scholars who are attracted by the money, collection, and mystique of one of Israel's most intriguing characters. A dyslexic who can barely read, he is by turns profane and refined. He tells filthy jokes, veers between Hebrew and Arabic as the mood suits him, slyly calls men and women habibi—the Arabic word for sweetie—and will recite, eyes half-closed, bits of Holy Land arcana he has photographically memorized from the Bible and Koran. He can wax at length on the characters whose heads are commemorated on tarnished bits of Roman coins or the significance of clay figurines representing pre-Canaanite gods and goddesses.

On a balmy spring evening in 2002, an elfin fellow named Oded Golan joined a half-dozen other men at the billionaire's long rectangular table, inhaling the fumes of the great collector's chain-lit Marlboro Lights. Golan, fifty-something, short, with oddly shaped, fleshy ear tips, and a shiny brown mop of hair over an impish face reminiscent of Joel Grey in the movie Cabaret, was and still is one of Israel's biggest collectors of Bible-era relics. But his collection is tiny by comparison with Moussaieff's. Besides collecting Israeli artifacts, Golan—who came from a wealthy and accomplished Tel Aviv family and studied industrial design in college—ran an architectural tour business, speculated in real estate, and was an amateur classical pianist. His calloused, short fingers attested to the fact that he also used his hands and his design training to lovingly restore the ancient items he collected.

Unholy Business
A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land
. Copyright © by Nina Burleigh. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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