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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061980909
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/06/2009
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Nina Burleigh is the author of four books. She is a noted journalist whose articles have appeared in Time, the Washington Post, New York magazine, Elle, and many other publications. She lives in New York City.

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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.

What People are Saying About This

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.”

Christopher Hitchens

“In this brilliantly absorbing book, Nina Burleigh shows us that the sacred and the profane are not opposites but twins.”

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.”

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Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Johnrguthrie More than 1 year ago
Quite possibly the James Ossuary had a bigger audience that first day at the Toronto Museum than Jesus himself on his triumphal return to Jerusalem for that long ago pass over. Ossuaries, stone boxes, were used to contain the bones of the Hebrew dead from about 30 C.E. to 70 C.E. Corpses were allowed a year in a cave or sepulcher to allow soft tissues to decay, then the bones placed in an ossuary for economy of storage space. This ossuary was touted as being that of Jesus' brother, James. The inscription on the side of the box reads, in Aramaic, "Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua" ("James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"). If genuine, it would have been the only material relic from the time of Jesus that mentions him. (References to Jesus by Flavius Josephus, for instance, are known to be forgeries, written by Christian redactors around 400 A.D.) Carved of limestone, the James Ossuary arrived at the Canadian Museum on October 31 2002. It was packed "like a discount toaster oven." (131). Wrapped in bubble wrap and placed in a cardboard box, it was, not surprisingly, badly broken. It was also insured with Lloyds of London for a million dollars, leading Canadian authorities to suspect insurance fraud on the part of shipper, antiquities dealer Oded Golan, now on trial for antiquities fraud in Israel. Emergency repairs were made, and the stone box went on display. The ossuary was on display from November 15, 2002 to January 5, 2003. "On the first day, ten thousand people filed past, some in silent prayer" (132). Yet even before the display began, experts knowledgeable in the field were denouncing the ossuary as a fraud. To take one example, Epigrapher Rochelle Altman published a devastating critique, stating the first half of the inscription was in a different hand than of the last half and that "of" in "brother of" (Jesus) was in a form not used until the 9th century CE (132). Altman was not alone in her critique. Israeli Antiquities Authorities called it "the fraud of the century." It was one among many fakes passed off as archaeological finds with biblical ties. Whether one love or hates "Unholy Business" often seems to depend on their belief system. But like what she says or not, there's no denying she says it well, telling a complex story with numerous multi-faceted characters in an understandable and interesting way. She proves to be that rara avis among journalists who purchases the intellectual chops, the willingness and the independence to pursue a story to its logical conclusion. Nina Burleigh has traveled to the Middle East many times during her writing career. She has written for the Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune, and Time. Previous books include: The Stranger and the Statesman, A Very Private Woman and Mirage. She resides in New York City and is an adjunct professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
dk_phoenix on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I knew archaeological forgeries were a huge industry and an enormous problem. I think, after reading this book, I understand a little better the scope of things. It's not just people in a back room putting these things together, but well-connected business men who can afford the best workers and the best DEFENSE to cover up what they're doing! Burleigh's book focuses particularly on the James Ossuary and several inscriptions (I think the Jehoash inscription?) that were "found" around the same time, and she even managed to somehow catch a glimpse of what appeared to be a forgery manufacturing studio. Yikes. The key element under discussion here - whether even the author realized it or not - is the issue of unprovenanced artifacts. Should they be studied and placed on display, or is it too risky? Do these items simply encourage illegal trade, site raiding, and forgeries? Some say yes, some say no. It's a tricky situation. Either way, the book was entertaining and certainly informative. Worth the time if this is an area of interest to you.
keywestnan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Unholy Business has a great tale at its heart ¿ the tale of a forgery on an epic scale. The 2002 unveiling of an ossuary (basically a small stone casket) with the inscription ¿James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus¿ caused a sensation in the field of Biblical archaeology ¿ and an even bigger sensation in the religious community that follows the field closely. For them, it was a physical, tangible evidence of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.Except it wasn¿t. As eventually emerged, the ossuary was a fake ¿ a real ossuary (they¿re so common in Jerusalem, they¿re commonly used as garden planters, as Burleigh informs us several times), but with a faked inscription to link it to Biblical characters.The tale, however, probably isn¿t enough to sustain an entire book ¿ and the trial of the alleged forger was still ongoing at the book¿s close, so there isn¿t much by way of resolution.Burleigh makes up for this by providing a vivid background portrait of the sketchy world of Middle Eastern antiquities ¿ the collectors, dealers, scholars and, yes, forgers, who devote themselves to the largely lost world that emerges in small pieces from the ground. This ground, as everyone knows, is very much contested, most especially in Jerusalem, which is holy ground for three major religions.This is fascinating stuff; unfortunately it sometimes gets confusing to figure out which or whose trail we are supposed to be following, and why. If the book has a hero it¿s Amir Ganor, a detective in charge of the Israel Antiquities Authority Theft-Prevention Unit ¿ but he spends most of the book working on cases other than the James Ossuary, and the discovery of a bunch of forgery tools and altered objects in the suspect¿s property feels anticlimactic. If it¿s got a villain, I guess it¿s that suspect though one never gets a great feel for him, what exactly he did and most importantly, why.Burleigh¿s a good writer with a nice touch; she¿s working with very sensitive subject matter and she manages to make her subjects appear as human beings without coming off as patronizing or as a scold. That¿s important in an area where so many invest so much faith in the history that is revealed through ancient relics.
hermit on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While you think an archeologist or a religious historian should have written this book, it wasn't. Burleigh who is a reporter wrote it. And the book reads like a compilation of her notes. The author also seemed too be trying to write two different types of books at the same time. She would have done herself a favor by breaking out the two separate subjects, performed more research and written two. The books should have been broken into one on the theft and selling of minor antiquities in Israel and the Palestinian areas, which is a thriving business. The street vendors sell them, but you will not know if you are buying a genuine artifact, which is quite possible, or a replica that is almost prefect down to ever detail. And the second book, the reason most people I am sure will buy it, covers the three recently exposed forgeries of the James Ossuary, the Jehoash Tablet, and an ornamental pomegranate thought to come from that same temple. In each case, the forgery technique was the same. Legitimate but unimportant artifacts from the proper era had inscriptions added that made them historically significant and those inscriptions were then altered to look ancient. These subjects are covered in the last part of the book. If you are truly interested in the subject of these artifacts, this is not the book for you. But if you are a tourist or plan to be one, and think you will be able to buy an artifact as a souvenir you should read this book; for she has filled this book on tour of ancient artifacts and their black-market fraud. The book at first glance has a good layout and the title does tell you what is covered. Though I must admit I think she is honest in her writing for she lets us readers know what she has no background what so ever in religion. Yet she has taken it upon her self to assume too understand the complex dynamics that make up a city rich in history, culture and turmoil as Jerusalem. She is woefully ignorant on the subject she is writing about and contradicts known proven findings archeology with generalized statements. Her writing leads me to the conclusion that she has decided that religion is basically superstition. And all that she is riding is based on the basic fundamental belief. Another reviewer stated very accurately what here on Amazon my exact feelings on this book; "My initial annoyance and disappointment with "Unholy Business" was ultimately tempered when I realized that I was not reading a scholarly work on archaeology, history, linguistics or even criminal forensics, but a kind of breezy and highly personalized travelogue." It does not take long to reach this realization and it was a great disappointment to me. For this is a subject and area I am very interested in. I think the two quotes at the front of her book summarize her feelings on this subject. The first is that we as civilization, civilized people deceive those who are to be deceived in order to make a living. And the other is that there are two kinds of people, "those who want to know and those who want to believe." One good thing, the book is a fast read.
ForeignCircus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Though Unholy Business has the potential to be a riveting read, it falls far short with its disjointed approach to storytelling. The author bounces back and forth through time and introduces a dizzying array of similarly named characters in the process. In the beginning, I found myself flipping back to previous chapters just to track the chain of events and people involved. The complicated story of this massive fraud often seemed to take a back seat to the author's opinion of the reasons behind the fraud which made for a much less compelling narrative. I was disappointed that this book focused so much on personalities rather than on the facts of the case. I also thought the ending was abrupt and unsatisfying. A more scholarly approach to this interesting case would have made for a much more satisfying read.
jmeisen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"Unholy Business" deals with some fascinating material, and the author explains clearly the intricacies of the Biblical artifact business. Unfortunately, the organization of the book leaves something to be desired: rather than settling on two or three viewpoints through which to tell her story, the author jumps from person to person, leading not only to some confusion, but to the lack of a compelling narrative. Also, by choosing to write her book while the trial which is its climax is still unfinished, the author has left the book itself feeling unresolved. While "Unholy Business" is worth reading, the definitive popular book on the matter of the James ossuary and the related forgeries has yet to be written.
darlingtrk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you've read Brother of Jesus, this is a good book to follow up with: balance to provide perspective on a hot Judeo Christian topic. Christians are distressingly gullible sometimes, so when we are presented with something that looks convincing we fall headlong into deception. And that is not to say that the James Ossuary is a forgery, though Burleigh, for all her "journalistic objectivity" certainly convinced me that she believes it is. Unholy Business is a call to caution and, through a back door, faith. If our faith can be bolstered by things, it can also be shaken by them. There is nothing wrong with allowing our understanding to be enlightened by objects of associative value, but to give them power over our belief is a major mistake. Burleigh tells how the contraversy over Golan's artifacts became religious battles over religious territory and face saving nightmares.I love the cautionary quote given by one archaeologist. The science of archeaology has a soft underbelly of subjectivity, and there is no ultimate scientific proof that an object is or is not authentic. In an age where scientific proof and legal proof are already finding their mutual footing, Burleigh brings two other kinds of proof into the mix, investigative, journalistic proof and spiritual truth. It is safe to say that none of the purveyors of these various faces of truth are without prejudice or agenda. Yet, as represented here, their convergence is less satisfying than each has the capacity to be on its own. I feel safe in saying that there is hope in this kind of interdisciplinary investigation, but only when they are actually pursued in an effort of inquiry rather than defensiveness. Each representative has a tree to plant and is in search of fertilizer. Our goal can be, in the spirit of Stephen Hawkins, to find the unifying theme, the One truth that all can go to for validation. It is only as we shy away from our security blankets that we can reach for security in Him.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My interest in biblical archaeology was not well served by this rambling, anecdotal discourse. The subject of frauds and fakes in the world of middle eastern archaeology, especially Israel, certainly deserves a book, but this is not it. The author's personal lack of religion seems to lead her to conclude that all religious artifacts are necessarily fraudulent, and that the city of Jerusalem, for example, is rife with the fool's gold of religious zealots. Worse still, she doesn't even seem to grasp what religion is. (I was amused by her saying that Jesus was crucified at Calgary instead of Calvary.) Nevertheless, the book does give one some idea of the brisk trade in counterfeit antiquities that exists in Israel and elsewhere, and how profitable it can be. But overall, it wasn't worth the time or the money.