There were extraordinary scenes at Israel’s high court on Wednesday as government prosecutors argued that the state should retain possession of an inscribed stone known as the Jehoash Tablet after a 10-year legal battle in which the same prosecutors had branded the item a fake and pursued a 7-year criminal trial against the man they accused of forging it.
The rectangular black stone – about 12 inches long, 10 inches wide and just over 3 inches thick – is inscribed with a chiselled inscription of 15 lines in ancient script similar to a famous passage from the Second Book of Kings recording repairs made by King Jehoash to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem around 800 BCE. If authentic, it is the only item yet found that may have come from Solomon’s Temple, built around the 9th century BCE and destroyed by the Babylonians 300-400 years later.
In a stunning about-turn, after losing a high-profile forgery prosecution against Oded Golan, an Israeli antiquities collector, Israel’s deputy state attorney begged the high court in Jerusalem on Wednesday to allow the Israeli government to keep the artifact on the grounds that it is “an antiquity.”
Golan said he had offered to loan it to a museum for study and public display, but he would fight the attempts by the state to confiscate it.
The Israeli government is effectively demanding that Golan be punished despite being acquitted by confiscating the Jehoash tablet.
In a scathing departure from his usually cautious comments throughout the case, Judge Farkash accepted that the return of the Jehoash Tablet should await the appeal decision by the high court, but he pointedly dismissed the prosecution argument.
“The state insisted on its view that this was not an antiquity, but a forged antiquity. Since, according to the state, it is not an antiquity, it cannot now contend that it owns the tablet according to the Antiquities Law, and therefore by law it should be returned to Golan,” Farkash wrote in a decision issued on February 12, 2013.
During an appeal hearing in the Israel High Court in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Deputy State Attorney Naomi Katz-Lulav argued that while the state still believed the inscription was fake, the stone itself was “ancient.”
“We say it’s an antiquity,” Katz-Lulav told the three-judge panel. “We want to keep it.”
The words for “ancient” and “antiquity” are the same in Hebrew: atiqa.
“Since, according to the state, it is not an antiquity, it cannot now contend that it owns the tablet according to the Antiquities Law” – Judge Aharon Farkash
The judges pointedly asked how the prosecution could reverse its earlier argument that the tablet was fake, including evidence from its own expert witness that the stone was recently inscribed and came from abroad. They also wondered how the prosecution could argue that the stone came from Israel, and so belonged to the state, when the only evidence attesting to its origins was hearsay defence evidence that the antiquities dealer who sold it to Golan told him it had been discovered in the late 1990s near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Throughout the trial, the prosecution had branded that evidence as manufactured to try and prove the authenticity of the item.
“We understand the situation differently now. It’s ours and we have the right to do whatever we want with our property,” Katz-Lulav said after the hearing “We don’t need to give a reason.”
She suggested that sometime in the future, it may be discovered to be genuine.
“It is unthinkable that such an item should be in private hands,” she told the court.
An archaeologist sitting in the public gallery during the hearing laughed out loud at the prosecution argument, pointing out that all stones are “ancient,” since they were created millions of years ago. It was only the addition of the inscription that transformed an “ancient” stone into an “antiquity” – an inscription that the prosecution continues to denounce as fake.
“The prosecution wants to have their cake and eat it,” said the archaeologist. “Their argument is complete nonsense.”
Matthew Kalman is the only reporter to cover the entire trial of Oded Golan. You can read his stories on the trial from 2002-2013 HERE