Buyer Beware: Shopping for Artifacts in the Holy Land

Posted in: Antiquities Market, ASOR
Tags: Antiquities market & looting
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Morag M. Kersel
DePaul University

Although the recent outcome of the “Trial of the Century” did nothing to settle debate over the authenticity of the inscription on the James Ossuary, this case confirms that artifacts that are purchased on the market are entangled in webs of intrigue. We will never know the exact archaeological provenience (findspot) of this ossuary or the many other artifacts for sale in the licensed shops in Israel. Unsuspecting tourists, collectors, dealers, museums, and educational institutions all take a chance when purchasing artifacts on the Israeli market with no accompanying background information. Buyers should beware.


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14 Comments for : Buyer Beware: Shopping for Artifacts in the Holy Land
    • Jim
    • April 5, 2012

    Nicely observed. And very true.

    • G.M. Grena
    • April 5, 2012

    I'm disappointed that Dr. Kersel's article didn't mention anything specific about the inscribed bowl in the top photo, or the mysterious folded piece of paper in front of it, or why buyers should beware. I don't see any correlation between the article's title & its content.

    Dr. Kersel claimed to have been examining the antiquities trade for a decade, & yet gave no reference to any documentation of her research. How did she learn, for example, "that illegally excavated and stolen material is entering the legal market at a sustained and rather alarming pace"? Where's the data? If she personally observed "illegally excavated and stolen material" entering Israel, does she have any record of reporting it to the IAA, or was she strictly working undercover?

    On what basis can she claim that "[m]any of the artifacts for sale in the legal market have falsified records of ownership and archaeological findspot"? She provided no photos of these alleged falsifications, & no references where they can be objectively examined.

    This article does a "rather alarming" disservice to ASOR's historical reputation for well-researched reports.

    • kcooney
    • April 6, 2012

    Thank you for the comment G.M. Grena. The nature of a blog post is such that they do not always contain refrences. We are trying to apeal to enthusisasts as well as lay people with our posts. Because of this we are not enforcing stingent academic requiremnts. In fact we are encourageing our posters to write in language that appeals to the general public. Please do not consider all blog posts here to be academic papers.

    • Christopher Rollston
    • April 6, 2012

    I should also like to mention (in addition to Kevin Cooney's very helpful comment) that Dr. Kersel has published very widely on this subject in academic venues. Thus, a simple google search will net a fair number of references to her formal academic publications on the subject, with all of the standard academic documentation for the points she makes in the post.

    All best wishes,

    Christopher Rollston

    • G.M. Grena
    • April 6, 2012

    On Dr. Rollston's recommendation, a cursory search of the Internet revealed a couple of significant web pages. I'm going to be critical of her in this area, but first & foremost I want to say that her academic credentials are impressive, & I admire her archeological accomplishments. I like anyone who studies ancient pots (her DePaul page specifically mentions Early Bronze Age ones)!

    On the Palestinian American Research Center's site (, I see that she received a grant in 2003 to study illicit trade & looting.

    An article on ("submitted by owenjarus on Tue, 02/16/2010") states that she conducted interviews "with anyone involved in antiquities who would agree to talk to her, including dealers, collectors, residents engaged in looting, government officials and archaeologists. These interviewees are guaranteed anonymity so that they can speak freely about the situation… Even the transcripts cannot be publicly released and must be destroyed after a few years. Dr. Kersel admits that she cannot be certain that every person told the truth, every time."

    Dr. Rollston, is hearsay "standard academic documentation"? Now I know why there are no references in her article!

    With all due respect to PARC's freedom to grant funds as they see fit, sorry, but I don't perceive the value in that type of research. When antiquities are looted (removed from their original locus without following a formal scientific process), scholars cry foul. Ironically, Kersel's methodology is the journalistic equivalent (opinions with no trail to their source), & resembles a pot (Early Bronze Age or not) calling the kettle black.

    This weekend I'm planning to draft a formal response to Dr. Kersel's opinion-piece, which is all her article amounts to. I suppose ASOR scholars will enjoy wondering if I'm telling the truth.

    • Christopher Rollston
    • April 7, 2012

    I'm sorry to see the continued tenor of your posts, GM Grena. (1) The fact of the matter is that Kersel's post is a very good, academic blog post, and the tenor of her post is also laudable. (2) Moreover, in terms of additional academic publications on this subject, I suggest you read (for example) the following volume: _Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade_ (Cultural Heritage Studies) by Neil Brodie, Morag Kersel, Christina Luke and Katheryn Walker Tubb (Nov 15, 2008). (3) Furthermore, in terms of her original post, you will note that Kersel refers to the most relevant things, e.g., the 1978 Israeli Law regarding the sale of antiquities and the recent IAA document which elucidates some of the problems, namely, the the circumvention of the 1978 law. Finally, it should be emphasized that there is an "investigative research" component to Dr. Kersel's work and so she needed to main certain confidences….and this is, of course, standard practice for this sort of investigative research. The veracity of her statements about the marker are certainly not in doubt. In short, she has done due diligence in all regards.


    Christopher Rollston

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    • Morag Kersel
    • April 9, 2012

    I apologize for not posting a response sooner - I was away for the weekend. I have just a couple of points of clarification. As an anthropological archaeologist I do not do undercover work - my methodology and research have all been vetted and approved by the ethics review boards of the various institution with which I have been associated. I never misrepresent myself as anyone other than Morag Kersel PhD student or now Morag Kersel Archaeologist and Assistant Professor. Ethnographies, oral histories or interviews are accepted practice in anthropology, criminology, history and a host of other disciplines. There are no hearsay elements to my research. The original purpose of my research was not to stop the trade in antiquities but to discover if there was a correlation between looting and the trade in the attempt to figure out why looting occurs and how we can stop the destruction of the archaeological record. I would be happy to send a copy of any of my articles for further background on my methods and results.

    With best wishes,


    • G.M. Grena
    • April 17, 2012


    As a scholar, Dr. Kersel's words carry a tone of authority, & deserve respect; however, while researching other academic subjects in recent years, I've learned to excavate details to discover the relevant facts on my own. Armed with reliable information, I can stand confidently on claims I make about most social issues. I am particularly bitter over the way that Robert Deutsch was treated in the so-called forgery trial, of which he was fully acquitted, yet his reputation was damaged by charges that were never backed up with substantive evidence-simply hearsay & speculations.

    Aware of my concerns, Dr. Kersel kindly forwarded four of her articles to me last week, which I studied this past Sabbath. The vast majority of her content properly references the works of others as expected; however, I focused primarily on the two claims mentioned above (in my initial April 5th comment), & found her work to be precisely what I suspected: speculations & hearsay.

    Herewith, I will share with ASOR Blog readers some pertinent quotations from each of Dr. Kersel's articles (in 4 subsequent comments so the referenced works will be clear), which she sent to me in order to defend her position. I understand that she struggled with certain ethical aspects of her subject; however, I believe responsible scholars should be held accountable for unsubstantiated claims.

    • G.M. Grena
    • April 17, 2012


    SOURCE: "From the Ground to the Buyer: A Market Analysis of the Illegal Trade in Antiquities" (2006, in "Archaeology, Cultural Heritage and the Antiquities Trade" edited by Brodie, Kersel, Luke, & Tubb).

    "I … provide concrete data illustrating the pathway of an artifact…" (p. 188).

    Here's an example of what Dr. Kersel perceives as a "concrete … pathway":

    "Mohammed, a Palestinian shoe-shine operator; an Israeli dealer from West Jerusalem; an archaeologist/amateur collector; and a tourist. All participants agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity, and I have therefore changed their names" (endnote #9).

    "Mohammed buys the coins from the village women for a set price and then sells them to licensed dealers for at least ten times what he paid for them. (No one interviewed would divulge the price paid for the coins.)" (p. 197 & endnote #13).

    So let's do some "concrete" math the way Dr. Kersel does: An undivulged selling price divided by an undivulged purchase price equals "at least ten"?

    Notice that she uses fictitiously named people to bolster her own claims, but earlier she utilized ambiguity to criticize her opponent:

    "Often there is an attempt to provide provenance in these locations by the use of well-known and thoroughly suspect euphemisms, such as 'from the collection of a Swiss gentleman' or 'a collection in Hong Kong' (Adler and Polk 2002)" (p. 193).

    Next, notice how she indicts legitimate, law-abiding dealers:

    "[B]y not asking uncomfortable questions about where a piece originated and how it ended up on the market, legitimate dealers are acting in collusion with the illegitimate aspects of the market" (p. 193).

    Remember this "acting in collusion" charge, as I will reference it in Part 4 of 5.

    • G.M. Grena
    • April 17, 2012


    SOURCE: "Transcending Borders: Objects on the Move" (2007, Journal of the World Archaeological Congress)

    "Even before the current unrest in the region, which precludes many Palestinians from employment opportunities in Israel…" (p. 87).

    As a curious side-note, I wonder why we don't hear about Israelis lamenting over being precluded from employment opportunities in the West Bank?

    "In interviews with archaeologists and dealers I corroborated that the Bedouin are still involved with the movement across borders and the looting… Many of the dealers I interviewed… One dealer admitted that in the past…" (p. 90).

    She said archaeologists and dealers said … but I say it's hearsay.

    "[L]ooting is often the desperate act of people attempting to feed their families and eke out a living under harsh economic conditions" (p. 91).

    Is this concern objective? Would it be appropriate for a scholar to show equal humanitarian concern for the personal welfare of law-abiding buyers & sellers of antiquities? Are economic conditions any harsher nowadays than they were in the 1940s & 1950s when Jews fought wars to defend their homeland & establish productive communities, technological industries, & educational institutions?

    "In repeated interviews I was told that one of the motivating factors for looting was a resistance to the Israeli occupation and subjugation of the Palestinian people" (p. 92).

    Hearsay-based propaganda. This could've been stated objectively as Palestinians perceiving Israelis to be occupiers & subjugators.

    "During my year [of field research] … newly displayed archaeological material appeared regularly in the windows of the various licensed antiquities shops throughout Israel, register numbers were routinely exchanged, and illegally excavated material left the country" (p. 94).

    Researchers usually publish data so it can be evaluated independently & utilized with confidence. Where has she documented the actual quantities for calculating the percentage of legal/illegal objects in various shops, & exactly how did she confirm they were illegal? She spent an entire year engaged in this research, but didn't have time to report even one single unlawful antiquity shop, nor one single abused register number?

    "In order to preserve anonymity and confidentiality no individuals were explicitly named, but I greatly appreciate their faith in my research" (p. 95).

    • G.M. Grena
    • April 17, 2012


    SOURCE: "Walking a Fine Line: Obtaining Sensitive Information Using a Valid Methodology" (2010, in "Heritage Studies: Methods and Approaches" edited by Sorensen & Carman)

    "Through trial and error during interviews with looters…" (p. 178).

    "I approached fifteen alleged looters and none agreed to be interviewed for this research" (pp. 187-8).

    On the one hand, she writes extensively about looters, but then admits that she never interviewed any of them. Whether she witnessed the looting & didn't report it, or if she didn't witness the looting & pre-judged innocent-till-proven-guilty-in-court people as looters, or if she relied on hearsay from other people who misidentified the looters, in any case her actions in this situation give the appearance of being unethical.

    "Of the ninety-four people interviewed only two agreed to be 'on the record' and only one agreed to be taped. One can only sympathise with the reluctance of participants, who were being asked for potentially incriminating information. The question then became how does the researcher reciprocate? … I made purchases of tourist trinkets (bracelets or fridge magnets) as a gesture of goodwill" (p. 188).

    "Another intriguing ethical and moral dilemma encountered as a result of this enquiry was whether researchers should be engaged with clients whose policies or actions might not conform to professional ethical standards or personal standards of morality and law" (p. 192).

    (Recall now her "acting in collusion" charge from my Part-2-of-5 comment.)

    "…I was offered genuine material by an unauthorized dealer. Immediately the [IAA] employee asked for the name and location of the shop owner, which I declined to provide, noting that to do so might compromise further interviews. … Bound by my membership in the American Anthropological Association, I am obligated to consider the effects of this research on the study population" (p. 193).

    "If I had provided the name of the unlicensed dealer it is probable that word of this incident would have spread in the dealing community and no one would then have agreed to meet me. As a result, my research (and the discipline) would have suffered" (endnote #13).

    So basically she would have no argument against any collector or institution acquiring antiquities since the end (research) justifies the means (not reporting looting or illegal dealing). Even if confronted with evidence that the acquisition was looted, or that the dealer's license was invalid, the collector or institution's curator can simply claim that the acquisition is being used for research, and if the looter or dealer had been reported to authorities, the "research would have suffered."

    In this next example, she cites an archeologist who conducted a field experiment:

    "'We left some pots in situ … the next morning they were gone. Some time later these same pots (or ones very similar, I'm not sure) were in the shop window of a very reputable dealer.' (Archaeologist 8)" (p. 195).

    The key phrase here is "I'm not sure." An ANONYMOUS UNSURE person. No photos. No documentation. No evidence. Apparently the pots were never marked so they could be traced. Most people learn early in life (usually the hard way) that if they leave a valuable item out in the open (particularly in an area frequented by people lacking ethical discipline), the item will soon disappear. In endnote #6 she cites a tenet from the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology, that anthropologists will publish "scientific and practical information" about their work. I don't see how the informational content of her research met that goal.

    "Both archaeologists and government employees [said they heard from] middlemen or even looters who [said] 'Israeli dealers tell Palestinians where and what to dig'" (p. 195).

    She said they said they said … Israelis [order their subjugated] Palestinians…

    • G.M. Grena
    • April 17, 2012


    SOURCE: "The Value of a Looted Object: Stakeholder Perceptions in the Antiquities Trade" (2012).

    This article appears in chapter 13 of "The Oxford Handbook of Public Archaeology". Though it contains references to works by others, & to her earlier writings, it is mainly a subjective summary with no new data. Example:

    "Through a series of interviews with archaeologists I was able to determine that there are archaeologists who actively participate in the legitimizing of illegally excavated artefacts by assigning an economic worth, providing a theoretical find-spot, and a chronological indicator for the decontextualized artefact" (p. 258).

    Again, how did she confirm/prove they were "illegally excavated"? Where was that documented? Did she report specific instances to the IAA, or did she turn a blind eye to the crime? Too bad it was all off the record, because now she has left us to wonder who the evil archeologists are. Do they wear Indiana Jones fedoras? Do they blog? Are they tenured university professors?

    "The willingness of collectors (including museums and educational institutions) to turn a blind eye to the issue of archaeological find-spot and artefact pedigree ensures that the demand for looted items continues" (p. 261).

    Does the willingness of anthropological researchers to grant anonymity to criminals they observe breaking the law ensure that the looting will end?

    Proverbs 6:16,19 (Artscroll English Tanach, Stone Edition): "HASHEM hates these: … A false witness spouting lies, and one who stirs up strife among brothers."

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