The LMLK Research Website, founder/editor
In comments to Dr. Kersel’s article (Buyer Beware: Shopping for Artifacts in the Holy Land), I expressed disappointment over the undocumented, arbitrary nature of her claims, which amount to an opinion based on hearsay, and contribute little if anything towards scientific knowledge. Herewith, I will present a well-documented firsthand account of my own experience in shopping for artifacts over the past decade in an effort to balance the discussion.
Why Shop for Artifacts?
As one begins earning money, a variety of investment options appear: interest-bearing bank accounts, dividend-paying stocks, income-generating real estate, etc. Aside from the financial considerations, hobby-related investments such as numismatics (rare currency) and philately (rare postage) offer educational/historical contexts, along with tangible gratification: you can easily see their value, show them to others, discuss their relationship to local/national political history, and transport them virtually anywhere in the world in times of financial instability or crises. For example, their value remains immune to a bank collapsing, a stock-market crashing, and the immobility of real estate along with its government restrictions .
Among an array of collectible objects , antiquities represent yet another such hobby, combining historical value, artistic qualities, preservation level, and production rarity, all being key components of wise investments. But as with any of the aforementioned forms or any valuable venture in life, certain risks exist, and it helps if you study the field before making a purchase.
My own collection/investment began with leaves from medieval Bible editions. At one Beverly Hills bookseller, I was introduced to antiquities by being offered a hand-sized cuneiform tablet for $850. Its accompanying translation described it as an ordinary rations tablet, naming individuals from the famous Mesopotamian town of Ur. For years it was a prized possession of mine that I exhibited (along with other objects) at local public libraries. But alas, for reasons I don’t fully understand, but which I probably could have prevented, a few years ago it suddenly crumbled into worthless dust! Fired pottery (especially jar handles bearing seal impressions) has proven to be a more stable investment.
A Philatelic Seal Impression
When Israel became a renascent nation in May 1948, they needed new postage to be printed prior to announcing their name. Hence, “DAR OBRY” (Hebrew Post) appears on their first official stamps. Several months later, and while engaged in their first national war to survive, they printed a new set of stamps bearing for the first time their name in Hebrew, English, and Arabic. The Israel Postal Authority issued a complete set of the stamps in September 1948 with commemorative postmarks from Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem:
This particular specimen bears exceedingly more value than the thousands of others available on the market, due to the fact that the postal workers misaligned the 65-mil stamp, and postmarked it without notice, thereby certifying its authenticity. Whereas these FDCs normally sell for about $5 from philatelic dealers, at a prestigious auction my example might command a hammer price well over $1,000 .
A Genuine Seal Impression
Biblical archaeologists will quickly recognize the image in those 1948 stamps as belonging to the LMLK seals  with 2-winged icons. Dating primarily to the reign of King Hezekiah , thirteen varieties with this basic seal design are known, plus eight others bearing 4-winged icons (Grena 2004 Fig. 39). Hundreds of these impressions have been documented from scientific excavations and from unprovenanced private collections . Some are rarer than others (for reasons unknown), hence their investment value to collectors.
This particular handle ties indirectly to the trial Dr. Kersel mentioned at the beginning of her article. I purchased it in February 2003 from Robert Deutsch, the scholar and antiquities dealer who was charged, tried, and fully acquitted on all counts . Deutsch, like all dealers in Israel with whom I have conducted business, is properly licensed by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), and obtains the appropriate export permits to send artifacts to me in America.
I had some doubts concerning the authenticity of this handle when I first saw it in December 2002. Aside from being one of the rare types (only three others had been published previously ), its clay color-tones looked different from others I had seen , and its unusually deep impressions preserved design details not seen in published excavation reports. My doubts disappeared when I visited the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in May 2003, and was allowed the privilege of studying James Pritchard’s notes from his landmark 1956-7 excavations at el-Jib (undoubtedly the pool of Gibeon recorded in 2Samuel 2:13). Therein I discovered an unpublished photo of a specimen kept in Amman exhibiting traits similar to mine.
Since the famous forgery trial began, the IAA changed their policies and documentation formats to include photos of the objects being exported, so I feel obligated to show a very recent example for a Rhodian amphora I purchased (I know it’s Rhodian because one of its handles bears a common Rhodian rose impression with a circular border; its other handle bears a common Greek epigraphic stamp with a rectangular border).
A Fake Seal Impression
I had been told by two dealers (one in America, one in Israel) with extensive experience that forged LMLK impressions existed, but until August 2009 I had not actually seen any.
The handle’s basic elements (formation, colors, grits) match provenanced specimens, and raise no concern as to it being ancient. Several characteristics of the impression, however, immediately indicated its illicit construction:
1. Its design matches no provenanced specimens; it doesn’t even come close to any.
2. Its impression is deep enough to preserve all of its letters, icon, and border (a quality seldom seen in provenanced specimens), meaning its borders should be raised as the clay was squeezed out (as seen near the bottom of my Fig. 2 specimen), yet its overall region remains flush with the height of the handle’s original contours.
3. Its internal features look like they were carved into fired clay, rather than impressed into wet clay (i.e., their edges are rough rather than smooth).
That being said, it’s worth emphasizing the paucity of these forgeries relative to genuine specimens (1 in 1,000 is hardly cause for a buyer to panic). I tend to expect this since LMLK handles appear so common on the surface throughout Israel, particularly the southern territory that originally belonged to the tribe of Judah .
Collectible Artifacts with Provenance
Dr. Kersel asserted that all “artifacts that are purchased on the market are entangled in webs of intrigue.” Is that unequivocally true?
As she noted, prior to 1978 less restrictions existed on the export of antiquities from Israel, and my collection includes two important examples from diverse contexts: a high-ranking official in the government of Israel, and a prominent educational institution in Israel.
The first is a remarkably intact jug, with a March 1962 letter from Harry Philipps, Official Expert on Arts and Antiquities for the Office of the Prime Minister (David Ben-Gurion), State of Israel in Jerusalem certifying that it came from Lachish:
The second is a significantly less-intact piece of pottery from Lachish; however, its value lies not in its poor state of preservation, but in its intended use to promote and stimulate financial support for the renewed archeological excavations at Lachish, led by Tel Aviv University professor, David Ussishkin during the mid-1970s:
By shopping for artifacts from the Holy Land, I have utilized my God-given talents to preserve historical treasures (especially ones that illuminate God’s message to us in the Holy Bible ) and promote research associated with them , while simultaneously building a relatively secure financial investment. Although some people may break the law to acquire wealth (e.g., by looting ancient sites, or selling antiquities without obtaining the proper permits, or not paying taxes), that’s primarily their problem, not mine. It’s between them and the local and national authorities responsible for preserving cultural heritages and enforcing relevant laws.
Just as I do not enquire about the personal faults of grocers from whom I buy food, or investigate who farmed the food, or whether the people (from farmers to truckers to grocers) obeyed the relevant laws in the process, I am under no obligation to trace the background-chain for items coming into my collection. I don’t understand why any rational scholars would want to hear unsubstantiated tales about how their food came to be on their dinner table, or similar folklore associated with the antiquities market.
If (as Dr. Christopher Rollston asserted in his comments on Dr. Kersel’s article) Dr. Kersel needs “to maintain certain confidences” to perform her research while cooperating with criminals , then I would expect other researchers such as I and Robert Deutsch be afforded the same privacy while studying antiquities via legitimate business transactions.
1992 “A Group of Stamped Handles from Judah (Hebrew).” Pp. 113-128 in Eretz Israel vol. 23, eds. E. Stern, T. Levi. Jerusalem: The Israel Exploration Society and Hebrew Union College.
Barkay, Gabriel and Andrew G. Vaughn
2004 “Section C: The Royal and Official Seal Impressions from Lachish.” Pp. 2148-2173 in The Renewed Archaeological Excavations at Lachish (1973-1994) vol. IV, ed. David Ussishkin. Tel Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology, Tel Aviv University.
1978-80 The Encyclopedia of Collectibles (16 volumes). Chicago: Time-Life Books.
1941 “On Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions Discovered at Tell ed-Duweir (Lachish)-II.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 73 (July): 89-106.
2004 LMLK-A Mystery Belonging to the King vol. 1. Redondo Beach: 4000 Years of Writing History.
Grena, George M.
2005 “What Are lmlk Stamps and What Were They Used For?” Bible and Spade 18 #1 (Winter): 19-24.
Hudon, Jeffrey P.
2010 “The LMLK Storage Jars & the Reign of Uzziah: Towards a Mid-eighth Century B.C. Terminus a Quo for the Royal Jars of the Kingdom of Judah.” Near East Archaeological Society Bulletin 55: 27-44
1974 “Khirbet Rabud = Debir.” Tel Aviv 1 #1: 2-33.
Lipschits, Oded, et al.
2010 “Royal Judahite Jar Handles: Reconsidering the Chronology of the lmlk Stamp Impressions.” Tel Aviv 37 #1 (June): 3-32.
Malloy, Alex G.
1997 Official Guide to Artifacts of Ancient Civilizations. New York: House of Collectibles.
McAlpine, Alistair and Cathy Giangrande
2001 The Essential Guide to Collectibles: A Source Book of Public Collections in Europe and the U.S.A. New York: Viking Studio.
Vaughn, Andrew G.
1999 Theology, History, and Archaeology in the Chronicler’s Account of Hezekiah. Atlanta: Scholars Press.
 Last week we witnessed the government of Israel deciding to evict Hebron residents from property they legally owned. See http://www.hebron.com/english/article.php?id=776 for details. Apparently the Israeli government considered the expulsion of Jews from their homeland to be a more important expenditure of resources than the policing of Jewish archeological sites to prevent looting. For a broad overview of collectibles, see DiNoto 1978-80; Malloy 1997 (esp. the Holy Land section, pp. 72-98); McAlpine and Giangrande 2001.  My purpose in showing these items from my collection is not to increase their value, but to illustrate the discussion, unlike Dr. Kersel’s article where artifacts are shown with no context or relevance to what she wrote. Since beginning to collect valuables in the 1990s, I have not sold anything for a profit, nor do I intend to (unless for obvious reasons, I suffer an unforeseeable financial hardship). Ideally I’m hoping to live long enough to some day distribute them to museums and young collectors to ensure their preservation.  See http://www.lmlk.org, which redirects to the website I originally built in 2002, and have been steadily editing ever since.  Some scholars believe these seals were made/used during the reigns of other kings, spanning anywhere from Uzziah to Manasseh (see Lipschits et al. 2010 and Hudon 2010).  I maintain a segregated corpus list at http://www.lmlk.com/research/lmlk_corp.htm, which builds upon the one published in Vaughn 1999, pp. 185-197.  Additional photos can be seen at http://www.lmlk.com/research/lmlk_gg21.htm.  Note that there was no evidence presented at the trial indicating that Deutsch was in any way involved in the production of forged antiquities, though he had published items from the collection of the other defendant, Oded Golan. If that’s the only circumstantial evidence the prosecution could connect between Deutsch and Golan, it’s a wonder the IAA didn’t also indict Golan’s family and neighbors and put them on trial!
 Vaughn’s landmark 1999 publication (which built upon an unpublished dissertation by Gabriel Barkay) documented many surface finds, including one by a group of children (see his footnote #69 on p. 195). An astounding 92 of 415 (22%) were documented as being found on the surface of Lachish alone (Barkay and Vaughn 2004, Table 29, supplemented by some minor corrections by me at http://www.lmlk.com/research/lmlk_lachish-corp.htm). For a recent example of how easy it is to find one, see http://gath.wordpress.com/2007/07/25/we-had-another-wow-day-lmlk-handle-eb-cylinder-etc. With so many genuine valuable objects available to be found, it’s easy to understand why so few forgeries exist. However, since the ratio of unstamped to stamped handles of this type is about 10:1 (Grena 2004 pp. 377-8), it is easy to understand why someone with criminal intentions might tamper with a genuine unstamped specimen than attempt to make an entire jar from raw materials, fake a seal, fire the jar, smash it, and peddle its handles. Its overall dimensions are approximately 10 cm wide, 11 cm tall, with a 7 cm opening. A specially constructed wooden box containing the jug and the letter bears an engraved metallic placard stating: “This ancient pottery from the state of Israel is presented to Joseph Bock in recognition of outstanding devotion and inspiring leadership in [sic] behalf of the economic development of Israel. Awarded at a dinner in his honor under the auspices of The State of Israel Bond Organization. April 1, 1962.” It’s a wonderful coincidence that I was able to draft this article for the ASOR Blog so close to the 50th anniversary of the event!  The text of the image appears doubled because of its being embedded within a clear acrylic housing, which then casts a shadow onto the white background.  See Grena 2005 where I argue that LMLK seals present evidence of Hezekiah’s continued independence following the devastation from Sennacherib’s military campaign.  See references to “Garena” [sic] among footnotes 15, 17, 19, 22, 24-8, 31, 36 within Lipschits et al. 2010.  Owen Jarus reported that she interviewed “residents engaged in looting” and dealers who “admitted to engaging in an elaborate scheme that allows recently looted artefacts to be sold to tourists.” See “Looted Artefacts Sold to Tourists in Israel Antiquities Scam” at http://heritage-key.com/blogs/owenjarus/looted-artefacts-sold-tourists-israel-antiquities-scam. Dr. Rollston defended her actions as “standard practice” for investigators. Actually, it’s standard practice for undercover investigators who intend to get the suspects arrested so they can be tried and convicted. According to Jarus, she “guaranteed anonymity” to the criminals.
All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. The American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this blog or found by following any link on this blog. ASOR will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information. ASOR will not be liable for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information. The opinions expressed by Bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of ASOR or any employee thereof.