Antiquing in Israel a Tricky Business
By Genevieve Long
Epoch Times Staff Created: Aug 27, 2010 Last Updated: Aug 27, 2010
RELIC: Part of an ancient aqueduct at Caesarea, Israel, a site of many antiquity excavations. (Genevieve Long/The Epoch Times)
JERUSALEM—The business of antiquities in Israel is so serious that the government has a special unit for antiquity robberies. That unit exists within the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA), which works to prevent items from being taken before they leave the country. But the system of theft is so extensive that the origin of an item can be hard to track.
That might have something to do with the vast number of archaeological sites in the region.
According to the IAA, there are about 30,000 known antiquity sites in Israel, mostly in open areas without guards. Hundreds of those sites are revaged every year by robbers, who sell their loot to middlemen.
The theft of antiquities in Israel is systematized, and starts with the diggers. They toil illegally throughout the night at archaeological sites, with excavation tools and metal detectors. They often break into areas where they can find rare coins minted during the Jewish revolts against the Romans, which can fetch a high price on international markets. Coins are the most common artifact, but there is also the common robbery of graves, which often include rare and valuable artifacts, and underwater areas.
There are many legitimate antique dealers in Israel, but the illegitimate system that includes middlemen, merchants, and collectors makes it risky to buy and sell through the open market. The IAA says a local middleman usually finances digging operations, including equipment, then buys the stolen goods, and resells them to merchants and collectors.
RARE COIN: Zak Samer holds a 2,000-year-old coin in his shop in Jerusalem. Coins like this are commonly robbed from archaeological sites in Israel. (Genevieve Long/The Epoch Times)
The trick for finding the right buyer is to know what makes them legitimate.
In the bustle of Jerusalem’s Old City, there are rows upon rows of vendors selling everything from antique knock-offs to unverified goods.
At Mishirky Antiquities, proprietor Zak Samer sits in his small shop amidst ancient artifacts ranging from the Byzantine period, eating a lunch of hummus and pita.
Some of the items in his shop are worth thousands of dollars, despite their modest appearance. Mr. Samer is an Arab Christian and his shop is situated in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. He watches over his store with a serious, yet warm face.
“No Rush No Push,” states a sign near the entrance.
“I don’t rush the customers to buy anything, and I never push them,” explains Mr. Samer, smiling. The shop was founded by his grandfather, and he inherited it from his uncle.
On the wall is a certificate that Mr. Samer says every antiquities dealer in Israel should have in their shop: authorization by the IAA. He buys his pieces at auction that the IAA runs about three or four times a year. When it comes to whether or not the items in other shops are stolen and sold through middlemen, Mr. Samer admits that the problem exists, and it’s not just a stereotype.
“It’s like people think Arabs are always thieves,” he says about the association of grave robbers and Arabs from the Judean Plain. “It’s a screw up stigma we have as thieves.”
But all of the pieces in Mr. Samer’s shop are authorized by the antiquities authority and come with a certificate of authenticity. The transfer of the goods out of the country is so sensitive that someone mailing a package to themselves could land in prison. Mr. Samer, whose customers are usually professors and collectors, suggests carrying purchased items by hand.
“If shops don’t have certificates of authenticity, the pieces might be false,” he says, just as a British man comes into the shop looking for a small piece that will cost under $50. Nothing in the shop is priced that low, and the man leaves as abruptly as he came in.
“He doesn’t want to pay [what it’s worth],” says Mr. Samer, going back behind his counter and his lunch of hummus and pita.