The Billionaire's Table
"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 vermillion 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 pricy jewelry to oil sheiks from a tiny shop on the first floor of London's glittery Hilton Hotel, and then 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 and brought 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, 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. 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 service 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, is, he says, "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 the 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 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 which he stores in warehouses in Geneva and in his London townhouse. Almost all of them, he readily admits, were removed illegally from countries of origin.
Moussaeiff'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, 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-Canaan 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 Gray 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 Moussaeiff'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.
Also at the table was the French scholar Andre Lemaire, an expert in ancient epigraphy at the Sorbonne. A tall, sallow, almost spectral presence, in his native French, he might be described as sec — utterly dry and deeply restrained. One of eight sons of a provincial French Catholic farmer, born during World War II, he originally studied for the priesthood, and succumbed to the lure of Jerusalem and its antiquities after a youthful summer drive from France to Israel with a pair of seminarians. It was the late 1960s and he decided to stay in Jerusalem for a while, signing on to do research at the Ecole Biblique—an elegant, meditative walled French Dominican monastery compound with a great library, Hellenistic columned courtyard and towering cedars by the Old City. The scholars within were hard at work deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls and related ancient documents. After a year there, he returned to France, dropped out of the seminary to get married and entered the Sorbonne to study and eventually teach ancient Semitic epigraphy. In thirty years at that post, he has published hundreds of papers and dozens of books on obscure, rare inscriptions in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic. (During Christ's lifetime, Aramaic was the common language of the Jews.) Lemaire lives modestly in suburban Paris, but since the late 1970s, he has been a familiar figure among the antiquarians of Jerusalem and Old Jaffa.
LeMaire is personally inclined to believe in the possibility of unexpectedly finding something of great significance because of an incident in his own life. "We are completely sure that they [ancient Hebrews] kept precious or semi-precious objects in temple treasuries for centuries," he told me during an interview at his Paris home. "And myself, I am perhaps more inclined to accept that, because I had an experience when I was young. I was maybe, I don't remember, sixteen or seventeen, and I visited the granary of my grandmother, near the farm where I lived with my parents. And in my grandmother's granary, I found among debris and so on, big sheets of paper. I took them outside, and finally, reading them a little bit, I realized that it was a French Bible from the end of the sixteenth century." The antique Bible contained a list of names of people from the nearby town who had owned it over the centuries. Lemaire never learned how or why the artifact found its way into the family silo, but he never forgot the fortuitous accident that recovered a piece of history.
In Jerusalem over the years, he combed the shops, hoping to discover rare pieces and occasionally authenticating inscribed objects for owners and interested buyers. Lemaire's willingness to examine and write about objects in private collections had not endeared him to the archaeological academy. Professional archaeologists and inscription scholars view private collectors differently. Archaeologists see collectors as encouraging the looting of archaeological sites because they pay for "unprovenanced" artifacts (archeologyspeak for any object not found in situ). Scholars who study inscriptions are relatively more willing to look at unprovenanced material. Lemaire was one scholar who wasn't above "publishing" — in academic parlance, writing about — objects whose origins were unknown.
In spring 2002, LeMaire was in Israel on one of his regular forays to the Holy Land to seek out newly discovered objects and strengthen his ties with local collectors, scholars and antiquities dealers. Although Lemaire knew of Oded Golan and his large collection by name, and Golan knew Lemaire's scholarly reputation, the two men had never, they claim, met until that spring evening at Moussaieff's house.
As Moussaieff bargained with individual visitors, Lemaire and Golan talked. Golan told the French professor that he possessed an ossuary — a small limestone box in which Christ-era Jews stored the bones of their dead — with an ancient Hebrew inscription in cursive that he couldn't read. Ossuaries are quite common in Jerusalem. For about ninety years, Jews practiced ossilegium. This method of disposing of the dead involved first closing up body in a cave for a year. After the flesh had fallen away, the bones were removed form the cave and closed up in a small box — an ossuary — which was sometimes inscribed with a design or a name. Scholars believe the practice was most common among the wealthy, as the peasants couldn't afford the boxes. Today, the ossuaries are so common that unadorned ones serve as planters in Jerusalem gardens, but those with inscriptions can be more valuable.
Golan, like any collector in Jerusalem interested in Bible-era objects, had collected a sizeable number of inscribed ossuaries over the years. He asked Lemaire would like to have a look at one with an inscription he couldn't read. The Frenchman said he would be happy to see it. Lemaire was, he now admits, a bit flattered by the man. "Oded more or less, maybe not using the words, but the meaning was clear, told me he knew my name," Lemaire recalled in an interview in Paris in 2007. "I didn't know him, but he told me he had a collection and he had some inscription he should like to show me. And I told him, I am always interested to see new inscriptions. That's my job, my professional job!"
Two weeks later, Lemaire had the opportunity to follow up with Golan. He had made an appointment to visit Moussaieff, but Moussaieff was in the hospital, recovering from a minor heart attack. So the scholar called Golan, and the collector came in his car and fetched Lemaire, bringing him back into Tel Aviv, and to his small, vitrine-filled apartment. "The vitrines, oh, he showed me very quickly the vitrines," LeMaire recalled. "I looked at a few things. And then he showed me pictures, mainly of his collection of ossuaries. He wanted to show me an inscription. It was in cursive and very difficult for him to read."
Golan laid out a series of photographs of ossuary inscriptions, and pointed out the one in cursive ancient Hebrew which he couldn't decipher. While looking at that inscription, Lemaire spied another picture laid out on the table next to it. It was of another inscribed ossuary, and this particular inscription, Lemaire says, caught his eye instantly. In sloppily scrawled but easily decipherable Aramaic, it read: "Ya'akov bar Yosef achui Yeshua," translated as "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." When Lemaire asked Golan about the inscription, the collector casually replied that he had never thought much of it – although he could read it. Lemaire was immediately intrigued because he was something of an expert in the biblical James, having written a book about the early Christian figure described in the Bible as Christ's brother. Golan maintained that he wasn't all that interested in it. For Lemaire, though, this other ossuary, the one that Golan had accidentally shown him, seemed by far the most interesting thing he'd seen in a long time. "Now it is considered the main point, but at this time for Oded, it was not the main point," Lemaire recalled. "That wasn't the ossuary he wanted to show me. That is very key, that is very key."
Lemaire had already made one historic discovery in the Jerusalem antiquities market some two decades before, one that had had profound significance for Biblical archaeology, while also making a great deal of money for an anonymous owner. The discovery was so important that his name would have been well known to Oded Golan for that reason alone. In 1981, Lemaire noticed a tiny inscribed ivory pomegranate in a dealers' shop in Jerusalem. It read "Holy to the priests, belonging to the "T' [illegible] "h." LeMaire decided that the scratched away words between the Hebrew T and H were, translated, "Temple of Yahweh," and that the tiny hole through its base meant that the pomegranate was likely once an ornament for a small priest's scepter, used in Solomon's Temple.
According to the Bible, King Solomon built a fantastic Temple in Jerusalem in about 1000 BCE Lined with gold, it housed the Ark of the Covenant, God's written word to mankind. The Babylonians sacked the Temple in 800 BCE and burned it to the ground. No archaeological evidence of the temple has ever been found. Also referred to as "the First Temple," Solomon's Temple was later replaced with what is known as the "Second Temple" – the remains of the platform that once supported this temple are known as the Wailing Wall or the Western Wall — Judaism's holiest place. Built by Herod, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE and never rebuilt. Muslims built a mosque there in the early days of Islam, the gold-domed Al Aqsa mosque, Islam's second-holiest site. The site is now one of the most hotly contested bits of turf in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Any discoveries relating to the First Temple are enormously important for historians but also for religious Christians and Jews who seek verification of biblical history. They are also significant to Israeli nationalists, who are eager to lay permanent claim to all of Jerusalem, and especially what they call the Temple Mount. Lemaire's pomegranate interpretation was thus both politically and archaeologically groundbreaking. No one had ever found an archaeological object linked to the First Temple. Lemaire's new interpretation instantly increased the value of the pomegranate, which was initially offered for sale for $3,000. An anonymous donor for the Israel Museum ultimately paid $550,000 to acquire the piece. By 2002, it had been on display at the museum for nearly twenty years, with a placard in both English and Hebrew explaining its significance.
After finding the pomegranate, Lemaire continued prowling the antiquities shops and collections of Israel, hoping against hope to stumble upon another rare piece. A man of science, he knew that the likelihood of finding another object of such great importance was slim. Most Biblical scholars work all their lives and never unearth a single sherd (the archaeological term for a bit of broken pottery) or decipher a single phrase that interests the world beyond the academy. But Lemaire was deeply ambitious. Having tasted the fruits of spectacular discovery once, he longed to experience it again. When he spotted the picture of Golan's "James" ossuary, it is unlikely that his heart actually skipped a beat, because Lemaire is a rather cool man, but he certainly felt an unusual amount of excitement. To find an ossuary with the names Jesus, Joseph and James on it was almost too good to be true. Almost. But quite possibly it was both good and true.
Lemaire asked to see the ossuary itself, and Golan took him to another location in Tel Aviv, a warehouse where he stored antiquities that he didn't display in his Tel Aviv apartment. There, Lemaire examined the small, simple limestone box — twenty inches long, twelve inches high and ten inches wide, decorated on one side with a small rosette and on the other with a scratched inscription — and found it much like the thousands of other such boxes around Jerusalem dating from the first century CE.
Back in France, armed with pictures of the box, the French scholar set to work researching the probability that the James on the box could be the New Testament James who was the leader of the Jerusalem branch of the early Christian church, a martyr who died for his beliefs, and in certain interpretations of the Bible (mainly, Protestant, which do not accept the Catholic dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary), was the blood brother of Jesus Christ. He based his interpretation that it was the James on statistical calculations, which were in turn based on assumptions about the number of adult males living in Jerusalem during the 90 years when ossilegiIum was common. He determined that only 20 men in that time period who also had a father Joseph and brother Jesus could have been named James. The clincher was that on only one other ossuary ever studied was a brother mentioned — indicating to Lemaire that the James whose bones had lain in this ossuary had had a very important brother indeed. Lemaire decided to date the box itself to 62 CE., the year the biblical James died.
When Lemaire told Golan that he wanted to publish a paper on the ossuary in French, Golan urged him to publish in English, "because," LeMaire recalled, "he doesn't read French." Lemaire chose to publish his first article about the ossuary in the popular English language magazine Biblical Archaeology Review — the same magazine which had published his interpretation of the ivory pomegranate twenty years prior.
Months later, when LeMaire's article was finally published, news of the box was touted in the world media as the first material proof of the existence of Jesus Christ - a man with a brother. The box was shipped to Canada and exhibited at a major museum with great fanfare. The faithful lined up by the tens of thousands to stand before it in silent prayer. A book was written. A documentary was filmed. By then, the saga that the Israeli police described three years later as "the fraud of the century," involving a series of increasingly brazen archaeological forgeries designed to fool scholars and religious believers, was well underway.
Excerpted from Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land by Nina Burleigh Copyright © 2008 by Nina Burleigh. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved.