The Collector’s Lair, part 1

Shlomo Moussaieff

Shlomo Moussaieff

I didn’t go to Jerusalem to see the Holy Land. As an atheist and a journalist, I went to explore a curious case of forged biblical artifacts the Israeli authorities were calling “the fraud of the century.” My earthly reward was to encounter a set of unusual characters operating in a strange world where money, faith, science and politics are intertwined like nesting snakes.

As a child of the 1960s, I was weaned on a laissez-faire “figure it out when you grow up” attitude toward religious belief. What I know of believers comes mainly from the Mennonites who proselytized our family when we lived in a farmhouse in Michigan in the 1960s and 1970s. From them, I learned that there are some very decent people who live every waking minute in a state of unshakable faith in an otherworldly power. But their best efforts to lead us down that path were never sufficient to turn me into a believer.

Reading the article about the James Ossuary forgery scheme in the New York Times at the end of 2004, I wondered what manner of men would deviously prepare objects to feed the desire for proof among people of faith, and why would faithful people—who by definition transcend materiality—want such proof in the first place? Eventually, my curiosity led me into a thriving, if murky subculture—that of the antiquities dealers who specialize in ancient Holy Land artifacts, the scholars who verify them, and the millionaires who collect expensive bits of cracked clay, stone, and bronze with the avidity and obsessiveness of boys collecting baseball cards. My research took me from the penthouses of Tel Aviv and Fifth Avenue to the barricaded Arab cities of the West Bank, across the void of the Negev Desert, into dusty, sun-baked archaeological sites, and through pristine university laboratories where men and women of science struggle to carve a path of reason through a thicket of ambition, hype and blind belief. Always, though, I found myself wandering back through the throngs at the Damascus Gate, under the crenellated walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, and into the warren of ancient whitened stone lanes that are ground zero for believers from all three religions of the book.

Jerusalem seethes with political and theological conflicts involving Orthodox Jews, Muslims and Christians, Israeli nationalists, Palestinian gunfighters and atheist scientists, all existing in a framework of machine guns and guardhouse checkpoints, metal street barricades and barbed wire. It is so rich with spiritual history that many newly arriving believers who do not first faint, literally kiss the ground and weep. And into this world had stepped an imp of deceit, or so the police alleged.

When I embarked on this book project, I thought of it as an exotic crime story, The Maltese Falcon meets Raiders of the Lost Ark with a little bit of The DaVinci Code thrown in. I had no way of knowing that the story was not only that but also much, much more, and that it would bring me to contemplate the psychological motivations of believers, hucksters, scholars and police, and the political significance of bits of the past scraped out of limestone dust and dirt on a piece of real estate the size of Vermont—the most bitterly contested and spiritually prized turf on the planet.

Here are but three of the characters—a billionaire collector, the alleged forger, and an antiquities dealer—who seem to have stepped out of a novel, but in fact, I can attest, are real.

Shlomo Moussaieff

At sunset, the collector and his lucky guests can’t help but notice the primal kaleidoscope in the heavens above the Mediterranean Sea. Two 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.

At 85, 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 12, 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 where he was forced to recite the Koran, and 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. He fought in the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City during Israel’s War of Independence, becoming friendly with the General Moshe Dayan, another lover of antiquities. Together the men made forays into Gaza to acquire archaeological treasures. 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 his suburban Tel Aviv apartment would keep a team of museum curators busy for decades. Among them: a pair of three-foot high iron lions from what was supposedly the 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 600,000 Bible-era relics he has collected over the years and which he stores in warehouses in Geneva and in his London apartment. Almost all of them, he readily admits, were removed illegally from countries of origin.

Moussaieff’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.

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I found myself inside Shlomo Moussaieff’s sunset-daubed apartment on an October evening in 2006. I had been led to know that this was a very special occasion, engineered for me by a filmmaker friend of his who shares the old man’s interest in Kabbalah—the mystical, New Age branch of Judaism to which Madonna now adheres.

The old man ushered us in cheerfully, speaking heavily accented English, frequently lapsing into Hebrew, wearing a boyish striped polo shirt. He had lively brown eyes and a few wisps of gray hair combed over his liver-spotted pate. The apartment, atop a luxury beachfront hotel, was painted ultra-minimal white, the better to display the hundreds of ancient objects scattered on the walls, floors and in built-in museum-style vitrines. Over the course of a long evening, interrupted frequently by the arrival of men and women who were never introduced and who simply seated themselves around the long rectangular table and waited for Shlomo to take them aside and do business, the old man told me his life story. As he spoke, his eyes sometimes rolled back, like a man in a trance, hypnotized by his own tapestried past.

The Jerusalem into which he was born, in the 1920s, was an Arab city of mosques, camels and Bedouins, little electricity, few cars. It was a city in which religious Jews had begun to settle in the past fifty years. The idea of Zionism—the return of the Jews to Palestine—was just gaining hold in Europe, but Shlomo was not of European stock. He was the eldest son of a rabbi descended from wealthy Bukharan traders who had been in Jerusalem for five generations. Bukhara is a very old Silk Road city in Central Asia, located in what is now Uzbekistan, and Moussaieff’s ancestors had grown rich on precious stones in the caravan trade. Moussaeiff’s father was unforgiving and rigid toward his twelve children. The dyslexic eldest boy, unable to read the Torah, was a great disappointment to the conservative patriarch, and it was paternal punishment for Shlomo’s inquisitive nature that first set the boy searching for God. One night, his father brought home an oil lamp with a wick that could be turned up and down by a handle. The boy was fascinated, having never seen such a modern device. When his father was not looking, he turned the wick higher and higher until the glass lamp suddenly exploded.

“I get punishment,” Moussaieff recounted, eyes closed. “A beating nearly to death!” Between blows, his father threatened God’s wrath as well as his own. “‘God will punish you, burn you! Like this!’ And he take me to the kitchen and he put my hand in the little stove. Until now I have the sign of this burning on my hand.”

That night, Shlomo ran away from home and slept in one of a series of cave tombs, called the Sanhedrin Caves. Ancient Jewish sages were supposedly buried there and the sites are holy to Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem (who have installed fluorescent lights and prayer nooks inside them today). In the 1920s, the caves, which still smell faintly of death, were home to hundreds of Arab urchins. Young Moussaieff joined them. In that place, he says, he began his search for both relics and God. “This [burning of his hand] was God’s work! And I wanted to look for this God, I want to speak with him. I went to look for God. He burned me.”

Like any real Jerusalemite, the homeless boy got a proper grounding in all three religions at a young age. Among his temporary shelters was a synagogue, an Arab reform school where he was sent after being arrested for looting coins and metal from tombs, and a Christian hospital, where nuns periodically cured his worms and de-loused him. At the synagogue, he memorized the Torah, at the Arab reform school, he learned not only Arabic, but memorized the Koran, and from the nuns he learned the New Testament. Moussaieff considers himself an “Oriental Jew” and is proud of his Arabic connections. His Arabic has obviously served him well in business, but he seems to feel a special kinship with Arabs also because of his childhood experiences. “Arab boys never went to school. European Jews regarded the Oriental Jews exactly like Arabs, they didn’t send them to school or give them an education. And I couldn’t learn, so I was just like the Arab boys.”

Shlomo started collecting old coins from the unguarded tombs that dot the hills at the city’s edge, selling the small treasures for food. He has saved one of the coins from those days, an ancient Jewish coin with a menorah on it, and he pulls it out and meditates on it sometimes, because it reminds him of a period of deprivation and the beginning of his seeking God. “My motivation was always to see God. I wanted to see who punished me. I said, I am not going to believe until I can find God.” He paused, took a drag off his cigarette, then continued, “God you have to find. If you don’t know what he looks like, look more!”

As a seeker, not a practitioner, he has avidly collected biblical relics for seventy years. “You won’t like what I tell you,” he responded when I asked him to explain why he collects. “Money buys everything. I use it only to prove the Bible is genuine. I don’t practice religion, since I got beaten for the sake of religion I don’t practice at all. My religion is in the heart, in understanding the universe. It has nothing to do with these laws: Don’t do this. Don’t do that. But if you know the Bible well, it is a great book. Why? Because to the monotheistic people in the Bible, it never says ‘I command.’ It says ‘God commands.’ You see, it’s not the ego motivation. It is about building a society, so life can continue.”

In the course of the evening, Moussaieff frequently retreated into a corner of his apartment to have private discussions with one of the men and women who had arrived alone or in pairs. It took a few of these interruptions, and some discussion with the people who remained, for me to understand what was going on. It turned out that each of them had objects of possible interest to sell to Moussaieff. All were experts of a sort in Ancient Near Eastern antiquities, they knew the difference between an ostraka and a bulla, could tell a real Christ-era oil lamp from a fake one at a glance. One woman, originally from Brooklyn, unwrapped an incantation bowl she said was from Iraq. The bowl would be for sale, she said, but she also had “a present” for Shlomo, an antique, nineteenth-century Jewish baby crib from somewhere in Europe.

Moussaieff is a voracious collector, and he often makes deals on feel alone. For this reason he is both a shrewd operator and an easy mark. If he likes something, he’ll write a check on the spot. But he’s no fool. He might write a check, and then take the object to have it verified by a scholar. Sometimes he will postdate a check by a year, awaiting scholarly verification. But first, he trusts his own instincts about an object, relying on his photographic memory and his seventy-odd years handling bits of Holy Land archaeology. And indeed, he can recite historical details about any of the thousands of ancient coins in his collection with barely a glance at the object. “I didn’t learn this in school,” he says. “I had no teacher. Like a computer, I see it in my head. I know the moment I bought it, from whom I bought it, the atmosphere, everything.”

The possibility that he might buy forgeries, that his judgment calls might sometimes be off, doesn’t bother him unduly. Fakes in the storeroom are a collateral cost of making a collection. “They made fakes twenty-five hundred years ago! A lot of coins were faked. I can make mistakes but I never have a contract. I buy it and—get lost! I have a million on a statue of King David right now. Why do I need a contract? I bought it! I have it! I know I am breaking the law but I have no other way.” This is not to say he is not bothered to discover someone has taken him for $100,000. He didn’t become a billionaire without mastering an arsenal of psychological tools, tools that have made him not a few enemies even among the people who gather at his table and sip his cans of Diet Coke.

Moussaieff sees himself as a man heroically safeguarding biblically significant objects that might otherwise be lost, overlooked, broken, dispersed or misinterpreted. He has an ambivalent relationship with scholars. He sometimes needs them to verify his instincts, and he has helped finance numerous digs, including, he claims, giving $200,000 to Columbia University to find Noah’s Ark. But archaeologists generally deplore collectors, and Moussaieff doesn’t take kindly to being second-guessed. He is suspicious of scholars who warn that his artifacts might be inauthentic. Some he accuses of a kind of secular bias against the Bible itself. “I know I am bound to make a mistake. But the biggest scholars who say these things are fake also say there was no truth in the Bible. They won’t say it’s real, they will say it’s fake. If I were them, I would do the same, because they don’t believe. And for me, the most important thing is to prove the Bible, from the time of the First Temple. You see, here and here and here!” For emphasis he pulled out one of the numerous catalogs of his collection, and jabbed his finger at photographs of ancient scripture, carved in stone.

Go on to part 2 >

© 2008 by Nina Burleigh, excerpted from Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land.

Nina Burleigh is the author of four critically acclaimed nonfiction books. Her latest is Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land. She has written for the New Yorker, New York Magazine, Time, People, The Washington Post and numerous national magazines, and is an occasional blogger on The Huffington Post.