The Collector’s Lair, part 2

This is the second of a three-part excerpt from Burleigh’s new book Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land.
< Go back to part 1


Oded Golan

Oded Golan dwells in a world about which average Americans, however religious they may be, know very little. Every morning, he wakes up surrounded by myriad bits of the ancient world, some worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Every day he looks at them, dusts them, moves them around on the shelves. Sometimes, if the police are to be believed, he actually sleeps with them. And sometimes he notices a detail he missed before, a letter or a phrase usually, that links the object to stories the faithful have heard for centuries, stories which his objects might prove to be fact.

The owner of this multitude of antiquities from the land and time of the Bible is not a religious man at all. “I go once a year on Yom Kippur to synagogue, not because I believe in God. It’s a gesture to the Jewish culture, because I have a very strong emotion about the culture of the Jewish people, and to the history of Israel.”

Born in 1951, three years after the founding of the state of Israel, Oded Golan grew up during a period of great lay interest in the archaeology of the new nation. In the decades just before and after the founding of Israel, the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society had been encouraging Zionist settlers to help carve out a specifically Jewish archaeology, different from that being pursued by the Christians who were combing the soil with a Bible in one hand. To the end of creating a national identity, the Society started encouraging yedi’at ha-Aretz, roughly translated as “knowledge of the homeland.” Among the ways of obtaining that knowledge were hiking trips organized for youth groups and others, into nature, to bring the inhabitants of the newly formed nation into familiarity with the land. For the hikers, these jaunts, called tiyulim, had a number of goals, among them, an element of history-finding and treasure-hunting.

Treasure hunting is a common boyhood pursuit, indulged in throughout the fictional ages from Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to the Hardy Boys, but for Oded Golan, growing up in the newborn nation, sifting through the dirt for ancient things was also to participate in a national pastime. As Magen Broshi, an archaeologist and former curator of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, put it in a 1996 discussion, “The Israeli phenomenon, a nation returning to its old-new land, is without parallel. It is a nation in the process of renewing its acquaintance with its own land and here archaeology plays an important role…. The European immigrants found a country to which they felt, paradoxically, both kinship and strangeness. Archaeology in Israel…served as a means to dispel the alienation of its new citizens.”

Golan’s parents participated in the national effort and brought their young sons on trips to the countryside, where Oded found his first bit of history. In a rather fantastic sequence of events, which could only occur in a new and intimate country, he became intimately involved with national archaeology. “I remember when [Oded] was 10 years old, it was 1961, we took him and his brother for a trip up to the north, to the Galilee,” said his mother, Rifka, a short, stout woman with a dyed cap of reddish brown hair who strongly resembles her younger son. “We were walking through the countryside, and he saw a piece of pottery on the ground. He picked it up and put it in his pocket. ‘I think it’s something important. I think I’ll tell Yigael Yadin about it,’ he said. He had never even met Yadin.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, Yigael Yadin was one of Israel’s most prominent archaeologists. He was also a national war hero who had served in the Haganah, the Jewish shock troops that paved the way for Israeli statehood. Yadin had archaeology in his blood: his own father was a Hebrew University archaeologist who had acquired parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls for Israel. Besides excavating what he identified as Solomon’s gates at Megiddo, Yadin famously excavated the desert fortress Masada in the1960s, and launched it into being one of the most emotionally resonant archaeological sites, second perhaps to the Temple Mount, in all of Israel.

In spite of his prominence, Yadin wasn’t above communicating with a small boy.  Oded “wrote a postcard—that’s how we communicated back then—to Professor Yadin, describing the pottery, and Yadin wrote back,” Rifka recalled. “He clearly had no idea he was addressing a ten-year-old boy. He wrote that the pottery did indeed sound interesting, and he would drop by to see Mr. Golan when he was next in Tel Aviv. One afternoon a few weeks later, there was a knock at the door. I opened it, and Professor Yadin was standing there. ‘I am Yigael Yadin,’ he said. ‘Is Mr. Oded Golan at home?’ I explained that Oded wasn’t quite a mister yet, but that he was at home. Yadin came in and I called [Oded]. The two of them went off to the room Oded shared with his brother and talked there for some time. Yadin said he would like to borrow the pottery to have it checked by an expert and invited Dedi to visit him in Jerusalem.”

Years later, Oded recounted his version of the same story. The object came from Tel Hazor, which he visited during a family outing near the Sea of Galilee. And what his mother called “pottery” was in fact a piece of cuneiform—that rarest of objects in Israeli archaeology, something covered with ancient script.

“Hazor was the biggest city in Israel during the mid-second millennium B.C.E.  I found a small clay fragment, which I could immediately identify as written in cuneiform.” When he returned to Tel Aviv, Golan said, he contacted the archeologist Yigael Yadin, and told him about the fragment. “He came to my parents’ apartment,” Golan said, “and he found that the fragment was part of a dictionary written in two languages, both in cuneiform.  One is Akkadian, the other is Sumerian-from the seventeenth century B.C.E., if I’m not wrong. It’s interesting how a dictionary was developed, because it was very functional. It was purely a commercial dictionary for traders, and the words are actually like ‘good price,’ ‘bad price,’ ‘high price,’ ‘low price,’ things like that. But the more fascinating story behind it,” he went on, “is that Yadin brought several aerial photographs of the mound, and he asked me, ‘Oded, tell me where did you find it? Because this dictionary probably belonged to the palace at Hazor, which I am looking for.’ He even mentioned Yavin, the king of Hazor, who is mentioned in the Bible.”

Unable to remember where, exactly, he had found the pottery fragment, the boy tried to imagine the site. “I said to myself, ‘If I was the king of Hazor, where would I put my own palace?'” Golan recalled. “So I told Yadin that I thought it was probably very close to the place where I found it, and I pointed to a specific place.”

From that formative experience, the child enthusiast grew into the adult collector. Today, Oded’s attachment to his ancient artifacts and his own, deeply personal relationship with ancient history cannot be overstated. “Obsession” does not fully describe it. “Love” comes closer. His find at Hazor and his childhood brush with the great archaeologist Yadin took on a kind of mystical importance in his life.  He told the New Yorker a few years ago that even his dream of a buried palace has turned out to be eerily accurate. “You know, several years ago I went to Hazor, and I found that the Hebrew University had been working there for years, at the place where I pointed with my finger,” Oded said.  “And I spoke to some people, and they said that Yadin, in his so-called will, his scholarly testament, had mentioned that he believed that the palace of Hazor should be at that place. And the most incredible part of the story is that the palace is there. They found the biggest palace in the world at exactly the spot where I pointed, where I would have put my own palace as a boy, if I were the king of Hazor.”

On the breezy streets around Oded Golan’s third-floor apartment in a residential neighborhood of angular, cement, 1960s-modern buildings, not far from downtown Tel Aviv, hip young men and women in stylish sports gear with iPods plugged into their ears jog past long-haired women with hip-huggers exposing pierced bellybuttons pushing strollers. Tel Aviv is the anti-Jerusalem. There is barely a black hat or prayer shawl to be seen, and almost certainly no head-covered Muslim women. Nearly everyone and everything is secular.  The cityscape is dotted with towering billboards of alluring sylphs hawking jewelry and soft drinks and cars, amidst soaring glass and steel structures. The clean sidewalks and simple cement apartment buildings could be any medium-sized European city.  As in Europe, the streets are clogged with honking, small, gas-conserving vehicles. There’s an Italian espresso vendor on almost every block.

If Jerusalem is haunted by the ancient history of the Holy Land and its Arab past, Tel Aviv is haunted by modern Europe and its fascism, and the Holocaust. The city’s soaring skyline and bustling inhabitants are a living rebuke to that dark terribly recent passage. Here live the children and grandchildren of men and women who left Europe in the early twentieth century, narrowly escaping extermination simply for their ethnicity and religion-a religion that many of their descendants in this city barely practice. Here is what they built, from almost nothing. It looks and feels like Europe.

In October 2006, and again a half a year later, Oded Golan graciously invited me into his modest Tel Aviv apartment on Feival Street, a few miles but a world away from fellow collector Shlomo Moussaieff’s beachfront penthouse. By the fall of 2006, for more than two years, Golan had been under indictment for what Israeli officials had called “the fraud of the century.” He was on trial, accused of forging or overseeing the forgery of more than a dozen items of biblical antiquity, and selling them for hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of dollars, over a period of at least a decade, in a scheme designed to fool scholars, collectors and the public. During the period of his indictment and trial, Golan had vociferously protested his innocence. He had been jailed once for attempting to tamper with a witness, and he had been forbidden to travel outside of Israel. He had not shown the slightest inclination to confess to anything, and he was always happy to talk to the media.

Two tall glasses of water were set on a black Japanese tray beside a laptop. We sat in black steel and leather chairs. The interior walls in his residence, like Moussaieff’s, are white and lined with glass-covered shelves, lit from within, displaying bits and pieces of his collection—pottery, small Canaanite figurines, Roman glass. Unlike the billionaire collector’s messy but maid-serviced apartment, Golan’s habitat smells faintly of unwashed male, of sweat. A layer of grit in the bathroom belies the elegance of the illuminated, glassed-in shelves and the white mini-grand piano set in the center of the main room. The dirty rivulets in the bathroom sink and stained towel hanging on the wall suggest an occupant who works with his hands.

Oded Golan is spry and bright-eyed and his impish aura is exaggerated by a mop of brown hair. Now in his late fifties, he is an accomplished amateur pianist, an entrepreneur who’s tried his hand at various businesses and more often than not, not made money. His main avocation, besides playing the piano, is collecting ancient artifacts plucked from the soil of Israel and its environs. He has been doing it since he was ten years old, when he first poked through the parched earth and found something real, a clay seal that proved important to the history of the land.

In the sixty-year-old state of Israel, Oded Golan has a pedigree not unlike that of an American whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower. His family tree is populated with prominent socialists and Zionists who helped build the nation from nothing. All his grandparents, born in Europe, in Poland and the Ukraine, came to Palestine around the turn of the twentieth century.  His maternal grandfather was the youngest rabbi in Europe, nominated at the age of eighteen, and a committed Socialist.  He left Russia because he realized that Socialism and religion would not be allowed to co-exist in post-revolutionary Russia. A Zionist, he gathered forty or fifty secular young Jews on the force of his personality alone, who followed him into Palestine.  Among them was Oded’s grandmother, a completely unreligious woman, who was motivated by Zionist socialism. The couple lived first on a kibbutz, one of the collective farms that preceded the establishment of the state of Israel. Eventually, Oded’s grandfather played a role in the creation of the Jewish state, helping found the national political labor party, serving as a lawyer and amassing a hefty fortune, which the family has since invested in real estate.  Oded is proud of the fact that although the old man became rich, he never lost his youthful set of values. “I want to tell you something very unique about him: he remained socialist until his last day. And he remained religious. And he’s the only person in the world that I know who succeeded to live in harmony with all these contradictory things.”

His grandparents’ status as national founders was commemorated in their ID numbers with the nascent national health insurance system. They were numbers ninety-nine and one hundred. “In her nineties, when she used to come to doctors with the ID number ninety-nine, nobody believed that someone could be old enough to have that low an ID number,” Oded recalled of his grandmother, laughing.  “Because there are now like three million people in Israel, and the doctors would look at her number and say, ‘This is a mistake! No! No! What is your ID number? Not your age!'”

While his grandfather retained his religion to his deathbed, his grandmother remained staunchly secular all her life. But both were deeply radical in their own way. “She didn’t believe in God,” Oded told me. “And when I was twenty-five years old, I came to her and asked her, tell me when did you get married with my grandfather? How did you know each other? And she told me ‘Oded, we never got married. We lived all the years together. You know it’s a philosophy of life!’ She said they never felt the need to get married, and only obtained a fake marriage certificate from Turkey when asked for one.”

Golan was the younger of two sons born to Rifka Golan-Barkai, an expert in plant disease at the Volcani Institute, which is Israel’s leading agricultural research institute.  His mother is also a world traveler, having represented Israel at international agricultural science conferences. His father is an industrialist. Both parents, in their late 80s, are still living, in an apartment down the street from their son, whom they call “Dedi.” His older brother Yaron was a self-made publisher who died in 2007, during the trial. Oded was the more scientific of the two siblings. The brothers went to high school in Tel Aviv with the sons and daughters of other prominent Israelis. Among his classmates was Rabin’s daughter and a son of Israeli president Ezer Weizman.


As all able-bodied Israelis must, Oded served his time in the military, but he was lucky enough to avoid actual combat. Even though he took part in the 1973 war, in the Golan Heights, his job was to assess daily equipment needs.  “I was an officer, and I was sent to the front to evaluate the casualties, not in people, but in vehicles, in weapons. The head of the army, which is in Tel Aviv, had to decide every night who will get the material, and America used to send a lot of aid to Israel, but it came in batches.” Oded’s job was to determine which unit most badly needed the limited materiel.  He brought a camera with him to the front and took pictures.  “I participated in the war for four, five hours a day, and I took the car back to Tel Aviv, I came home to my parents, to sleep. And at five o’clock the next morning, I went to the war again. If you think about it, it’s a crazy story.”

Oded studied industrial engineering at Technion University in the 1970s, but he never worked in the field and apparently never earned a degree. He describes his family as “wealthy in Israeli terminology, not in American terminology.” Afterward, he bounced around in the family business but disliked the work. In fact, he says he detested business, even though he believes he might have made a success of one, with his family wealth and the connections he now has made around the world.

His primary job for many years was managing an international architectural travel tour company called “Architect-Tour.” He organized tours for architects from various countries to visit architecturally significant buildings in various nations, and also meet with prominent architects in those countries.  “We took them to unique projects that no one can go inside. We went to private houses and got them lectures.  Fantastic program.  Lovely, historic architecture; modern architecture.  Different countries like Thailand, every place, that was more cultural, with the exception of Singapore, but again we put emphasis on more than architecture. Japan, Australia, and almost every place that you can imagine. In Italy the program was aimed at people interested in stones, mostly interior design stone. Italy was the most successful program. We had 850 participants.”

Oded’s world travel also put him in contact with the kind of people who collect beautiful things. He found common ground because he’d been growing his collection of biblical-era, Holy Land artifacts since childhood. “I went everywhere for more than twenty-five years, and of course I visited most of the museums around the world in archeology.” However, museums never thrilled him, because, he said, “I don’t see a personal touch in it. You have to love it, you have to understand it, you have to know what is there, what pieces are common or not.” As a collector of artifacts from the soil of his home country, Oded was at his happiest seeking the rare find in the private biblical antiquities market. “I never know who will call me tomorrow, and who will show up tomorrow, which period he will represent, which area, which culture.  And from time to time, I have seen—but didn’t buy—pieces that are really a big part of the history of this country. And there were very few people around the world who experience something like this.”

Besides collecting antiquities, his other great avocation always remained the piano. In his mind, he linked the two.  “Of course I studied Beethoven and Mozart and Bach,” he says. “But I play any songs, Israeli and foreign songs.  You can express…I never thought about it, but once I talk to you about it now, about collecting coins and collecting antiquities, when I play Beethoven, it’s a fix.”

I asked him if by “fix” he meant, perhaps, an obsession, and he nodded. His English is fairly good, but I was not sure he understood that word, exactly.  Did he mean “fixation” or “fix,” as in a necessary drug?  “When I’m making improvisation on a song, it may be something completely different tomorrow as from today. From any day. I make improvisations on Beethoven, but it’s not better than Beethoven. It’s different.”

© 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.