The Collector’s Lair, part 3

Bedouin Coffee

Bedouin Coffee

This is the final 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
Go back to part 2

Lenny Wolfe

The men who succeed in Israel’s antiquities market must know how to communicate effectively with all the participants. They must be able at least to project a certain amount of knowledge and respect for all cultural customs and traditions, from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, to the Koran and the New Testament. Shlomo Moussaeiff’s fluency in Arabic and Oded Golan’s world travel and long experience traversing Israel in the army have served them well in finding and bargaining for artifacts that come or are said to come from the West Bank. Successful Israeli antiquities dealers have a comfort level with both Arabs and Westerners. One of the best licensed dealers is Lenny Wolfe, a short, bullet-shaped, black-haired, black-eyed man from Glasgow who immigrated to Israel from Scotland in the late 1960s and is among the proud and few who can speak Hebrew with a brogue. His Robert Burns dinner, replete with kosher haggis, is a single-malt-soaked annual bacchanal renowned among the expatriate Anglophones of Jerusalem.

Wolfe invited me to meet him in his home and office, in part of a fantastic three-story, nineteenth century Oriental house, tucked away on a quiet Jerusalem lane just to the west of the old green line separating Arab East Jerusalem from Israeli territory. Strains of cello and piano wafted out of the windows of a music conservatory across the street when I approached his front door. Inside, his office was crammed with antiquities worth millions, and walls of books. Young men in Orthodox costume-knickers, prayer shawls and caps-scurried around, helping move and restore items. If not for the constantly buzzing cell phone and laptop on the desk nearby, I might have been sitting in the office of a Renaissance apothecary or alchemist.

While we talked, Wolfe sifted through three heaps of ancient coins he had laid out on his coffee table, making small piles and then lining them up into neat rectangles. One heap was greenish, the others, shined-up and bronze colored. Altogether, the small hoard was worth tens of thousands of dollars.

I met with Wolfe on several occasions in Jerusalem, and in New York. He was always highly entertaining—sly, salacious, raunchy and suggestive—but it was also clear he knew what he was talking about, and unlike Oded Golan, whose explanations of his business were always obscure, Wolfe was  proud to describe exactly how the Israeli antiquities market works. “I’m a real motherfucker,” he told me the first day we met. “But I won’t sell a fake.”  To back up the first part of his claim, he told me he had recently bought something from an Arab for about $300 that he knew to have a market value of $50,000 to $100,000. He was eager to help me with my project and wanted me to know that he was appalled at forgeries on the market. He had a long list of enemies among the Israeli collector and dealer community, and he wasn’t shy about naming them and warning me of their penchant for cheating and dishonesty.

He had also written a paper in which he theorized about a forgery ring that had been operating since the 1980s. He called it “the lame bet workshop,” after an anomaly he noticed in the Hebrew letter “bet” in all of the objects. He would eventually testify in the trial of Oded Golan.

As blunt as he was, Wolfe had his own form of discretion. In our conversations, he frequently dropped tantalizing hints about knowledge that would blow the lid off the forgery story, get extremely important people arrested, and so on, but then refused to give specifics. I came to recognize this allusive, obscure way of communicating as a tic common to antiquities dealers in Israel—both Palestinian and Israeli. In their years of doing business, they have developed a habit of communicating which maximizes anticipation, while withholding for as long as possible the actual delivery of factual information and dollar figures. It’s a delicate dance of tantalization, veiled truth, tangent and deception.

Wolfe really wanted to help, though. He decided to share some things he had written about his business methods. Eventually, he emailed me an unpublished paper he had titled “On Haggling.” Below is an excerpt, which effectively displays the flavor of the Israeli dealer’s world, where an intimate knowledge of the most arcane aspects of history and art flows seamlessly through a species of commercial wiliness that an American used car salesman would have to admire.

“A couple of years ago we had as a dinner guest, an Anglo-American scholar, in Jerusalem for a year on Sabbatical. The gentleman was very left wing, a Palestinian sympathizer. Discussing the antiquities business in general, he criticized the practice of haggling, saying these poor Palestinians needed that money for bare sustenance. I steadfastly claim the opposite: that an Arab prefers a good fight rather than someone paying immediately the ticketed price. This Anglo-American academic could be perceived as the classic case of someone coming from the liberal west and totally misunderstanding the dynamics of the Middle East….The essence of dealing with Arabs as with most people is to respect them. The Arabic expression is sharraf, which conjures up a civilized scene of mutual respect where each person is accorded his dignity. In Hebrew, it could be succinctly stated as: respect him and suspect him.”

Later in the same paper, Wolfe described how he set his own price for a necklace his wife wanted to buy from a Bedouin at the Jordanian site known as Petra “At this point I noticed a Bedouin peddler some fifty yards away. He was seated on the ground with a rug stretched out in front of him covered with a variety of tourist goods. Lo and behold he also had a big group of the necklaces I was looking for. I told my wife to enjoy contemplating Aaron, while I spent the time with my Semitic cousin, had a fix of coffee and acquired necklaces for all. I greeted the son of the desert, sat down, introduced myself and asked after his health, his welfare, that of his immediate family, his distant family, and his livestock. I then went on to say how I was taken aback by Petra, and that it was surely the most beautiful spot on God’s earth, and that he was very lucky to live here.

“By this time I was on my second cup of coffee, and we were already like lifelong friends. Like satisfying foreplay I worked my way around the main issue. Finally I brought up, by the way, the possibility of purchasing a necklace. I exercised all the Arabic I knew, words, colorful phrases, proverbs, and finally we consummated the deal, buying what I wanted at the price I wanted. Since he would not drop a cent below the price I had paid for the first necklace, I suspected he was part of traditional society’s version of the cartel. The entertainment made the whole exercise worthwhile. And then he said to me, ‘By Allah, you are like a Bedouin,’ typical Middle Eastern flattery, I dare say.”

Wolfe then shared another example of his experience dealing with a Palestinian dealer, and his unsuccessful pursuit of a rare coin. “Because the Arabic of the Islamic Levant has been spoken continuously for more than thirteen centuries it has a richness that modern Hebrew lacks. One of the expressions used to describe a Hebronite is moocho nashef (his brain is dry), a reflection of the inflexible nature of these fine people. Yaqub from Halhul, one of the satellite villages of Hebron, is no exception. He was a savvy dealer who was able to buy coins from source, if they were not actually unearthed by one of his workers with a metal-detecting machine…. One of the coins that Yaqub had acquired was a sela probably emanating from [Jewish second-century revolt leader Bar Kochba’s] mobile mint…. Fully aware of the rarity of the piece, Yaqub, without flinching, asked me sixty thousand dollars for the coin. This was around twice the price of the much rarer Year One sela notwithstanding the importance of this singular variety. When one sits in the premises of a dealer who has his finger on the pulse of the market and has access to the finest merchandise, one has to decide quickly. One has to buy from him in order to be offered more merchandise in the future. However, one of the oldest tricks in the bazaar is to entrap a customer in a situation like this by asking an unrealistically high price and hoping that the client makes a counter offer which is considerably more than the price asked but nevertheless much more than the market value. Falling into the trap, I in turn offered $40,000. Yaqub retorted, ‘What do you think, we eat cattle feed?’

“I was disappointed at losing the coin, finished my coffee, made the customary pleasantries on leaving the house of a host and made my way back to Jerusalem. Only in the car did it dawn on me how lucky I had been. In Yaqub’s house I reckoned I would have been able to sell the coin for a quick profit of ten percent. In the car I thought that the downside risk would have been far greater and that I would have lost my shirt. A few years later a second identical specimen turned up and the value of the coin today would be about $8,000. Yaqub could probably have sold the coin in the early nineties for $30,000, but his greed got the better of him and at the same time let me off the hook.”

Wolfe concluded: “Thus a Hebronite dealer learnt about the importance of timing and cash flow.”

© 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.