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Book #6: Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed & Forgery in the Holy Land, by Nina Burleigh - Deirdre on reading, writing and living

Jan. 25th, 2009 11:38 am Book #6: Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed & Forgery in the Holy Land, by Nina Burleigh

What's a museum curator to do? If items aren't found by archaeologists in a sanctioned dig, but are so deliciously historic that they turn whole religions on their heads, can the items be bought and displayed? To whom do these items belong? The country where they were found or the person or group who dug them up?

Collectors don't have the same restraint. Some, like the ones mentioned in Burleigh's absorbing new book, go by feel, buying the objects of their obsession. In the process they spend vast amounts of money, encourage illegal digging, and get duped by forgers.

These questions have been dogging internationally-known museums recently. Some, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have had to return looted items, like the Euphronios krater, to the country or origin. Others, like the J. Paul Getty Museum, have seen their staff (Marion True, former antiquities curator) on trial for years.

If museums and scholars ignored antiquities that appear on the market without provenance (known and documented origin) then the Dead Sea Scrolls might never have been studied.

But there is another wrinkle that haunts both the world's cultural institutions and collectors and that's the subject of Burleigh's book. Sometimes, it seems, the most tantalizing items are fake, made by skilled craftspeople to garner huge excitement and fabulous prices. Two of the items focused on in the book had international news feeds buzzing and garnered devotees in Christian and Jewish communities.

The James Ossuary, a burial box complete with bones, was inscribed to imply that the occupant was the brother of Jesus Christ. If real, it would have been material proof of the existence of Jesus.

And the Jehoash Tablet, carved and seasoned to seem as if it came from the disputed area in Jerusalem called the Temple Mount that sits under the famous Islamic shrine the Dome of the Rock, was inscribed with 16 lines of ancient Phoenician script that seemed to be part of Solomon's original temple which would go far to prove the truth of sections of the Bible that are important to Israel's claims to Jerusalem. (Recently the Al-Aqsa Intifada or the Second Intifada began on September 28, 2000 because of Ariel Sharon's arrival with troops at the Islamic site.)

Burleigh takes readers on an thrilling ride through apartments crammed with antiquities, into the workshops of scholars who are called upon to write opinions on the veracity of items brought to them, and into the international antiquities market, both legal and illegal. She had amazing access to police investigations, collectors, dealers, and academics.

Unholy Business is well worth reading for those who follow historical and biblical antiquities as well as those who like a fascinating mystery filled with characters who could have stepped out of the pages of a novel.

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