Israeli authorities arrested a retired American university lecturer (who should have known better) this week on suspicion of selling ancient artifacts illegally to U.S. tourists, they said Wednesday.
The suspect, a tour guide, is accused of selling ancient coins and 1,500-year-old clay lamps, and pocketing the equivalent of $20,000.
He admitted attempting to smuggle antiquities, selling suspected stolen antiques and trafficking in antiquities without a permit, the authorities said.
He was allowed to fly to the United States after depositing “a large bond,” to “ensure he will show up for trial in the future,” they said.
The suspect faces up to three years in prison.
Amir Ganor, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery, also criticized the buyers, saying Wednesday they “are actually encouraging antiquities robbery and the plundering of the country’s history.”
The suspect, who has not been named, was detained once before after Israel Antiquities Authority inspectors raided a hotel room where he was selling ancient artifacts, they said. They seized hundreds of objects allegedly stolen by antiquities robbers from different sites throughout the country, they said.
But the suspect was released after questioning, the IAA said in a statement Wednesday, without explaining why.
He was under undercover surveillance during the last week, and resumed his illegal activities, selling artifacts to a group of American tourists, Israeli authorities say.
The tourists were detained Monday in a “wide-sweeping, combined operation” in Eilat and at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv.
Eilat customs officials and Antiquities Authority inspectors “were amazed to discover that about 20 members of the group possessed dozens archaeological items purchased in Israel illicitly, which they attempted to take out of the country illegally and without a permit,” the IAA said.
They seized ancient bronze and silver coins dating to the Second Temple period approximately 2,000 years ago, as well as clay oil lamps and glass and pottery vessels.
The tourists said they had bought them from their tour guide, paying more than $20,000 in total, Israeli officials said.
The tour guide was detained Monday night at Ben Gurion airport while trying to leave Israel, they said.
He had ancient coins, but no permit to export them, plus “evidence indicating dozens of illegal sales of antiquities during the past two weeks,” they said.
When John Lund brought ancient coins and oil lamps from Jordan and Bethlehem into Israel, he had no idea he was breaking the nation’s law.
When he tried to leave the country several days later, he had no idea he soon would be known around the world as an international antiquities smuggler.
The retired university lecturer, author and tour guide lives in Murray and has guided 4,000 people through sites important to Mormon theology for more than 30 years. He was detained on May 14 as he attempted to leave Israel with the ornate oil lamps and 100 bronze coins. He did buy some antiquities from street vendors in Bethlehem, which is under Palestinian control. He said he was not aware he was only to buy from Israeli-authorized dealers and he did not know he needed to obtain an exit visa in order to transport the artifacts out of the country legally.
“Did I break the law? Yes. Did I break the law knowingly? Absolutely not,” he said Thursday. “They need to be clear with tourists with what is legal and not. This is a blind-side. I could not have been more blind-sided.”
Lund guided a group of about 90 people through Bethlehem, and several had run out of cash for souvenirs. He had them write him personal checks in $200 amounts in exchange for extra cash Lund had brought in case such a situation occurred. He also arranged group purchases of Bethlehem baby blankets and Bethlehem alabaster jars with spikenard inside and said he did not make money on the transaction. He said he also facilitated the $2,000 purchase of a silver Tyre shekel, also known as a Judas coin, for one of the tour participants.
During a meeting for the tour group at their hotel, agents from the Israel Antiquities Authority entered and confiscated a binder filled with coins — which he said he has for research into his upcoming book, Bible Coins of Interest to Christians — and several lamps that members of the tour group said they wanted to purchase. Other items from Lund’s hotel room were confiscated, and he was taken to the authority’s headquarters for three hours of “intense interrogation” where he was told he could not ask any questions.
He was released but put under undercover surveillance for the rest of his trip, authority officials said.
The authority said in a statement that Lund had stolen ancient coins in his possession. He also had checks totaling more than $20,000 believed to be from the illegal sales of ancient coins, clay oil lamps, and glass and pottery vessels, the authority said.
Lund was allowed to leave after posting a $7,500 bond meant to guarantee he will return to stand trial, said Shai Bar Tura, deputy director of the authority’s theft prevention unit. Bar Tura said formal charges are expected.
Lund said he paid the money and signed several forms in Hebrew that were verbally translated to him that indicated he had smuggled the items. He said he signed them under coercion and was desperate to get back home to Utah.
Antiquities officials discovered Lund selling artifacts at a lecture he gave in a Jerusalem hotel, Bar Tura said. They seized the items, searched him and his hotel room, where they found hundreds of artifacts, Bar Tura said.
Because all the items had been recovered and Lund was a tourist, “We thought it was appropriate to let him off with a warning,” Bar Tura said. “But we kept our eyes open … and sure enough, the guy kept on doing what he was told not to.”
Officials at the Israeli border with Egypt examined the bags of members of Lund’s tour group and discovered 50 stolen items that they said Lund had sold to them, Bar Tura said.
An arrest warrant was issued, and Lund was picked up at the airport trying to leave Israel. In his possession, officials found ancient coins and 70 checks written to him by tourists, Bar Tura said.
Bar Tura said Lund could face up to three years in jail if convicted.
Lund plans to appeal to the U.S. Embassy and find a lawyer versed in international antiquities laws to fight the charges, which he says stemmed from a simple miscommunication.
“Am I willing to forfeit a bond of $ 7,125 or plead no contest and pay a reasonable fine for a first-time-made-aware offender? Yes,” he said Thursday, adding that he is willing to voluntarily return other antiquities to Israel even though he has not been asked to do so.
He said he still loves Israel but will have to see how the situation develops before he decides whether he will return to the country in October for another scheduled tour.
“I’m glad to be back safe in America were we have the ability to appeal to civil recourse,” he said. “I’m questioning how democratic that situation was.”