JERUSALEM -- Four Israeli antiquities collectors and dealers were indicted yesterday on charges that they ran a sophisticated forgery ring that spanned the globe and produced a treasure trove of fake Bible-era artifacts, including some that were hailed as major archeological finds.
Police said the ring forged what were presented as perhaps the two biggest biblical discoveries in the Holy Land in recent years -- the purported burial box of Jesus's brother James and a stone tablet with written instructions by King Yoash on maintenance work at the ancient Jewish Temple.
Shuka Dorfman, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the scope of the fraud appears to go far beyond what has been uncovered so far.
''We discovered only the tip of the iceberg. This spans the globe. It generated millions of dollars," Dorfman said. The forgers ''were trying to change history."
Investigators warned that collectors and museums around the world could be in the possession of fakes, and scholars urged museums to reexamine items of suspicious origin. The forgery ring has been operating for more than 20 years, Dorfman said.
Scholars said the forgers were exploiting the deep emotional need of Jews and Christians to find physical evidence to reinforce their beliefs.
The indictments were announced by the Antiquities Authority and the police, capping a two-year probe.
The forgers would often use authentic but relatively mundane artifacts, such as a plain burial box, decanter, or shard, and boost their value enormously by adding inscriptions, Dorfman said. Then the forgers would try to recreate patina, or ancient grime, to cover the carvings, the indictment said.
The four men indicted were Tel Aviv collector Oded Golan, owner of the James ossuary and the Yoash tablet; Robert Deutsch, an inscriptions specialist who teaches at Haifa University; collector Shlomo Cohen; and antiquities dealer Faiz al-Amaleh. The four are free on bail, police said.
Golan said in a statement yesterday ''there is not one grain of truth in the fantastic allegations related to me." He said the investigation was aimed at ''destroying collecting and trade in antiquities in Israel."
Deutsch dismissed the indictment as ''ridiculous."
Hershel Shanks, editor of the Washington-based Biblical Archaeology Review, said by telephone: ''Either this is going to be proven a horrific scandal or the greatest embarrassment to the Israel Antiquities Authority."
Shanks disclosed the existence of the James ossuary at a November 2002 news conference.
Additional indictments will be issued in coming days, said Shaul Naim, chief investigator of the Jerusalem police.
The probe began after the Yoash tablet was offered for sale to the Israel Museum for $4.5 million two years ago.
Uzi Dahari, a top official in the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a recent lecture that some of the forgeries were done by an Egyptian artisan who has worked in Israel for the past 15 years. The Egyptian went out drinking in a Tel Aviv pub from time to time and would brag about his exploits. Some of the pub's other patrons alerted the police, Dahari said.
Naim said many more fakes are apparently held by of collectors and museums worldwide.
Shimon Gibson, an Israeli archeologist, said museums should review items of questionable origin.
Last week, the Israel Museum said one of its most prized possessions, an ivory pomegranate scholars long believed served as the tip of a scepter for Jewish Temple priests, was also a fake.