Shapira’s antiquities trade boomed as the public became fascinated with the 1868 discovery of the Mesha Stela (shown here), a ninth-century B.C. basalt monument inscribed in Moabite, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. The 3.5-foot-tall Mesha Stela (or Moabite Stone) commemorates the Moabite king Mesha’s triumph over Israelite kings—the first extra-biblical corroboration of events described in the biblical Books of Kings. Eagerly sought after by French, English and German antiquarians, the stela was reduced to fragments by Bedouin certain that such a prized object contained treasure.
Soon statues, jars and tablets—many inscribed with psuedo-Moabite writing, similar to the real Moabite writing on the stela—began appearing in Shapira’s shop. This Moabitica collection was the first of several antiquities frauds perpetrated by Shapira, who took his own life in 1884.