Ask Museum of the Bible: The Truth Shall Set You Free

(Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
Museum officials made mistakes but acted honorably. The larger artifacts market could benefit from the lessons they learned.

In 1947, teenagers were tending their sheep near the ancient ruins of Qumran in Israel. One of the shepherds tossed a rock into the opening of a cave and heard a shattering sound. Curious as to what he hit, he and his friends entered the cave and found a collection of clay jars housing scrolls made of leather and papyrus. Word quickly spread, and archaeologists excavated this and ten other caves at Qumran, unearthing thousands of other scroll fragments containing texts as old as 2,000 years. Fragments from every book of the whole Hebrew Bible (except Esther) are part of what has come to be known as the Dead Sea Scroll Discovery, and over 100,000 genuine fragments are currently housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Starting in 2002, 70 more Dead Sea Scroll fragments appeared on the market. Dead Sea Scrolls experts endorsed them as authentic. Between 2009 and 2014, Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and collector of biblical manuscripts and artifacts, purchased a total of 16 fragments with plans to display them in the soon-to-be-built Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. When they were published in 2016, scholars had already started to doubt the fragments’ authenticity. While five of the fragments underwent scientific testing in Germany in 2017, the museum opened with the fragments on display, with signs informing visitors of their uncertain status. In October 2018, the German lab concluded that the five fragments were “inconsistent with ancient origins.” This prompted the museum to investigate its entire collection of 16 fragments more comprehensively, and they sought my help to do so.

I am the founder and director of Art Fraud Insights, a consultancy dedicated to art-fraud-related lectures and training and to specialized investigation of artworks. I have led an anti-fraud initiative for a major online auction house, trained federal agents in forgery investigations, curated museum exhibitions, and lectured at universities and museums throughout the world. My message has consistently been the same: Fakes and forgeries permeate every sector of the art and culture market. The risk of fraud is substantial, and no collector or institution, no matter how affluent or sophisticated, is immune to it.

When the Museum of the Bible retained my firm, it gave me the green light to recruit and manage an independent advisory team — of scientists, conservators, and technicians — to design and conduct a rigorous scientific protocol for the imaging and materials analysis of the questioned fragments. Both the museum and the research team agreed that the approach needed to be designed to ensure objectivity, transparency, and reproducibility. That meant that the only role the museum had in our research was to provide access to the collection. It was mutually agreed upon that the museum would not influence the team’s research direction or findings and that our report would be final and released, unedited, to the public.

From May through October 2019, comprehensive imaging and scientific research and analysis were conducted on the fragments, with National Geographic photographers capturing several phases of the state-of-the-art process. Museum of the Bible wanted to fully document the process, regardless of the results, to facilitate transparent communication with the scholarly community and the general public. From the beginning, plans were in place for a conference to announce the completion of the scientific research effort and to disclose its conclusions.

After an exhaustive review of all the evidence — physical, elemental, and molecular — the advisory team came to the unanimous conclusion that none of the museum’s Dead Sea Scroll fragments are authentic. “Each exhibits characteristics that suggest they are deliberate forgeries created in the twentieth century with the intent to mimic authentic Dead Sea Scrolls fragments,” we noted in our final report.

Instead of quietly removing the fragments from view, Museum of the Bible, to its credit, went public with the news. Although headlines shouted “Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scrolls Are All Forgeries,” the real news was the length to which the museum went to discover the truth, and what it means for other museums and research institutions that also have questioned fragments.

The tools we have today to detect forgeries have advanced since 2002, when a new batch of arguably authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments appeared on the market. Science is constantly evolving, making it easier for collectors and researchers to distinguish treasures from trickery. Unfortunately, interrogation of works usually occurs too late, only after their purchase. It does nothing to prove legal or ethical ownership status. The more nefarious threat to the historical record comes from the many actors who legitimize dubious acquisitions by lending their professional and scholarly authority to objects that appear on the market, often unprovenanced. This scenario has only two possible outcomes, neither of them acceptable. Either they are forgeries or, worse, authentic and unprovenanced.

The best way for collectors and institutions to guard against deception, which is costly in terms of both economics and reputation, is to insist on solid provenance documentation — that is, to know exactly where an artifact or a piece of art comes from. Requiring original readable signatures, complete contact information for previous owners, and verification of all statements made by sellers about who owned the art or artifact are just some of the necessary steps to ensure that an item has solid provenance and legitimate title and has been legally exported from its source country.

Museum of the Bible and its founder no doubt made mistakes in the past, many of them stemming from a lack of due diligence and provenance verification. The unfortunate result of their mistakes provides a lesson that reinforces their commitment to adhering to collections best practices. I hope that the market will also heed this cautionary tale.


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