Taxpayers paid triple for the forgeries at the Museum of the Bible

The Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

The Museum of the Bible, a private museum located in Washington D.C., has announced that some of its most heralded objects are likely forgeries. Five fragments, purported to be a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, are actually fakes. In a statement the Museum of the Bible announced that the fragments “show characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin and therefore will no longer be displayed at the museum.”

The Museum of the Bible has generated controversy since it opened. In 2017 for example the Museum paid $3 million and returned thousands of objects illegally removed from Iraq. The Museum is the passion project of Steve Green, a billionaire and founder of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores.

Michael Press in a post for Hyperallergic  does an excellent job pointing out the real cost of these forgeries. He references the work of Candida Moss and Joel Baden for a 2017 book Bible Nation, which reports the Green family uses a 3:1 tax deduction to purchase price ration. Meaning that for every dollar used to buy these objects, the tax write-off is triple the amount. We the american taxpayer are paying for the Green family to acquire this material, much of it either looted or fake.

As Press argues:

Some may celebrate the latest news as a vindication of their criticisms of MOTB or Hobby Lobby. But, as with the prior series of scandals with which they’ve been involved — the forfeiture of thousands of cuneiform tablets and other artifacts smuggled into the countrythe issuing of fake receipts for purchases along with tax evasion and money laundering; or the funding of an archaeological excavation in the West Bank in violation of international law — this is not really a loss for MOTB.

Considering how the story has been told to date, it is a PR coup. More than that: based on the Greens’ 3:1 model for purchase and donation, and exorbitant purchase prices for the post-2002 Dead Sea Scroll fragments (tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars each), they have likely made millions of dollars in profit just from their “altruistic”donation of these 16 fragments. Given that this profit consists of public funds (in the form of tax breaks), the real losers, in this case, are us.

Sadly, that’s exactly right. We are paying for looting and forgery. Other museums certainly have acquired forged material in the past, but the Museum of the Bible in acquiring so much material so aggressively is bound to acquire looted and forged material.

Daniel Burke, Bible Museum say five of its Dead Sea Scrolls are fake, CNN (Oct. 23, 2018), https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/22/us/bible-museum-fake-scrolls/index.html.

Emily Sullivan, Museum Of The Bible Says 5 Of Its Most Famed Artifacts Are Fake, NPR.org (Oct. 23, 2018), https://www.npr.org/2018/10/23/659741484/museum-of-the-bible-says-5-of-its-most-famed-artifacts-are-fake.

Dead Sea Scrolls at the Museum of the Bible Revealed as Forgeries, Hyperallergic (Oct. 0, 2018), https://hyperallergic.com/467318/dead-sea-scrolls-at-the-museum-of-the-bible-revealed-as-forgeries/.

Museum of the Bible Releases Research Findings on Fragments in Its Dead Sea Scrolls Collection (Oct. 22, 2018), http://www.museumofthebible.org/press/press-releases/museum-of-the-bible-releases-research-findings-on-fragments-in-its-dead-sea-scrolls-collection.

In Syria, looting causes faked antiquities too

Louis Vignes, Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra, Syria (1864)

Reporting for the L.A. Times last week, Nabih Bulos indicates that with the rise in looting of ancient sites, the market demand is starting to also be met by forged antiquities:

“In the last year, we’ve caught thousands of pieces. We noticed that the percentage of fakes has risen up from 30 to 40% to over 70%,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director-general of antiquities and museums.

“Bibles, coins, statues … the buyer wants a certain model of artifact. The seller doesn’t have it, so you have workshops that produce fakes.”

On his laptop, Abdulkarim played a video depicting an open-air workshop, which he said was in the town of Khan Al-Subul in the rebel-held province of Idlib. Men, their hands covered in white dust, sit cross-legged on the ground, carving delicate patterns on pieces of stone.

Off to the side, one worker washes down a column head with a wet sponge. The rivulets of liquid work their way down the stone’s surface, leaving a dark sediment that would give it the appearance of age, according to Abdulkarim.

But are the faked antiquities new, or are we just paying more attention because of the loud destruction and institutionalized iconoclasm taking place in parts of Syria.

In 2009, Charles Stanish argued that he stopped worrying about the sale of faked antiquities on internet sites such as eBay, in the hopes that antiquities fakers would ultimately put antiquities forgers and looters out of business. In Syria at least, this report indicates that instead, the art market’s failure to often sell objects with detailed and legitimate histories leads to first looting, then also a rise in faked artworks. Some of course will argue that there should not be a market for this material at all. Others argue that the market should be preserved. The inability to compromise, of these two competing interests to even discuss the possibility of the other existing has served to preserve not the sites or context, but the black market in looted archaeological material and fake antiquities.

 

  1. Nabih Bulos, After Islamic State Institutionalized Looting in Syria, the Market for Fake Antiquities is Booming, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 31, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-syria-fake-antiquities-2016-story.html.