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.

Context for the Hobby Lobby antiquities forfeiture

An image of one of the cuneiform tablets which accompanied the government’s forfeiture complaint.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have announced  a civil forfeiture proceeding against 5,500 objects from Iraq. The current possessors of the objects have also quickly announced they will not contest the forfeiture, and have agreed to pay a $3 million fine.   The objects were imported by Hobby Lobby and its president, Steve Green, to create the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

The Museum of the Bible, set to open in November near the National Mall in Washington D.C., has been rapidly acquiring antiquities from the Middle east for the last several years. History shows this kind of rapid acquisition with generous financial backing will inevitably lead to buying objects which may be looted, illegally exported, stolen, or orphaned. The questions surrounding the quick acquisition of all these objects has generated speculation for many years that these objects would cause legal difficulties for the museum.

The government’s civil forfeiture complaint tells a fascinating story of how Green traveled to the United Arab Emirates in July of 2010 and agreed to purchase 5,548 objects, including “500 cuneiform bricks, 3,000 clay bullae, 35 clay envelope seals, 13 extra-large cuneiform tablets, and 500 stone cylinder seals”. These objects were then then shipped via Federal Express to Oklahoma City to various different addresses of Hobby Lobby and its subsidiaries. The complaint notes an important reality of customs—not every shipment raises suspicion. Only some of the shipments of this material were seized by customs agents. Five shipments which traveled through Memphis, Tennessee were seized between January 3-5 of 2011. Other shipments successfully reached their destination in Oklahoma City.

Continue reading “Context for the Hobby Lobby antiquities forfeiture”

Legal Questions over the acquisitions by the Museum of the Bible were inevitable

Artist rendering of the museum of the Bible
Artist rendering of the museum of the Bible

Steve Green has amassed 40,000 objects since 2009 for his Museum of the Bible. His name may be familiar, he’s President of Hobby Lobby (and one of the major funders of a successful Supreme Court challenge which allows employers to opt out of paying for insurance on religious grounds, which pays for some health care). Given that nearly all of those 40,000 objects originated from the Middle East, and given the unstable situation in that part of the world, where armed conflict has made securing heritage difficult, there was always a strong likelihood that a substantial amount of that material may have been looted, stolen, illegally exported, or even faked. The illicit nature of that material may be about to put the future of the museum in serious jeopardy. The Museum of the Bible will sit very near the National Mall, an important national space where the Smithsonian, the National Gallery, the Air and Space Museum, and other museums sit. America has reserved this space as a place for museums, so the optics of having a new museum filled with tens of  potentially looted artifacts should not be underestimated.

Candida Moss and Joel Baden reported for the Daily Beast that Federal investigators are looking at whether the Greens have illegally imported objects from Iraq. One of the allegations is that some objects were misdeclared on customs paperwork:

If the investigation ends with a decision to prosecute, on either criminal or civil charges, the Greens may be forced to forfeit the tablets to the government. There may also be a fine involved. The Green family, who successfully forced the federal government to legally recognize their personal moral standards, now find themselves on the other side of the docket, under suspicion of having attempted to contravene U.S. laws. . . .

When Summers spoke with us, he made it sound as if the ongoing federal investigation was simply the result of a logistical problem. “There was a shipment and it had improper paperwork—incomplete paperwork that was attached to it.” That innocuous phrase—“incomplete paperwork”—makes it sound as if some forms were simply missing a date or a signature. That is rarely the case with questionably-acquired ancient artifacts—and were the problem merely logistical, the chances are slim that it would take four years to resolve.

Summers suggested that the tablets were merely “held up in customs,” as if this was merely a case of bureaucratic delays. “Sometimes this stuff just sits, and nobody does anything with it.” But an individual close to the investigation told us that investigators have accumulated hundreds of hours of interviews, which doesn’t sound like bureaucratic delay—and which also suggests that there is more at stake here than merely a logistical oversight.

Gary Vikan, formerly of the Walters Art Museum, noted in an Op-Ed last week that Henry Walters amassed a relatively modest 1700 works from an Italian priest in 1902 and discovered many illicit works, including fakes which were purportedly by Titian, Raphael, and Michelangelo. The test according to Vikan will be whether the Greens will undertake the kind of rigorous study and authentication required of a serious cultural institution:

The collection in its entirety must, of course, be properly conserved and safely preserved — including those works the staff does not plan to exhibit, both for scholars, and in anticipation of possible repatriation claims.

This process, done right, will entail significant expense, but just a tiny fraction of what has already been invested. And it will go a long way toward repairing the Greens’ reputation as responsible stewards. As the Walters example suggests, there is a place in the profession for ex post facto due diligence on high-speed collecting: if you can’t get it right at first, make sure you do it right later. Full transparency is also the ticket price for membership in the museum and academic worlds to which the Greens aspire.

I urge Steve Green to announce that this approach is part of his strategic agenda, that it has his full support, and that its urgency is no less than that of his new museum. Should these efforts reveal specific evidence of illegally excavated and/or exported works from, for example, Iraq, I would urge Green to initiate an open, good-faith dialogue with officials in the country of origin and with the U.S. State Department, with the aim of repatriation.

What’s done is done. Now is the time to look toward the future, and to act.

In many respects these problems were predictable and foreseeable. The age when you could spend freely on the international antiquities market are gone. Buyers must be more careful. Another consideration I suppose is whether it would have even been possible to put together a museum of the bible if those questions were asked. Perhaps not.

  1. Gary Vikan, Probe of Steve Green’s antiquities may be inevitable; his response is not (COMMENTARY), The Washington Post, October 30, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/probe-of-steve-greens-antiquities-may-be-inevitable-his-response-is-not-commentary/2015/10/30/3d8ad5dc-7f42-11e5-bfb6-65300a5ff562_story.html?postshare=3961446266414312 .
  2. Candida Moss, Joel Baden, Exclusive: Feds Investigate Hobby Lobby Boss for Illicit Artifacts The Daily Beast (2015), http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/10/26/exclusive-feds-investigate-hobby-lobby-boss-for-illicit-artifacts.html .