'Dead Sea Scrolls' at the Museum of the Bible are all forgeries
Months of testing confirm earlier suspicions that the fragments were made in modern times. What happens next?
BY MICHAEL GRESHKO
PUBLISHED MARCH 13, 2020
WASHINGTON, D.C.On the fourth floor of the Museum of the Bible, a sweeping permanent exhibit tells the story of how the ancient scripture became the world’s most popular book. A warmly lit sanctum at the exhibit’s heart reveals some of the museum’s most prized possessions: fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient texts that include the oldest known surviving copies of the Hebrew Bible.
But now, the Washington, D.C. museum has confirmed a bitter truth about the fragments’ authenticity. On Friday, independent researchers funded by the Museum of the Bible announced that all 16 of the museum’s Dead Sea Scroll fragments are modern forgeries that duped outside collectors, the museum’s founder, and some of the world’s leading biblical scholars. Officials unveiled the findings at an academic conference hosted by the museum.
“The Museum of the Bible is trying to be as transparent as possible,” says CEO Harry Hargrave. “We’re victims—we’re victims of misrepresentation, we’re victims of fraud.”
In a report spanning more than 200 pages, a team of researchers led by art fraud investigator Colette Loll found that while the pieces are probably made of ancient leather, they were inked in modern times and modified to resemble real Dead Sea Scrolls. “These fragments were manipulated with the intent to deceive,” Loll says.
The new findings don’t cast doubt on the 100,000 real Dead Sea Scroll fragments, most of which lie in the Shrine of the Book, part of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. However, the report’s findings raise grave questions about the “post-2002” Dead Sea Scroll fragments, a group of some 70 snippets of biblical text that entered the antiquities market in the 2000s. Even before the new report, some scholars believed that most to all of the post-2002 fragments were modern fakes.
Since its 2017 opening, the Museum of the Bible has funded research into the pieces and sent off five fragments to Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Research for testing. In late 2018, the museum announced the results to the world: All five tested fragments were probably modern forgeries.
But what of the other 11 fragments? And how had the forgers managed to fool the world’s leading Dead Sea Scroll scholars and the Museum of the Bible? ...
To find out more about its fragments, the Museum of the Bible reached out to Loll and her company, Art Fraud Insights, in February 2019 and charged her with conducting a thorough physical and chemical investigation of all 16 pieces. Loll was no stranger to fakes and forgeries. After getting her master’s in art history at George Washington University, Loll went on to study international art crime, run forgery investigations, and train federal agents on matters of cultural heritage.
Loll insisted on independence. Not only would the Museum of the Bible have no say on the team’s findings, her report would be final—and would have to be released to the public. The Museum of the Bible agreed to the terms. “Honestly, I’ve never worked with a museum that was so up-front,” Loll says.
Loll quickly assembled a team of five conservators and scientists. From February to October, the team periodically visited the museum and pulled together their findings. By the time their report was finalized in November 2019, the researchers were unanimous. All 16 fragments appeared to be modern forgeries.
First, the team concluded that the fragments were seemingly made of the wrong material. Nearly all the authentic Dead Sea Scrolls fragments are made of tanned or lightly tanned parchment, but at least 15 of the Museum of the Bible’s fragments were made of leather, which is thicker, bumpier, and more fibrous.
The team’s best guess is that the leather itself is ancient, recovered from scraps found in the Judean desert or elsewhere. One tantalizing possibility is that they come from ancient leather shoes or sandals. One of the fragments has a row of what look like artificially made holes, somewhat similar to those found in Roman-era shoes.
In addition, testing led by Jennifer Mass, the president of Scientific Analysis of Fine Art, showed that the forger soaked the fragments in an amber-colored concoction, most likely an animal-skin glue. The treatment not only stabilized the leather and smoothed out the writing surface, but it also mimicked a signature, glue-like feature of the real Dead Sea Scrolls. After millennia of exposure, collagen in the ancient parchment broke down to form gelatin, which hardened to give some parts of authentic fragments a gummy, glue-soaked appearance.
Most damningly, careful microscopic analysis showed that the fragments’ scripture was painted onto already ancient leather. On many of the pieces, suspiciously shiny ink pools in cracks and waterfalls off of torn edges that wouldn’t have been present when the leather was new. On others, the forgers’ brushstrokes clearly overlie the ancient leather’s bumpy mineral crust. ...
Around 2002, antiquities dealers and biblical scholars started to unveil snippets of biblical text that looked like long-lost pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many of the shriveled brown fragments—most no bigger than large coins—reportedly traced back to the Kandos, who were rumored to be selling pieces they had long ago spirited away to a vault in Switzerland.
By decade’s end, the trickle of post-2002 fragments turned into a flood of at least 70 pieces. Collectors and museums jumped at the chance to own the oldest known biblical texts, including Museum of the Bible founder Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby. Starting in 2009, Green and Hobby Lobby spent a fortune buying up biblical manuscripts and artifacts to seed what would become the Museum of the Bible’s collection. From 2009 to 2014, Green bought a total of 16 Dead Sea Scroll fragments in four batches, including seven fragments he bought directly from William Kando, the elder Kando’s son.
Initially, some Dead Sea Scroll experts thought the post-2002 pieces, including Green’s, were the real deal. In 2016, leading biblical scholars published a book on the Museum of the Bible’s fragments, dating them to the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But months before that book’s publication, doubt had started to creep into some scholars’ minds.
In 2016, researchers including Justnes and Kipp Davis, a scholar at Canada’s Trinity Western University who co-edited the 2016 book, began discussing signs that some post-2002 fragments in Norway had been faked. Davis then published evidence in 2017 that cast doubt on two Museum of the Bible fragments, including one that was on display when the museum opened in 2017. One fragment’s lettering squeezed into a corner that wouldn’t have existed when the writing surface was new. Another appeared to have a Greek letter alpha where a 1930s reference Hebrew Bible used an alpha to flag a footnote.
In the wake of the new report, researchers say they must next focus on the fragments’ convoluted routes through the global antiquities trade. “When you have a deceiver and a believer, it’s an intimate dance,” Loll says. “You don’t need as much of a knowledge of the materials as you need a knowledge of the marketplace.”
Despite being purchased at four different times from four different people, the report finds that all 16 of the Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scroll fragments were forged the same way—which strongly suggests that the forged fragments share a common source. However, the identity of the forger or forgers remains unknown. ...