‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ at the Museum of the Bible are all forgeries

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.

“Once one or two of the fragments were fake, you know all of them probably are, because they come from the same sources, and they look basically the same,” says Årstein Justnes, a researcher at Norway’s University of Agder whose Lying Pen of Scribes project tracks the post-2002 fragments.

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?

“It really was—and still is—an interesting kind of detective story,” says Jeffrey Kloha, the Museum of the Bible’s chief curatorial officer. “We really hope this is helpful to other institutions and researchers, because we think this provides a good foundation for looking at other pieces, even if it raises other questions.”

Under the microscope

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.

‘It’s the First Domino’: After the Museum of the Bible Discovered Its Dead Sea Scrolls Are Fake, the Field Braces for More Revelations

There’s more bad news for the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. Every single one of its 16 fragments of the famed Dead Sea Scrolls have been found to be modern-day forgeries—not just the five previously identified fakes. And since the Museum of the Bible’s trove was a small part of a much larger group of scroll fragments that have since spread around the globe, the finding could have big implications for the field.

The museum announced the news at an academic symposium on Friday, presenting the results of a battery of tests conducted by outside experts between May and October of 2019. In a 200-page report, the five-person team judged the artifacts to be 20th-century forgeries meant to mimic the famed Dead Sea Scrolls first discovered in 1947 in Israel’s Qumran caves. The findings were first announced by National Geographic, and have already launched a contentious debate on Twitter.

“We came to an unanimous conclusion that they were all forgeries,” Colette Loll, founder of Art Fraud Insights, which conducted the tests, told Artnet News. “There were a lot of anomalies that we identified through microscopy.”

How the Fakes Were Caught

Loll cited several pieces of evidence that led her team to its conclusion. Instead of being made from tanned or lightly tanned parchment, like the real Dead Sea Scrolls, the Museum of the Bible’s fragments were made of leather—likely ancient, perhaps from the soles of old shoes.

“After 2,000 years, leather and parchment look very similar,” said Loll. “Until you do a high magnification analysis, as well as a chemical and elemental analysis, you really can’t tell the difference.”

But under a microscope, there were several dead giveaways—first of all, the leather was very bumpy and rough. “It was obvious to us that the scribe had a very difficult time writing on the surface, unlike the clean smooth parchment that would have been used 2,000 years ago,” Loll explained.

More damningly, a close examination showed that the writing had been applied to a surface that was already fragmented—the ink dripped over the sides and fell into cracks that wouldn’t have existed when the leather was new.

One of the fake Dead Sea Scrolls from the Museum of the Bible at high magnification, revealing anomalies. Photo courtesy of Art Fraud Insights.

One of the fake Dead Sea Scrolls from the Museum of the Bible at high magnification, revealing anomalies. Photo courtesy of Art Fraud Insights.

“This confirmed our conclusion that ancient materials were repurposed for the creation of these fragments,” said Loll.

Another clue was that parts of the real Dead Sea Scrolls look a bit like they’ve been coated in glue, because the collagen in parchment breaks down over the millennia, turning into gelatin. The fragments from the Museum of the Bible were “heavily impregnated with an amber-colored animal skin glue,” Loll said. “Not only did the coating facilitate the writing on these uneven and bumpy surfaces, but it also served to mimic the degradation you would see in the authentic scrolls.”

“It’s the First Domino”

The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest-known Biblical texts, and most of them belong to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. There are some 100,000 authenticated fragments, but the Museum of the Bible’s holdings—reportedly acquired for millions of dollars—were all among a group of some 70 previously unknown Dead Sea Scroll fragments that came to market after 2002.

An antiquities dealer named Khalil Iskandar Shahin, also known as Kando, acquired many of the original Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1950s. The post-2002 fragments reportedly were first sold by his son William Kando.

One of the fake Dead Sea Scrolls from the Museum of the Bible at high magnification. Photo courtesy of Art Fraud Insights.

One of the fake Dead Sea Scrolls from the Museum of the Bible at high magnification. Photo courtesy of Art Fraud Insights.

Since the new artifacts appeared on the market, institutions and private collectors have spent somewhere between $35 million and $45 million to purchase them, Dead Sea Scroll expert Rabbi Lawrence Schiffman told those assembled at Friday’s symposium. All those fragments, considered suspect for years, are now definitively called into question—and it seems all but certain other forgeries will be identified.

“This is the first domino,” said Loll.

A Debate Over the Findings

Between 2009 and 2014, Hobby Lobby tycoon Steve Green snapped up 16 of the post-2002 fragments for his planned Museum of the Bible—seven directly from Kando, the rest from bookseller Craig Lampe, collector Andrew Stimer, and book collector Michael Sharpe. Before the institution even opened, it put together a 2016 book, Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments in the Museum Collection, published by Brill. It offered a scholarly analysis of the artifacts, but no scientific testing had been conducted.

Despite Loll’s damning findings, one of the lead editors of the 2016 book, biblical scholar Emanuel Tov, contests the new report because similar tests were not conducted on authentic Dead Sea Scrolls as a baseline of comparison. “The report expects us to conclude that abnormalities abound without demonstrating what is normal,” he told Nat Geo.

But other experts have been suspicious for quite some time. As the 430,000-square-foot museum’s November 2017 opening date approached, concerns over the fragments’ authenticity began to mount—one of the book’s other authors, Kipp Davis, even published an article raising the possibility of forgery. At the same time, the institution itself became the subject of controversy.

Visitors tour the "History of the Bible" exhibit at the Museum of the Bible n Washington, DC. Photo by Saul Loeb, courtesy of AFP Photo/Getty Images.

Visitors tour the “History of the Bible” exhibit at the Museum of the Bible n Washington, DC. Photo by Saul Loeb, courtesy of AFP Photo/Getty Images.

A Trouble-Plagued Museum

Investigators questioned the provenance of the $30 million collection that Green began amassing in 2009, and found that the company had imported looted artifacts. Hobby Lobby ultimately reached a settlement, returning 5,500 smuggled Iraqi artifacts and paying a $3 million fine. They were forced to return 13 Egyptian Biblical artifacts in 2019.

By that point, an initial analysis of five of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments had already been carried out, showing them to be inauthentic. That’s when they called Loll to amp up the search.

“The Museum of the Bible really wanted to put this question to rest, and they committed significant resources. I recruited an incredible team of scientists, conservators, and imaging scientists,” said Loll, who agreed to carry out the necessary scientific analysis because the institution promised total transparency.

“The Museum of the Bible has had some pretty significant criticism, justifiably so, given these missteps in their collecting practices,” she added. “It was clear to all involved that this project had to be completely independent.”

The museum is currently closed to the public due to the current global health crisis. Before it reopens, the remaining scroll fragment forgeries will be removed from view. What remains to be seen is who, exactly, created these modern-day forgeries and how they found their way to the marketplace.

One of the fake Dead Sea Scrolls from the Museum of the Bible at high magnification. Photo courtesy of Art Fraud Insights.

One of the fake Dead Sea Scrolls from the Museum of the Bible at high magnification. Photo courtesy of Art Fraud Insights.

What’s Next

“As for who was responsible,” said Loll, “the scope of my research was confirm or refute authenticity. The next phase of the research will likely look into where and when and who. But there are a limited number of dealers whose hands have touched these post-2002 Dead Sea Scroll fragments.”

The museum will be making Loll’s report available to the public in the hopes of identifying other forgeries. “The sophisticated and costly methods employed to discover the truth about our collection could be used to shed light on other suspicious fragments and perhaps even be effective in uncovering who is responsible for these forgeries,” said Jeffrey Kloha, the institution’s chief curatorial officer, in a statement.

The uncovering of such high-profile forgeries stands as a reminder that antiquities collectors are perhaps particularly vulnerable to fraud. “Doing extensive due diligence is always really important, especially when you’re looking at biblical text,” said Loll. “Often times, the collectors are ideologically motivated—and the market takes advantage of that.”

Winterthur exhibit offers insight into detecting art fraud

 

Recent forgery scandals in the art world have captured headlines around the world, raising questions about the authenticity of art, antiquities, and collectibles. The timely exhibition Treasures on Trial: The Art and Science of Detecting Fakes revealed some of the most clever and most costly deceptions of our time by pairing diverse examples of fake objects with conservation science from Winterthur’s own Scientific Research and Analysis Lab, alongside the research of several other leading conservation scientists in the country. Visitors saw more than 60 examples of fakes and forgeries from the Winterthur collection as well as public and private sources and discovered the motives for their creation and the evidence used in their detection.

 

The exhibition examined artwork, couture, silver, sporting memorabilia, musical instruments, antiquities, and stamps along with ceramics, furniture and folk art. This broad selection of luxury and everyday objects further illustrated the rarity, supply, and desirability can make anything fair game for a clever forger or fraudster intent on turning a handsome profit.

 

Scientific analysis and stylistic clues were presented alongside artwork and objects, exposing the broad range of motives and techniques used to test and fool collectors and experts. These tricks of the trade also revealed fascinating stories about the forgers themselves.

Treasures on Trial will examined intriguing questions such as: What gets faked and why? How do you spot a fake? How does scientific methodology assist in this? Visitors were also invited to investigate several unresolved examples and share their opinion about the authenticity of the object based on the available evidence.

The exhibition was organized by Winterthur Museum & Gardens and is co-curated by Colette Loll and Winterthur’s Director of Collections and Senior Curator of Textiles Linda Eaton.

Add link to online exhibition:

http://treasuresontrial.winterthur.org/

Auctioneers buy into forensics to expose the fakes and frauds

Colette Loll, Founder and Director of Art Fraud Insights is quoted in the February issue of The Art Newspaper on how forensic science is being used by auction houses.

The establishment of the first in-house scientific research department at a major auction house “is indicative of where the market is going”, says Colette Loll, the founder of the specialist firm Art Fraud Insights, based in Washington, DC. “It’s all about mitigating risk.”

Thee full article will be published online in the coming weeks.