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The Forger Among Us: The Museum of the Bible Dead Sea Scrolls and the Recent History of Epigraphic Forgeries

15 March 2020

The Forger Among Us:

The Museum of the Bible Dead Sea Scrolls and the Recent History of Epigraphic Forgeries

Prof. Christopher Rollston (Ph.D. Johns Hopkins University)

rollston@gwu.edu

Dept. of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations

George Washington University

             

On March 13, 2020, the Museum of the Bible held a symposium in Washington, D.C.  The focus of the symposium was the presentation of various laboratory tests (on the basis of physical characteristics, elemental and molecular analysis, chemical analyses; using, for example, FTIR analyses, XRF analyses, SEM-EDS analyses, etc.) performed on sixteen fragments, putatively of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are part of the Museum’s holdings.  The point-person for the laboratory tests was Colette Loll (of Georgetown University), founder and director of Art Fraud Insights, the firm responsible for the laboratory report (which is 212 pages long).  The hard-science team included (in addition to Colette Loll) Abigail Quandt (of the Walters Art Museum), Aaron Shugar (of the State University of New York), Rebecca Pollak (SAFA Senior Research Conservator), Jennifer Mass (Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture), and Thomas Kupiec (Founder of the Kupiec Group and CEO of ARL, Bio Pharma and DNA Solutions).  The respondents at the symposium (the symposium was entitled “A Journey for the Truth: Investigating the Recent Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments”) were, in order of presentations: Dr. Greg Bearman (Cal Tech), Dr. Christopher Rollston (George Washington University), Dr. Kipp Davis (Trinity Western University), Dr. Sidnie White Crawford (University of Nebraska and Princeton Theological Seminary), and Dr. Lawrence Schiffman (New York University).  Respondents were given access to the full laboratory report (i.e., all 212 pages) during the weeks prior to the symposium.   

              Dr. Jeff Kloha (Chief Curatorial Officer of the Museum of the Bible; Ph.D. University of Leeds; Kloha joined the Museum of the Bible in 2017) began the symposium with a brief welcome, and Dr. Michael Holmes (Director of the Museum of the Bible Scholars Initiative; Ph.D. Princeton Theological Seminary; Holmes joined the Museum in November 2014) provided a brief history of research on the “Museum of the Bible Dead Sea Scroll Fragments” (including the fact that these “fragments” were said to be, in part or in whole, from the Kando family, that is, the family of Khalil Eskander Shahin, who was a broker and seller of many of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered during the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s).  Among the things that Kloha and Holmes indicated in their remarks was the fact that they fully accept the verdict of Art Fraud Insights: all sixteen Dead Sea Scroll fragments are actually modern forgeries, not ancient.  Based on the constellation of evidence (palaeographic, laboratory), it is (from my perspective, previously and also now) readily apparent that all sixteen of the Museum’s Dead Sea Scroll fragments are indeed modern forgeries.  This seemed to me to be the clear consensus of all of the respondents.

              The conclusions of Art Fraud Insights were preceded by prior laboratory tests (on a smaller selection of the Museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, tests which also suggested that these fragmentary materials were modern forgeries) and the assessments of various Biblical Scholars and Epigraphers (e.g., Dr. Kipp Davis, Dr. Arstein Justnes, Dr. Michael Langlois, among others).  Thirteen of these Dead Sea Scroll fragments had been published in a volume entitled Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments in the Museum Collection (eds. Emanuel Tov, Kipp Davis, and Robert Duke; Leiden: Brill, 2016, 236pp).  The morning of the symposium, a National Geographic article authored by Michael Greshko was published online (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/03/museum-of-the-bible-dead-sea-scrolls-forgeries/).

              It is important to put the Museum’s sixteen modern forgeries in a broader framework.  (1) First and foremost, it should be emphasized that textual forgeries have a very long history, going back to Ancient and Medieval times.  For example, the Famine Stele was an ancient Egyptian forgery (hailing from the Ptolemaic Period but purporting to come from the time of the Egyptian Old Kingdom), the Manishtushu Cruciform Monument was an ancient forgery (purporting to hail from the time of Sargon the Great’s son in the late 3rd millennium BCE, but in reality hailing from the Neo-Babylonian Period, some fifteen hundred years later), and the Donation of Constantine was a Medieval forgery (and in reality not from Constantine the Great, but a forgery from the Middle Ages which purported to be from Constantine the Great; for discussion of these, see Rollston, “Forging History: From Antiquity to the Modern Period,” 2014, pp. 177-184, and the earlier literature cited there).  (2) Textual forgeries (in Phoenician, Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, etc.) also abounded during the late 19th century and the early 20th century, with the Shapira Forgeries (some on stone, some on pottery, and some on parchment), the Brazilian Phoenician Forgeries, and “the Messerschmidt Clay Forgeries” (http://www.rollstonepigraphy.com/?m=201311 ).  (3) Furthermore, during the final decades of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century, epigraphic forgeries continued to abound, with the Hebron Philistine Documents, the Moussaieff Ostraca, the Jehoash Inscription (all dealt with in Rollston 2003, Rollston 2004, Rollston 2005, as well as in some later articles of Rollston), the Ma’adanah Seal, the Baruch Bullae (both dealt with in Rollston 2016), the Ivory Pomegranate (dealt with in Rollston 2015), the Ya‘akov [James] Ossuary, the Jesus Wife Papyrus, the Jerusalem Papyrus (the latter two dealt with in Rollston 2017) being some of the most famous.  (4) And the list could go on.  But the point is that these forged Dead Sea Scroll fragments are part of a much broader phenomenon.  It is also important to mention that all of these forgeries of the past 150 years are connected with the Antiquities Market in some fashion. (5) The methods of forgers are varied, but can be fairly well ascertained without much difficulty.  Forgers have a multitude of tools at their disposal (see Rollston 2003, pp. 137-139, forgers can and do use the best of our lexica and grammars, the best of our epigraphic and palaeographic discussions, the best of our historical and cultural discussions.  (6) They also read our discussions of laboratory analyses (cf. Rollston 2003, pp. 182-191, for discussion of various protocols and procedures for laboratory tests, and the failings of some laboratory scientists as well), including the chemical composition of inks and patinas (and forgers will read this superb analysis by ArtFraudInsights, alas, and they will learn much from it so as to produce better forgeries on a variety of media).  And, of course, forgers can and do use ancient media (e.g., ancient potsherds, stones of Levantine quarry, ancient papyrus, ancient vellum; for fuller discussion, see Rollston 2003, pp. 138-139; Rollston 2004).  Indeed, only the most foolish of forgers would not use some ancient medium (e.g., with the hope that a carbon test on the medium may be performed and thus “authenticate” the inscription itself).  (7) And forgers have also (since at least the time of the Shapira Forgeries) attempted to create fake patinas (see Rollston 2003, pp. 183-186).  (8) Furthermore, modern forgers are also becoming quite adept at duping even some fairly good hard-scientists by salting things such as carbonized remains into their fake patinas (as was the case with the Jehoash Inscription; see Rollston 2003, pp. 183-186 et passim), and by using ancient carbonized remains (e.g., from the remains of beams burnt in antiquity) to make inks which can pass laboratory tests (dealt with especially in Rollston 2017, pp. 322-323).

              The motives of the forgers are varied.   Here are the ones which I have contended (in various publications, including Rollston 2003, pp. 191-193; Rollston 2014, pp. 176-177) are most common during the past 150 years, but many (if not all) are also part of the ancient world in some fashion. Some have suggested (or assumed) that the primary motive for forgers is economic.  True enough, venality is certainly a motive through all time.  However, I am confident that a larger number of motivations can be posited, based on known forgeries: (1) Venality (i.e., greed); (2) Hubris (i.e., the forger’s belief that he or she is too good to make mistakes, detectable or otherwise); (3) “Sour Grapes” (e.g., of a doctoral student purged from a program, or a veteran scholar who feels he or she has been slighted by another scholar); (4) Professional Rivalry (e.g., the production of a forgery which confirms something which said scholar has previously said in print); (5) Pranks (i.e., an outright joke); (6) Professional/Personal Aggrandizement (e.g., fame for being associated with some stunning new inscription from the market); (7) Religion and Politics (especially the desire to prey on the sincere beliefs, hopes, and fears of good people).  I have discussed all these in greater detail in various places through the years (again, Rollston 2003; Rollston 2004; Rollston 2014).

As an ancillary note, and as a modus operandi of forgers: namely, forgers of, dealers of, and owners of forged antiquities often seek out scholars whom they believe will “authenticate” their finds.  Along these lines, forgers, dealers, and owners know which scholars most frequently “authenticate” inscriptions (including some forgeries) from the Antiquities Market and they especially seek out the opinions of those scholars (because they want their own inscriptions to be authenticated). 

Similarly, forgers, dealers, and owners will often approach scholars whom they know do not work with epigraphic remains, but are rather “text scholars” (i.e., scholars who mostly work with edited texts rather than the actual physical objects…and so these scholars do not intimately know the look and feel of something which is actually ancient). 

It is important to mention that although some have suggested that scholars are never the culprits, the facts on the ground demonstrate otherwise.  Note, in this connection, the famous forgery published by Princeton Professor Coleman-Norton (dealt with in Rollston 2003, pp. 192-193), a forger who was outed by his own student, Bruce Metzger.

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              The Forger of the Museum of the Bible Dead Sea Scroll Forgeries: With this basic summary of some of the early history of forgeries, I should like to return, in earnest, to the forger of the Museum of the Bible’s forgeries.  I shall be fairly forthright here.  Here is a profile of the forger: I believe that the forger of these Dead Sea Scrolls forged fragments is a trained scholar in our field, with access to actual ancient scrolls.  I believe that the forger forged them during the course of a few months, or more likely, a couple years (this also accounts for some of the variation in the script).  I believe that venality (indeed, outright and blatant greed) is a primary motivation (literally, netting the forger millions of dollars for these Museum of the Bible forgeries), but greed is not the only motivation.  I believe the scholar of these forgeries is particularly hubristic, and assumed he (or she) could fool all other scholars (and also probably delighted in this assumption).  I do not think that these were forged as some sort of a joke (as was the case in the Coleman-Norton forgery and in the case of the Hebron Philistine Documents). Clearly, I believe that the forger is amoral.  Also, I believe that the forger worked primarily alone, but could have included a paid friend or associate who had at least a high-school level knowledge of chemistry (these forgeries are not sophisticated enough to have included the assistance of a trained scholar in chemistry). 

              Also, I believe that a good investigative journalist should be capable, given the resources (e.g., several months of compensated work) of a good newspaper or learned society, should be able to discover the identity of the forger.  I hope that the weight of all of the relevant national and international laws is brought forth against this forger (although, as a realist with regard to conviction rates, I suspect that the most that can be hoped is that the identity of the forger will be discovered).

              Some final reflections: The Museum of the Bible (and its precursors, associated entities, etc.) engaged in some lamentable and egregious actions, as well as lapses of professional ethics, some of which were also breaches of the law (hence the US Dept. of Justice case, of course).  This cannot, and should not, be forgotten (for all sorts of reasons).  It was bad, and it was wrong (I’m thinking here of, among other things, the purchase of many objects, including cuneiform tablets, from conflict zones in the Middle East).  And the Museum has paid a price for those actions, not only in the serious tarnishing of the reputation of the Museum and the surrender of pillaged objects and inscriptions, but also substantial financial penalties from the US Dept. of Justice.  But I have also long said, and long believed, in the possibility and importance of true penitence and the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.  Indeed, I do believe in the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, on a personal scale as well as for organizations, learned societies, and even nations. 

              So, for what it’s worth, here’s what I think in this case of these forged Dead Sea Scroll fragments now in the custody of the Museum of the Bible, and some of the broader implications.  These were purchased with the understanding that they were known prior to the enactment of the “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property – 1970” (e.g., that they came from the Kando family and so the chain of custody was secure).  Frankly, I believe those advising the Museum at the time of the purchase were (at the very least) naïve, but that’s another story for another time.  The thing that I wish to emphasize here is that the Museum of the Bible ultimately came clean: They rapidly acknowledged that these scroll fragments might be modern forgeries and that the lore (and documents) associated with their origins might be a fabrication (indeed, I have long said that I put zero credence in any “statement about the antiquity” or “documentation” that is shown to me by an owner, collector, or dealer, as they have so many reasons to prevaricate).  Then, the Museum funded the very extensive laboratory tests (I have no idea what this must have cost, as the laboratory reports were numerous, conducted by first-tier scientists, and are reported in a tome that exceeds 200 pages….the final sum for all this work must be in the five figures, and I would not be surprised if it was in the low six figures).  And then, to top it all off, major people in the current senior leadership at the Museum (e.g., Jeff Kloha and Michael Holmes….and many others, I believe as well) have embraced the results of the laboratory report: All sixteen of these Dead Sea Scroll fragments are modern forgeries.  I would imagine that this was, and is, a tough pill to swallow.  And frankly, I’m impressed that they publically and unambiguously stated that they accept this conclusion.  Indeed, I’m impressed.  I’m not surprised, as I have come to know Jeff Kloha and Michael Holmes some during the past few years.  These are honest people, good and kind people, and smart scholars.  Frankly, I have come to like and appreciate them. 

              One final point: I have believed for a long time (and said in print long ago, after a comment to me from mentor and friend, the late Frank Moore Cross), museums should have forgery exhibits so as to raise the awareness of the public and of scholars about the problem of modern forgeries (see Rollston and Parker 2005).  The Israel Museum did this a number of years ago with regard to the Shapira Forgeries.  It was a marvelous exhibit, drew a lot of attention to the problem, did a lot of good, and my earnest hope is that the Museum of the Bible will allocate space, as a signal of its further desire to right wrongs, for an exhibit of these forged Dead Sea Scroll fragments.  And, along those same lines, since many museums have modern forgeries in their holdings (including the Smithsonian and the Met), perhaps the Museum of the Bible could work with such museums to produce a first-class exhibit about the problem of the antiquities market and the problem of modern forgeries.  That’s an exhibit I would love to see.  It’s unusual, it’s important…and, of course, the Museum does have the forgeries.

Select Bibliography

Rollston, Christopher A. “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests.” Maarav 10 (2003): 135-193.

______.  “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II: The Status of Non-Provenanced Epigraphs within the Broader Corpus of Northwest Semitic.” Maarav 11 (2004): 57-79.

______.  “Navigating the Epigraphic Storm: A Palaeographer Reflects on Inscriptions from the Market.”  Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005): 69-72.

Rollston, Christopher; Heather Dana Davis Parker.  “The Public Display of Forgeries: A Desideratum for Museums and Collections.”  Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005): 75.

Rollston, Christopher.  “Forging History: From Antiquity to the Modern Period.” Pp. 176-197 in Archaeologies of Text: Archaeology, Technology, and Ethics, eds. Matthew Rutz and Morag Kersel.  Joukowsky Institute Publication Series of Brown University, Oxbow Books, 2014.

______“The Ivory Pomegranate: The Anatomy of a Probable Modern Forgery.” Pp. 238-252 in Epigraphy, Philology and the Hebrew Bible: Methodological Perspectives on Philological and Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible in Honor of Jo Ann Hackett, eds. Jeremy M. Hutton and Aaron D. Rubin. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2015.

______.  “The Bullae of Baruch ben Neriah the Scribe and the Seal of Ma‘adanah Daughter of the King: Epigraphic Forgeries of the 20th Century.” Pp. *79-90 in Eretz Israel 32: The Joseph Naveh Volume, eds. Joseph Aviram, Shmuel Ahituv, et al. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2016.

______.  “The Putative Authenticity of the New ‘Jerusalem’ Papyrus Inscription: Methodological Caution as a Desideratum,” Pp. 321-330 in Rethinking Israel: Studies in the History and Archaeology of Ancient Israel in Honor of Israel Finkelstein, ed Oded Lipschits.  Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2017.