In a laboratory in the German capital of Berlin, a team of researchers are poring over fragments of an ancient-looking text. Previously on display in Washington, D.C.’s Museum of the Bible, the artifacts purportedly form part of the world-famous Dead Sea Scrolls. However, soon the experts discover that something doesn’t quite add up.
The more recent chapter of this story began over seven decades ago. In 1946 a group of Bedouin shepherds stumbled upon a cache of scrolls hidden within a cave in Qumran, in what is now the Palestinian West Bank. And although they were initially told that their discovery was worthless, the group decided to persevere. As a result, the documents were subsequently sold to a local antiques dealer named Khalil Eskander Shahin – known as Kando.
The scrolls then made their way into the hands of Bible scholar Dr. John C. Trever the following year. The academic noted the similarities between those artifacts and the Nash Papyrus – an ancient biblical text. Soon enough, the authorities had caught on to the importance of the finds and managed to track down the mysterious caves.
More than 980 manuscripts were eventually gathered from the Qumran area – retrieved from a total of 11 different caves. And today the oldest among the artifacts are thought to date from the third century B.C. Significantly, they include excerpts from the Hebrew Bible – predating any other copies by some 1,000 years.
For biblical scholars, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was revolutionary. And even now, more than 70 years later, archaeologists continue to comb the caves around Qumran in hopes of making another significant discovery. Meanwhile, the scrolls themselves have developed an almost legendary status within the Christian world.
The Kando family sold numerous fragments of the scrolls to museums and private collectors around the world during the 1950s and ‘60s until a UNESCO ban put an end to it. Then, in around 2002 a new influx of artifacts began to appear on the antiquities market. Rumors at the time claimed that Kando’s son William had opened a vault containing additional pieces of the precious manuscript.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it wasn’t long before the pieces caught the eye of Steve Green – president of arts-and-crafts enterprise Hobby Lobby. Back in the 1970s Green’s father David had founded the company based on principles in line with the family’s devoutly Christian beliefs. And by the time that the Kandos had reopened their vault, the Green family had amassed a fortune amounting to billions of dollars.
Since at least 2010 the Greens had been planning what was to become known as the Museum of the Bible – a collection of artifacts aimed at educating visitors about the holy book. And in 2012 the family acquired a home for their project which was just a couple of blocks from the famous National Mall in Washington, D.C. Over the ensuing five years, the Greens then got to work filling their chosen site with a series of Christian-themed exhibitions.
Before the museum could even open, however, the Green family found themselves facing controversy over their ambitious venture. In July 2017 Hobby Lobby was ordered to return more than 5,000 artifacts to Iraq. Apparently, the company had been accused of knowingly smuggling the relics out of the country without permission.
It’s also believed that Green visited Zurich – where the Kandos’ vault is located. And by the time that the Museum of the Bible made its catalog of artifacts public, the list contained 13 alleged fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some experts, however, voiced doubts about the provenance of the manuscripts from the beginning.
The museum then asked Berlin’s Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing to conduct an examination of the scrolls. By then, it was April 2017 – just seven months before the museum was set to open. And even though the experts were unable to confirm the authenticity of the manuscripts in time, they went on public display for the official launch in November 2017.
At the time, the pieces of manuscript were exhibited alongside a notice that indicated their authenticity was still a matter of academic debate. However, some scholars had already begun to express their suspicions. Kipp Davis from Trinity Western University’s Dead Sea Scrolls Institute told The Guardian in 2017, “There is a spectrum of authenticity. I put six of the Green family fragments close to the forgery side of the spectrum.”
For almost a year, the fragments remained on display in front of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who flocked to the Green family’s attraction. Then, in October 2018 the Museum of the Bible released a shocking statement. Apparently, the results of the testing were finally in – and they didn’t look good.
According to the press release, the museum had sent five fragments off for analysis in Berlin. There, they were subjected to a series of rigorous tests involving x-ray scanning, digital microscopy and x-ray spectroscopy – as well as studying the composition of the
ink and sediment. And as a result, experts were able to learn more about the history of the controversial artifacts.
Ultimately, the team concluded that the fragments showed “characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin.” In cases like these, some scholars believe, forgers may have added handwritten text to otherwise authentically dated pieces of leather and papyrus. By following such a clever process, they were subsequently able to create fakes that are now impossible to spot without testing the ink.
“We had hoped that the testing would render different results,” the museum’s chief curatorial officer, Jeffrey Kloha, announced in a statement. “[But] this is an opportunity to educate the public on the importance of verifying the authenticity of rare biblical artifacts, the elaborate testing process undertaken and our commitment to transparency.”
In light of the findings, the museum decided to withdraw the five fragments from display. Yet eight pieces remain in the collection – despite the opinion of scholars such as Davis that some of these could also be fakes. Meanwhile, research into the authenticity of the manuscript pieces is still ongoing.
Although Green has not disclosed how much he forked out for his alleged fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, other pieces have each fetched sums upwards of $1 million on the open market. And sadly, he is far from the only person facing embarrassment thanks to what appear to be some clever forgeries.
Årstein Justnes, who is a researcher from the University of Agder in Norway told National Geographic that up to 90 percent of the supposed fragments which have emerged since 2002 are probably forgeries. But even so, William Kando has been quick to defend the authenticity of his artifacts. He told The Guardian, “It is not possible we were misled. The fragments are 100 percent [genuine].”
Meanwhile, the Green family appeared to take a surprisingly relaxed approach to the controversy surrounding some of their prime exhibits. Kloha explained, “The museum continues to support and encourage research on these objects and others in its collection both to inform the public about leading-edge research methods and ensure our exhibits are presenting the most accurate and updated information.”
For two years, the controversial artifacts remained in limbo between fact and fiction – with some convinced of their authenticity and others decrying them as outright fakes. And despite their uncertain provenance, a number of Dead Sea Scroll fragments continued to be displayed at the Museum of the Bible. In fact, by 2020 the institution was claiming to own a total of 16 pieces.
Until March 2020 the pieces formed the centerpiece of an exhibit located on the fourth floor of the museum. Helping to illustrate the story of the bible through the ages, they were displayed in cases lit by soft light. But while visitors continued to gawp at the alleged artifacts, some damning new evidence had come to light.
According to National Geographic, the museum had made contact with a company known as Art Fraud Insights in February 2019. Founded by Colette Loll, an academic with a background in art history and international art crime, the company is dedicated to educating the public about fraud. And soon, a team had apparently been assembled to take on the case.
Over the years, Loll has worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a number of NGOs. Alongside raising awareness of issues surrounding forgery, she also helps to prevent cultural racketeering across the country. As such, she appeared to be the perfect person to take on the task of testing the museum’s scrolls.
Despite the funding offered by the museum, however, Loll had some caveats to taking on the project. According to National Geographic, she’d insisted that the process would need to be completely independent. The report would also be released to the public – regardless of its conclusions. Surprisingly, the Green family agreed, and a comprehensive investigation began.
Over the course of the next nine months, a team of five specialists visited the museum on numerous occasions to analyze the artifacts. And in November 2019 they released the results of their investigation. Shockingly, they had determined that every single one of the Greens’ fragments were forgeries that had never been part of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In order to reach this conclusion, the team noted a number of observations about the museum’s scrolls. For example, the majority of known Dead Sea Scrolls pieces are believed to have been written on parchment. But the fragments acquired by the Green family were apparently made from a completely different type of fabric.
According to the report, the fragments of scroll kept at the museum were made from ancient leather – likely collected from the Judean desert. In fact, it’s possible that one piece actually started life as a shoe back in the Roman era. But after finding its way into the hands of forgers, the team claim, the artifact began a new life posing as a piece of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Researcher Jennifer Mass from the authentication company Scientific Analysis of Fine Art had also conducted some additional tests. And soon, she discovered that the leather of the fragments had been soaked in a substance that was probably glue. This treatment would have apparently recreated the appearance of the genuine scrolls.
According to the report, analysis of the museum’s fragments under a microscope cast further doubt on their authenticity. A close inspection revealed that the writing had been added to the leather at a later date – rather than both aging at the same time. And furthermore, the team suspected that forgers may have attempted to obscure this fact by dusting the pieces with clay.
Using x-ray technology, conservationist Aaron Shugar from Buffalo State College also discovered the presence of calcium deep within the fragments. According to experts, this indicates that the fabric was prepared using lime – a technique believed by many to post-date the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Ultimately, Loll and her team reached one inevitable conclusion – that the Green family had purchased fake scrolls. In the report, she summarized their findings. “After an exhaustive review of all the imaging and scientific analysis results, it is evident that none of the textual fragments in [the] Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scroll collection are authentic.”
“Moreover, each exhibits characteristics that suggest they are deliberate forgeries created in the 20th century with the intent to mimic authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments,” Loll continued. But how could such an ambitious crime have taken place? Apparently, the museum’s fragments are part of a wider collection known as the “post-2002” Dead Sea Scrolls – and their story is a fascinating one.
After the initial discovery at Qumran, it seems, Kando had forged a profitable business acquiring fragments of the scrolls from the Bedouins and selling them on. But, as we alluded to earlier, in the 1970s stricter laws were passed controlling the trading of antiquities in the region. And before long, the supply of relics – authentic or otherwise – had dried up.
But in 2002 everything changed. Within certain circles, new artifacts began appearing – accompanied by claims that they were genuine fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Then, as previously discussed, a rumor emerged that the Kando family had opened a secret vault and were selling the treasures found within.
By 2010, experts believe, there were as many as 70 purported fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls circulating in the antiquities market. However, six years later some scholars began expressing their doubts over the authenticity of the artifacts. And in 2017 a team of researchers published a paper declaring nine of the post-2002 pieces to be fake.
With this revelation, it seems, the authenticity of all the pieces that came to the market after 2002 were called into question. And according to Årstein Justnes of the University of Agder, the outlook wasn’t great. He told National Geographic, “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.”
According to the report, all 16 of the Museum of the Bible’s fragments appear to have been forged in the same way – despite the fact that they came from four different sources. And as such, this suggests that they share a provenance. But if they are all part of the same big scam, who exactly is behind it?
Apparently, seven of the fragments in the museum were purchased directly from Kando’s son. Could the family so intrinsically linked with the Dead Sea Scrolls have decided to cash in on their ancestor’s reputation? After the publication of Art Fraud Insight’s report, they declined to comment to National Geographic on the new revelations.
Meanwhile, staff at the Museum of the Bible seem to have taken the latest developments on the chin once more. In a statement on their website, Kloha explained, “Notwithstanding the less than favorable results, we have done what no other institution with post-2002 DSS fragments has done. 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.”