Fragments of old Roman shoes were used as the canvas for a complex hand-crafted art scam so good that the imitations fooled antiquities experts for years. The 16 Dead Sea Scroll fragments on display at the Museum of the Bible are forgeries. Each and every one of them. That turns out to be an epic dose of karma for the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby and the founders of the museum. In 2017, they were caught with their hand in the cookie jar smuggling “5,500 illegally imported clay tablets to Iraq.”
A scam crafted from old shoes
Without highly specialized tools, the Dead Sea Scroll fragments that the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. proudly displayed seem exactly like the real thing. Now that a 200 page report by antiquities experts confirms that they all are fakes, museum directors are doing their part to aid the investigation. They want to help other institutions who were burned by the same scam.
“It really was, and still is, an interesting kind of detective story,” chief curator Jeffrey Kloha admits. “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.”
The announcement is seen by many as a hefty dose of karma. The famously conservative Green family started the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores. They made headlines on the issue of mandated contraception for employees. They also made headlines in 2017 when they got caught smuggling antique artifacts. Each of the 16 fragments likely sold for more than a million dollars.
The forgers did an excellent job but they got a few things wrong with their scam. Their biggest mistake was that “authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments are made of tanned or lightly tanned parchment,” but the hand crafted imitations are “made of leather, which is thicker, bumpier, and more fibrous.” They think they know where it came from. “One of the fragments has a row of what look like artificially made holes, somewhat similar to those found in Roman-era shoes.”
The Museum of the Bible
An impressive permanent exhibit graces the fourth floor of the Museum of the Bible, showcasing “the story of how the ancient scripture became the world’s most popular book.” Until now, everyone was convinced that they were displaying pieces of authentic texts “that include the oldest known surviving copies of the Hebrew Bible.” Multiple copies of the Old Testament more than 1,800 years old were recovered from secret caves in Palestine’s Qumran.
The museum’s CEO, Harry Hargrave, insists they’re “trying to be as transparent as possible” because they’re victims. “we’re victims of misrepresentation, we’re victims of fraud.” According to the authenticator they hired, “These fragments were manipulated with the intent to deceive.” Colette Loll explains that “while the pieces are probably made of ancient leather, they were inked in modern times and modified to resemble real Dead Sea Scrolls.”
The scrolls themselves are guaranteed authentic. They were also totally accounted for by the 1970’s. Around 2002, a batch came out of nowhere. As National Geographic reports, “a group of some 70 snippets of biblical text” suddenly “entered the antiquities market.” It looks like all of them are part of the same scam. “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,” notes researcher Årstein Justnes.
A deep investigation
In February of 2019, the museum hired Loll’s company, Art Fraud Insights, to test their fragments. She’s a top expert in that field and insists on total independence. She was amazed when the administrators didn’t even raise an eyebrow when she insisted they wouldn’t have any input at all, her report would be the final word, and it would be released straight to the public. “Honestly, I’ve never worked with a museum that was so up-front.”
By October, her entire team was unanimous. All 16 were fakes. The pieces of ancient leather were soaked in “an amber-colored concoction, most likely an animal-skin glue.” That “mimicked a signature, glue-like feature of the real Dead Sea Scrolls.”
It took a high power microscope to see that the leather was already old when the writing was added. The way they could tell was “suspiciously shiny ink pools in cracks and waterfalls off of torn edges that wouldn’t have been present when the leather was new.”
To cover up the new ink, “they were dusted with clay minerals consistent with sediments from Qumran, where the original Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.”
Steve Green’s biblical hobby
Since 2009, Hobby Lobby founder Steve Green spent a fortune buying the fragments as the core of his brand new Museum of the Bible. They didn’t all get bought at once or from the same person. There were four separate deals with separate individuals, all of whom came well recommended. One of the fragments was bought from William Kando, son of the explorer who originally found the scrolls.
Even the experts thought they were real until 2016, when some similar fragments in Norway were tested. “When you have a deceiver and a believer, it’s an intimate dance,” Loll notes. “You don’t need as much of a knowledge of the materials as you need a knowledge of the marketplace.”
The fragments aren’t Green’s only purchase. “In 2017, U.S. officials forced Hobby Lobby to return 5,500 illegally imported clay tablets to Iraq and pay a $3-million fine.”
Curator Kloha admits they “did some really bad things eight to 10 years ago, and they were rightly criticized severely.” He also points out they changed their ways. “I believe that they’ve made a number of attempts in recent years to right the ship.” He hopes that counts for something in the long run. “If there’s any theme that’s present in the Bible, it’s the theme of forgiveness and the possibility of redemption, after someone finally comes clean, there’s true penitence there.”