Opinion

The True Cost of Museum Fakes

The Museum of the Bible recently admitted all of its Dead Sea Scroll fragments are forgeries. But when fake antiquities are donated to museums, taxpayers lose.

(image courtesy of the Museum of the Bible)

The Museum of the Bible opened in Washington, DC in 2017 with crumbling fragments of leather inked with biblical texts on display. The museum said that these fragments were part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered by a shepherd who fell into a cave near Israel’s Dead Sea in 1947. The hundreds of manuscripts found here and in nearby caves are our oldest copies of the Old Testament.

For years, attentive visitors noticed signage stating that testing was underway to determine whether the museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls were authentic. The results are now in: on Friday, March 13, the museum admitted that all 16 of its fragments are modern forgeries. And not even particularly convincing ones, since they’re made of the wrong material (thick leather instead of parchment), and putting them under a microscope reveals that the ink the scripture was written in also bled into tears and cracks that wouldn’t have been there when the leather was new.

It could have been worse. At least the Museum of the Bible didn’t have to admit that more than half of the artworks in its whole collection were fakes, like the Terrus Museum in Elne, France had to in 2018. The Mexican Museum of San Francisco had an even worse batting average: in 2012, it admitted that only 61 of its 1,744 pre-Columbian artifacts were of museum quality, while the others were fake or merely insignificant.

Countless museums have been fooled by fakes. For example, the forger Mark Landis donated fake art to more than 40 American museums before he was unmasked in 2011.  Even the Metropolitan Museum of Art has had to admit to buying fakes — and Thomas Hoving, a former Met director, wrote a whole book about hunting for them.

The thought of curators being fooled by wily art forgers might seem funny … until you realize that we all pay for their mistakes. If you donate an artifact to an American museum or other non-profit entity, you can take a tax deduction equal to the artifact’s fair market value. Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby, donated the fake Dead Sea Scroll fragments to the Museum of the Bible (although it is unknown how much he paid for them, or whether he claimed a deduction). Meanwhile, single authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments have sold for over $1 million.

Of course, you can’t take a tax deduction for donating something you know is fake to a museum. But the IRS measures valuation at the time of donation, based on what the donor and the recipient knew then. You can’t go back and claim a bigger deduction if the anonymous painting you donated turns out to have been painted by Michelangelo; but neither can the government take away a tax deduction if the museum later decides that a donated Michelangelo is, in fact, a fake.

The Museum of the Bible knew that the fragments might not be authentic Dead Sea Scrolls from the beginning, but it still accepted the donation. The museum took a gamble with taxpayer money and lost; but it isn’t alone.  The chairman of San Francisco’s Mexican Museum’s board tried to explain away the thousands of fakes donated to his museum by saying that many museums accept fakes “all the time.”

But the waste of taxpayer money is not the only cost of fakes. Fakes also encourage the ongoing crisis of looting of the world’s archeological sites, by ramping up activity and demand in the antiquities market. Especially in the online market, fakes encourage potential looters by leaving records of sales prices for the type of artifact that the looter could obtain and sell — since either the looter cannot tell that the listed object is a fake or will believe that the genuine version will sell for even more.

The recent devastation of Syria’s archeological record shows that looting and faking go hand-in-hand. Thousands of Syria’s ancient sites have been looted, honeycombed with looter’s pits since the current conflict began in 2012. But while looters have been busy with their shovels, forgers have been active with chisels and kilns. The director of Syria’s ministry of antiquities and museums has estimated that 70% of the objects that have been seized and returned to Syria as smuggled antiquities are, in fact, fakes.

We can’t afford to let museums accept donations first and ask questions later, as the Museum of the Bible did when it accepted the fragments and only completed scientific testing to determine their authenticity years later. Currently, you must obtain an appraisal for a donation worth more than $5,000, but this appraisal does not need to include scientific testing. The IRS should put new regulations in place to require independent laboratory testing of proposed donations, especially of antiquities. This requirement would by no means entirely stop the donation of forgeries, given the uncertainties of testing. But it would put collectors on notice that there are fake antiquities on the market, and that they might lose any benefits of their investment if they purchase a fake without asking for scientific testing.

Not all art is made out of materials that can be dated using scientific testing. Thus, the IRS should also institute a claw-back period for deductions for art donations, in case information comes out that a donation is fake. We should also establish whistleblower rewards, to encourage people who know about fakes to reveal them — making it less likely that everyone at a museum will merely keep quiet once they decide that a donation is fake. Because when we go to our museums, we want to see genuine pieces of the past, not forgeries. And we really don’t want to pay to be fooled.

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