Lessons in Collecting from the Museum of the Bible

Posted on: April 14, 2020 by

The Museum of the Bible has been a site of continual controversy since its opening in November 2017. The issues it has faced range from alleged thefts and forgeries to the illicit trade in antiquities. More than anything else, the Museum’s difficulties have demonstrated the importance of careful provenance research before acquiring artefacts for a collection.

The Museum of the Bible is a private museum. It was founded by Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (a US arts and crafts retailer) and he now acts as the Chairman of the Museum’s Board of Directors. In a press statement on past acquisitions, Green explains that the Museum of the Bible’s collection is derived from his private collection, which he began amassing in 2009. Therefore, despite now being a museum collection open to public scrutiny, the collection began life in the private market.

Museum of the Bible, Washington DC (Image credit: Farragutful CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Whilst all collectors must act lawfully, private collections are not under any specific ethical obligations. In contrast, most museums are subject to stringent ethical codes which place certain constraints on museum acquisitions. For example, the International Council of Museums’ Code of Ethics requires standards of due diligence necessary to “establish the full history of the item since discovery or production”. In a similar vein, the Museum of the Bible’s detailed Collections Management Policy commits to acquiring only works of satisfactory provenance. The Museum, with its privately acquired collection now made public, has to overcome the divergences between the acquisition practices of the former when they now face the scrutiny of the latter.

Even before the Museum of the Bible was opened, Green had run into some difficulties whilst amassing his collection. On 5 July 2017, the United States filed a civil action alleging that approximately 3,450 ancient Iraqi artefacts were smuggled into the US and requesting their forfeiture. The packages containing the objects were shipped to Hobby Lobby stores. The US government alleged that false declarations about the imported artefacts’ value, description and country of origin had been made by the shipper. For example, some packages were labelled as ‘samples’ and some as originating in Israel. The trade in Iraqi cultural property, illegally removed from Iraq after 1990, is illegal under US law and the laws of many states, including the UK, pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1483 (2003).

The US government reached a settlement with Hobby Lobby. Under the agreement, Hobby Lobby would forfeit the antiquities and pay a $3 million fine. The company was also required to implement procedures to manage its collecting activities. Most significantly, Hobby Lobby agreed to submit reports detailing its acquisitions of cultural property on a quarterly basis to the US Government for the following 18 months. The requirement to implement collections management procedures suggests that such controls had not been in place previously. Indeed, in a recent press release, Green explained that he had known “little about the world of collecting” when he began acquiring artefacts in 2009, and in particular had not appreciated “the importance of the provenance” of the items he purchased.

Tablet with Cuneiform Script – one of the antiquities forfeited to the US Government in 2017 settlement (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

One example of the results of Green’s self-confessed naivety during his early years of collecting is the collection of Dead Sea Scrolls (papyrus and parchment fragments of religious texts) which entered the Museum’s collection. In 2018, five of these were removed from display after scientific testing cast doubts over their ancient origin and authenticity. Since then, in 2020, all 16 scrolls in the Museum’s collection have been identified as forgeries. Although provenance should not be conflated with authenticity, since even objects with secure ownership histories can prove inauthentic, careful provenance research can help to mitigate such risks. Whilst one might have expected more diligent record-keeping in relation to these items considered to be worth millions of dollars, the Museum has been proactive in investigating the scrolls. According to National Geographic, the Museum has funded research into these artefacts since its opening and it was at its instigation that Art Fraud Insights was engaged to conduct the most recent investigation into these pieces.

Another scandal arose in 2019, when 13 fragments of papyrus and parchment in the Museum’s collection were claimed by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES). According to this statement by EES, the artefacts were taken from its collection without permission. Despite speculation about their disappearance, no one has been charged with any crime. Assuming hypothetically that the artefacts were stolen and their sale took place in the UK, where the EES is based, the English legal principle nemo dat quod non habet would apply. This prevents a thief from passing on a valid title to goods because ‘no one can give what they do not have’. However, since nothing is proved, the Museum of the Bible’s decision to return the fragments to the EES reflects an ethical show of institutional goodwill, rather than a strict legal obligation.

The transfer of the scrolls and the fragments from a private collection into the public sphere has helped elucidate their provenance and true nature. Significantly, in both cases, the Museum’s actions will have implications beyond the institution. According to ArtNet, the scrolls in the Museum were part of a group that contained 70 fragments, the authenticity of which is now doubted based on the recent research. Likewise, the EES claims that 120 fragments appear to have disappeared from its collection over the last decade. It is evident that these stories are not yet over.

The most recent development in this saga demonstrates the commitment the Museum of the Bible has given to researching the provenance of its collection and attempting to rectify past mistakes. In a statement on the Museum’s website, Green, in his role as Chairman, has committed to return 11,500 artefacts to Egypt and Iraq. By revealing his decision to “do the right thing”, Green has demonstrated a commitment to fulfil an ethical imperative, whose demands are often higher than those of the strict letter of the law. It is clear that the standards applying to the museum sector have influenced his approach to collecting when he says: “I understand established museums, universities, and other institutions have evolved over the years and developed sound protocols for dealing with cultural property with insufficient provenance. I intend to continue to learn from the collective efforts and wisdom of those institutions, and support every person and organization possessing such items to continue their research into the provenance of their items”.

The story of the Museum of the Bible demonstrates the importance of provenance research and due diligence, and how these concepts form the cornerstone of ethical collecting practices. The changing attitude of a private collector like Green might even show a hopeful expansion of these principles into the wider collecting sphere. Ultimately, careful provenance research and prudent collecting activities are of benefit to everyone.