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False Prophets

Beg, borrow, or steal: the questionable business of artifacts

In 2002, a new crop of Dead Sea Scroll fragments that were said to have come from the Swiss vault of the late antiquities dealer Khalil Iskander Shahin went up for sale. These fragments were bought by a number of evangelical institutions, including the Museum of the Bible, which was founded by the family that owns the Hobby Lobby chain of arts-and-crafts stores. In the March issue of Harper’s Magazine, Madeleine Schwartz describes the odd provenance of the fragments and evaluates whether they could be forgeries.

In this episode, Schwartz and Harper’s web editor Violet Lucca discuss the tendency for self-delusion in the antiquities market, as well as the slow process by which counterfeit goods can be distinguished from genuine artifacts. They also consider the complex issue of ownership, given the colonial violence that has historically allowed Western countries to acquire relics. “[Knowing where objects came from] is hugely important for the ethical implications,” Schwartz says. “It’s also really important for the financial implications, because, in general, no one wants to think that what they own is either fake or going to lead them to having to deal with a lawsuit.”

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