The History of Artifacts
Provenance Research at the Museum of the Bible
Objects in museums tell us stories about the past. An artifact's provenance is the history of its ownership and location, from its creation or place of modern discovery to the present. This history helps to verify the authenticity and importance of an artifact. It also contributes to our understanding of how an object was used over time. An object with a well-documented provenance teaches us much more about the past than one without a confirmed history.
A common challenge in documenting provenance is that historically—in contrast to modern practices of documenting transactions and keeping archival records—many objects have changed hands over decades or even centuries without accompanying records being provided to the new owner. In addition, many owners request anonymity when selling objects through auction houses or otherwise transferring works through private transactions.
Two areas are of special concern for museums in general and for Museum of the Bible (MOTB) in particular: first, items that may have been subject to Nazi-era looting in Europe from 1933–1945, and second, ancient objects that may have originated in source nations or in areas of modern conflict, such as modern-day Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Museum of the Bible, in consultation with cultural heritage and legal experts, has developed procedures for researching and investigating objects with potentially difficult histories in areas of turmoil. In doing so, Museum of the Bible has made a firm commitment to ethical collecting and to acknowledging objects in its collection that may have entered the market as a result of war, looting, or colonial practice.
Museum of the Bible’s acquisition policy was adopted in 2016. Collections staff has undertaken a comprehensive review of all purchases and donations made prior to 2016 to determine whether each object meets the standards of this policy, whether some mediation is needed (such as listing on standard public databases or contacting the possible country of origin), or whether the item requires further research before being displayed or published. This research includes items in the MOTB collection as well as items loaned from other museums, collections, and educational institutions. The sources of information for our research include:
- Museum curatorial and registration records
- Documentation provided by previous sellers, owners, and collectors
- Publication history of significant items
- Exhibition history
- Contact with previous owners or sellers where possible
- Auction catalogs
- Research into significant private collections and their catalogs
- Export licenses and other customs documentation from the country of origin
- Import documentation
- Publications by scholars, both those connected with and those outside Museum of the Bible
- Scientific analysis, such as carbon-14 dating and ink analysis
- Previous owners' signatures, bookplates, and other identifying information on the object itself
- Stylistic analysis indicating the likely time period or location of an object's creation
Frequently, it is impossible to document an object’s complete provenance, especially for common or generic items like household objects and bound volumes, and there are many reasons why we may not be able to account for every episode of an object’s history. Requests for anonymity, poor record-keeping habits, and the destruction of records (whether intentional or inadvertent) are common challenges. Furthermore, some categories of objects, such as rare books and everyday ceremonial objects, have long been bought and sold by reputable dealers and collectors without any expectation of a recorded provenance. Despite these obstacles, we seek to provide the fullest information possible about the museum’s objects.
Museum of the Bible curators and registrars conduct detailed research into the provenance of every object in its permanent collection and on display in the museum. Research on the approximately 3,100 items that are on display in the Washington, DC, museum has been completed, in consultation with cultural heritage and legal experts. Of the 3,100 items, approximately 1159 are owned by Museum of the Bible. There are 41 lenders for all other items. This research helps to establish whether ownership of each artifact is in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations, and with ethical guidelines of the Museum and of U.S. and international museum associations. To assist the public in understanding the challenges in the Museum’s collection, items with significant gaps in their provenance have been noted in the display cases or wall panels of the museum, with further information provided on this page. As the Museum’s ongoing provenance research continues, additional information will be added on this page regularly. We welcome further information on the provenance of any object displayed in the Museum. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Due to past practices, the history of objects from the ancient world are particularly difficult to trace from their creation or discovery to modern times. Artifacts excavated on scientific archaeological excavations are the most useful because we know the city in which they were found, the building in which they were found, and even about the other artifacts that were found in the same context. This is the best form of provenance. Many museums have artifacts that were not found on archaeological excavations, however, so it is common to see antiquities with uncertain find-spots in major collections around the world.
Incunabula and Printed Books
For centuries, the rare book trade has only infrequently tracked provenance information. Even incunables (books printed before 1501) are often bought and sold without ownership history being passed on. Museum of the Bible has researched each item in its collection, documented purchase history, and, where applicable, indicated donation history to the museum. Identifying marks, such as bookplates, previous owner’s signatures, library deaccession stamps, etc., have been documented for each item and will be made available to researchers as the collection database is digitized. Books that are particularly rare and important but that lack a clear twentieth-century provenance have been researched through the Art Loss Register and other Holocaust research resources to ensure that they were not subject to Nazi-era looting.
The Museum Collections display a large number of items that demonstrate the impact of the Bible in people’s everyday lives. Many of those objects were produced in the United States. For unique items, such as letters or manuscripts, ownership history has been reviewed and documented to the fullest extent possible. Most items, however, come from private collections or book dealers, sources which have not historically kept provenance documentation on these everyday objects. This makes further research extremely difficult.
Publication of the Provenance of Artifacts in Museum of the Bible
Museum of the Bible is developing a publicly accessible database of all objects on display, as well as those in storage. The database is now available, with additional objects regularly being added to the site. In addition to images and item information, provenance is listed for each object.
Images, content, and other intellectual property owned or managed by the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) are provided by only for personal or professional study or for non-commercial use unless otherwise approved. No reproductions in any form may be made unless otherwise stated in writing by Museum of the Bible. MOTB images, content, and other intellectual property may not be used for commercial purposes without prior written consent. For more information including access to the rights and reproduction request form, please visit our Rights and Reproduction page.
Objects with Incomplete Provenance
Dead Sea Scroll Fragments
Following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) in the late 1940s and early 1950s, scholars and institutions worked diligently to acquire, organize, and authenticate the newly discovered manuscripts (some complete and many in fragments). Also, during this same time—taking advantage of the excitement generated by the astonishing discoveries—attempts were made to sell forged fragments. Learn more.
Early Jewish Prayer Book
This item was acquired in good faith in 2013 after receiving provenance information dating back to the 1950s in the UK. The item was legally exported from the UK. It has been displayed in the US, Israel, and published widely among international news outlets since September 2014. Subsequently, a Museum of the Bible curator discovered published images of the book from 1998, in which the book appears to have been photographed in Afghanistan. Subsequent research has not yet determined the findspot or history of the item prior to 1998. Curators continue to advance this significant research project.
Nevertheless, this Siddur is an exceptional item of unique historical, cultural, and religious significance, and presents great educational potential. In addition to ongoing provenance research, a book project is underway with contributions from specialists in handwriting, manuscript production, Jewish history in Afghanistan, and Jewish liturgical practices. This book project will make the Siddur available for research and enable additional contributions to this one-of-a-kind manuscript. In the meantime, the Siddur will be displayed in the museum in Washington, DC, with a brief description of the provenance issues on the object label.
Torah scrolls have been essential to Jewish communal life for centuries. Torah scrolls are carefully prepared and, after the end of their useful life, retired and stored in a “genizah.” As Jewish communities moved over the centuries throughout the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and eventually North and South America, their scrolls traveled with them. From the 1950s through the 1990s, the Israeli government conducted several “rescue” missions to gather Torah scrolls from Europe and around the world. Many were later given to synagogues, while others became available to collectors. Museum of the Bible has gathered approximately 2,000 such scrolls, dating from the 16th through the 20th century, one of the largest collections in the world. These scrolls have been appropriately retired from use (“decommissioned”) and are preserved in abiding respect for their historical, cultural, and religious significance. Some of the scrolls among the Museum Collections tell fascinating stories. For example, one of these scrolls was commissioned by a Jewish community in Poland. Decades later, it traveled to Brooklyn, New York, where a synagogue stamped the scroll in 1910. From there, it went to Israel. These stamps and other identifying marks on the scrolls provide exciting clues about the communities that used them. Museum of the Bible curators and scholars continue to investigate the history of each scroll, unraveling and revealing their unique stories. A database and research project that documents, categorizes, and makes images available of the unique features of each scroll is in progress.
Jewish faith is celebrated at home as well as in the synagogue. Ritual items, or Judaica, are the beautifully crafted objects used to celebrate Jewish holidays. The objects are chosen, cared for, and passed from generation to generation, keeping alive the warm memories of Shabbat dinners, lighting Hanukkah candles, and celebrating Passover Seders. Kiddush cups, Seder plates, spice boxes, challah knives, and more were lovingly made by artisans and cherished by Jewish families for generations.
As the Green Collection began to search for artifacts that told the story of the history of the Bible, it was natural to gather these types of items from the antique markets of Jerusalem, a center for Jewish art and antiques. From the first Jewish pioneers before WWI to the families who made their way from Europe to Israel after WWII, all manner of Judaica arrived in Jerusalem over the decades and eventually entered the market. Similarly, Jewish agencies recovered and gathered unclaimed Judaica from Germany, Poland, and other countries, and sent these objects to communities and museums in Israel. From this abundance of ritual Judaica, the Green Collection has gathered examples that both illustrate Jewish history and celebrate its creative spirit. Given the nature of the processes by which these objects came to be gathered, sold and re-sold in Israel, little, if any, documentation is available for most objects. Research is proceeding where possible, such as on objects with unique markings and those that can stylistically be placed in a certain geographic location or time period.