Provenance Research at the Museum of the Bible
Objects in museums tell stories about the past. An object’s provenance is the history of its ownership and location, from its creation or place of modern discovery to the present. This history helps verify the authenticity of an object and reveal its historical and cultural significance, giving unique insight into how it was used and the people who used it. An object with a well-documented provenance, in other words, can teach us much more about the past, and can help us understand this history more accurately, than one that lacks such information. Since 2017, Museum of the Bible has invested significant resources in researching the provenance of all objects in the Museum Collections and those entrusted to us on loan.
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, some owners request anonymity when selling objects through auction houses or private transactions.
There are two areas of special concern for museums in general and for Museum of the Bible’s focus in particular. The first pertains to objects that may have been subject to Nazi-era looting in Europe from 1933–1945. The second relates to ancient objects that may have originated in nations or regions embroiled in modern conflicts, such as 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, the museum has made a firm commitment to ethical collecting and to acknowledging objects in its collections that may have entered the market as a result of war, looting, or colonial practice. The museum has returned objects with insufficient provenance to the nations of Iraq, Egypt, and Greece.
- Comment: “We are pleased to acknowledge the help of many Americans for their support in this effort: U.S. officials, Cornell University, and the leadership of the Museum of the Bible. I especially want to thank Steve Green, and also Jeff Kloha, who did the right thing and accelerated the return of 8,000 artifacts, including, we hope soon, the Gilgamesh Tablet. All told, Americans are returning 17,000 archaeological treasures dating back 4,000 years, ‘. . . the result of months of efforts by the Iraqi authorities in conjunction with our embassy in Washington.’ said Iraqi Culture Minister Hassan Nazim. In these artifacts, the Iraqi people can rediscover our unique heritage that long predates the Sadam and ISIS stains on our history.” — Iraq Update / Bulletin
Museum of the Bible’s acquisition policy was adopted in 2016 and revised in 2019. 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 Museum Collections as well as items loaned from other museums, collections, and educational institutions. The sources of information for this research include:
- Museum curatorial and registration records
- Documentation provided by previous sellers, owners, and collectors
- Research into significant private collections and their catalogs
- Signatures, bookplates, and other identifying information on the object itself
- Auction catalogs
- Publication history
- Exhibition history
- 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
- 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 printed volumes and household items. Requests for anonymity, poor record-keeping, and the destruction of records (whether intentional or inadvertent) are common challenges. 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 objects in the museum’s care.
Museum of the Bible curators and registrars conduct detailed research into the provenance of every object in its permanent collections and on display in the museum. Where circumstances warrant, this is done in consultation with cultural heritage and legal experts. This research helps establish whether ownership of each object is in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations, along with the ethical guidelines laid out in the museum’s acquisitions policy as well as those of US and international museum associations. To assist the public in understanding the challenges in the Museum Collections, 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 provenance research continues, additional information will be added to this page regularly. We welcome further information on the provenance of any object displayed in the museum. Please contact us at collection@mBible.org.
Due to past practices, the history of objects from the ancient world are particularly difficult to trace from creation or discovery to modern times. Objects excavated in scientific archaeological excavations are the most useful because we know the city in which these were found, the building in which these were found, and even about other objects that were found in the same context. This is the best form of provenance. Many museums have objects that were not found in archaeological excavations, however, so it is common to see antiquities with uncertain findspots in major collections around the world. The museum directly contacts countries of origin or potential previous owners in cases where documentation cannot be verified to seek the best resolution for those objects.
- Comment: “The Museum of the Bible is now setting an example for responsible ownership of foreign cultural heritage. Perhaps this will change social norms further, spurring other museums to ‘choose’ to send disputed acquisitions back to the countries from which they were taken.” — Anja Shortland and Daniel Klerman
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 recorded. Museum of the Bible has researched each item in its collections, documented its purchase history, and, where applicable, indicated when it was donated to the museum. Identifying marks such as bookplates, signatures, or library stamps have been documented for each object and will be made available to researchers as the collections database is digitized. Books that are particularly rare and important, but lack a clear ownership history during the twentieth century, have been researched through the Art Loss Register and other Holocaust research resources to ensure these were not subject to Nazi-era looting.
The Museum Collections include a large number of objects that demonstrate the Bible’s impact on everyday life. Many of these were produced in the United States and come from private collections or book dealers, sources which have not historically recorded provenance information. This makes further research extremely difficult. For especially unique objects, such as letters or manuscripts, ownership history has been reviewed and documented to the fullest extent possible.
Publication of the Provenance of Objects in the Museum Collections
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 a physical description, provenance is listed for each object.
Images, content, and other intellectual property owned or managed by Museum of the Bible are only for personal 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. Museum 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). During this same time—taking advantage of the excitement generated by the astonishing discoveries—attempts were also made to sell forged fragments. Learn more.
- “The thing that I wish to emphasize here is that the Museum of the Bible ultimately came clean: They rapidly acknowledged that these scroll fragments might be modern forgeries and that the lore (and documents) associated with their origins might be a fabrication . . . . Then, the Museum funded the very extensive laboratory tests . . . . And then, to top it all off, major people in the current senior leadership at the Museum . . . have embraced the results of the laboratory report.” — Chris Rollston, Dept. of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, George Washington University
Early Jewish Book of Prayers
Jewish Book of Prayers
This Jewish manuscript was acquired in good faith in 2013 after receiving provenance information dating back to the 1950s in the UK. It was legally exported from the UK. It has been displayed in the US and Israel, and has also been published across international news outlets since September 2014. However, a Museum of the Bible curator discovered published images of the manuscript in Afghanistan in 1998. This curator subsequently reconstructed a verifiable provenance story with the help of historians, journalists, collectors, and officials who saw the manuscript prior to the 2013 purchase.
This book of Jewish prayers carries exceptional 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. The academic volume is expected in late 2023 or early 2024. With support from Afghanistan officials, Afghan-Jewish leaders, and Jewish cultural organizations in the US, this book project will make the Siddur available for research and enable additional contributions on this one-of-a-kind manuscript.
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,” a storeroom for sacred documents. 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 curates one of the largest collections of Torah scrolls in the world, numbering approximately 2,000 scrolls that date from the sixteenth through the twentieth century. 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 objects 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.