News of Dead Sea Scrolls for sale highlights complex legal status

Israel might want the treasured fragments, but there is no obvious legal barrier to selling them on the private antiquities market, officials say

A manuscript from the Dead Sea Scrolls collection on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on September 26, 2011 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A manuscript from the Dead Sea Scrolls collection on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on September 26, 2011 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Reports that more fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls are on the market have directed a spotlight on the ownership of some of the world’s most famous manuscripts.

In Israel, officials are not eager to comment about this week’s AP report that the Palestinian family that began selling scrolls in the 1940s is still marketing pieces to collectors in the US and Europe.

There appears to be no legal barrier to the Kando family’s sale of the pieces, because the scroll fragments are kept in Switzerland — where the family claims they have been since before Israel passed a 1978 law forbidding the removal of antiquities from the country without government approval. That leaves Israel with no way to stop the sales.

The family, Christian Palestinians from Bethlehem, bought the pieces from Bedouin who found them in desert caves near the Dead Sea. As soon as Bethlehem came under Israeli control during the Six Day War, Israel dispatched a team from military intelligence and confiscated one of the most important of the Dead Sea manuscripts, the Temple Scroll, which was hidden in a Bata shoe box under a floor tile in the family’s home. Israel later paid the family $105,000, and the scroll is currently at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

But the family has more pieces, and these are currently for sale for millions of dollars, prices Israeli institutions would find it nearly impossible to pay.

The AP article quotes a official from the Israel Antiquities Authority saying the “scrolls’ only address is the State of Israel.” Following the article’s publication, however, the IAA would not comment at all on the topic of the scrolls.

The Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, home to Israel’s Dead Sea Scrolls collection, would prefer to see the remaining fragments united with the other scrolls, curator Adolfo Roitman said.

But the scrolls were found in the West Bank when the territory was part of the British Mandate and later under Jordanian rule — an occupation that was not internationally recognized, like Israel’s occupation today. Thus the legal ownership of the scrolls is caught up in the broader context of the political complexities of Israel’s relations with its neighbors, Roitman said.

Their legal status would be different should the fragments turn out to originate from areas under Israel’s control before 1967, he said.

Culturally, however, Roitman said, the scrolls are part of Jewish history, a “bridge to the past” between modern and ancient Israel.

“The state of Israel sees itself as heir of the historic Jewish people and wants to protect its culture, like all other nations, and to return the cultural artifacts and literature created during the people’s history,” Roitman said.

“The legal question of ownership here is complicated, but the Jewish people’s right to the scrolls seems to be natural to me — each piece is testimony to the writing and thought of the people of Israel thousands of years ago.”

While the international antiquities trade is often murky, in many cases it is the only way to save artifacts and bring them to light, he said.

“If these fragments remain where they are, they will rot and disintegrate, and something that might have been a contribution to research will be lost. What’s better?”

The description of the kinds of fragments that are said to come onto the market from time to time suggests that they might be of value to scholars but less so to a venue like the Israel Museum, with its focus on the explication and display for the public of the seven complete or nearly complete Dead Sea Scrolls which are housed in the Shrine of the Book, said James Snyder, the museum’s director.

“The question is less where they are than how they are cared for — whether or not they are in the hands of responsible custodians and in a secure and stable setting,” Snyder said.

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