This article was reported in partnership with Type Investigations.
One of the many attractions at the $500 million, 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible (MOTB) in Washington, D.C., is a gray-bearded scribe imported from Beit Shemesh, Israel, who sits in a gallery and “engages with guests as he works to [create] a Torah scroll,” according to the museum’s website. Nearby are close to 200 Torahs no longer fit for ritual use due to damage or defect, uncovered and rolled up like bolts of fabric on racks behind a glass wall. The display is accompanied by an introductory text that proclaims “The Consistency of Jewish Scriptures” and a key that lists for each Torah an approximate date and region of origin; most are from the 18th and 19th centuries.
These Torahs are part of a vast collection of decommissioned, or pasul, Torahs — 1,835, according to museum officials — all of which were donated to the museum by Hobby Lobby and the Green Collection between 2011 and 2014. The Green Collection is a private repository amassed by the founders of Hobby Lobby craft store chain, which along with its affiliates does over $3 billion in annual sales. Steve Green, Hobby Lobby’s president, is one of the most prominent evangelical Christians in America; he is also a founder and chairman of the board of the museum.
In addition to the pasul Torahs behind the glass wall, there a few open ones on display in the museum. The rest of the collection is kept in storage.
According to Jewish law, a pasul Torah must be buried in a Jewish cemetery or stored in a protected space, although there are some exceptions. These include for dancing on Simchas Torah; use as “spare parts” for the repair of another Torah; or education. And it’s the latter purpose the museum — which is, of course, not bound by Jewish law—claims. According to Herschel Hepler, the museum’s associate curator of Hebrew manuscripts, the MOTB is playing an important role in preserving Jewish history for the world.
“From everyone I’ve talked with,” said Hepler, who holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in theology from a private evangelical university in Oklahoma, “there’s a pretty broad consensus that” the non-kosher Torahs may be used in educational ways because the collection “benefits our continued memory of Jewish tradition across all the traditions, right?”
“Memory” would seem to be a curious term for a tradition that is currently thriving. But beyond that, some experts with deep knowledge of Judaica say that these manuscripts are of limited historical importance. They also say that they may have been appraised in ways that raise issues under U.S. tax law. (The findings about the pasul Torah appraisal process come as the museum has come under scrutiny of late for allegedly buying forged Dead Sea Scrolls fragments and displaying thousands of other antiquities that critics say have questionable provenance.)
At the very least, these Torahs highlight a gap between how religious Jews and scholars, on one hand, and the murky world of evangelical religious antiquities collectors, on the other, value Jewish artifacts.
Buy Low, Appraise High
Last year, the scholars Joel Baden and Candida Moss, authors of “Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby,” published an article in The Daily Beast about the museum’s pasul Torah collection drawing on material that appeared in their book. The researchers suggested that Torahs were particularly appealing to Green, who sees them as proof of the Bible’s unchanging nature over time. But the duo discovered another, unexpected rationale for the museum’s large collection: the rather substantial tax benefits they could generate for their donors.
Baden and Moss quoted an interview they had conducted with a Bible scholar named Scott Carroll, who says he began traveling the globe in 2009 on behalf of Steve Green, in search of biblical artifacts to acquire. (Carroll says he parted ways with the Greens in 2012). Carroll, who chronicled his acquisition adventures on social media, has raised eyebrows among some academics, who have questioned whether, in the quest to amass a collection quickly, he sacrificed proper vetting. (He has also come under fire for using dish soap to dismantle ancient Egyptian mummy masks).
Carroll told Baden and Moss that when Steve Green began collecting, he “wanted to identify artifacts for purchase that could be donated to the museum for tax purposes,” according to The Daily Beast article.
Specifically, Carroll said that the average purchase price of a pasul Torah when he started working to assemble the Green Collection was between $1,000 and $1,500 (by 2015, Carroll said, prices had gone up to $7,500-$10,000.). Those same Torahs, Carroll explained, could later be appraised at anywhere from $50,000 to an upper range of $250,000 or more for rarer items, putting the “fair average” at $70,000; he apparently arrived at that range by starting with what it would cost to replace a Torah and then adding to that number based on other factors, like age or whether it survived the Holocaust.
“It’s a great opportunity to buy something that is [priced] low that would in a Western market appraise high,” he said.
The Jewish Week contacted Hobby Lobby by phone and with a detailed email seeking comment on Carroll’s numbers and additional information about the Green Collection’s acquisition and donation of pasul Torahs to the MOTB, and did not receive replies. However, our reporting, in partnership with nonprofit newsroom Type Investigations, uncovered information suggesting that other donors have purchased pasul Torahs intending to have them appraised at higher values for tax deduction purposes when gifted to Christian institutions.
Using Carroll’s “fair average,” it is possible that the Green Collection could have purchased the 1,835 Torahs now in the MOTB’s collection for close to $2 million and had them appraised for many millions more, potentially generating a very hefty tax deduction for Hobby Lobby.
The problem: Carroll’s way of calculating value is not consistent with IRS guidelines. IRS guidelines indicate that an appraisal is supposed to reflect not the replacement value of an item, as Carroll indicated, but its fair market value (FMV). The IRS defines FMV as the price the property would sell for on the open market. And when it comes to much fine art, antiques and collectibles, experts say, the most common market is considered to be the auction market.
Four recognized Judaica appraisers contacted by The Jewish Week expressed skepticism that Torahs like the ones in the MOTB’s collection could fetch prices anywhere near those cited by Carroll on the open market. They also said that those valuations might reasonably raise red flags with the IRS.
According to Sharon Mintz, senior consultant in Sotheby’s Judaica department and the curator of Jewish art at the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the most important factor in determining the value of a Torah scroll is its age. Mintz, who is not familiar with the MOTB’s collection, says there are many Torah scrolls from “the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries still extant” — like the majority on display at the museum — and, as a result, “their commercial value” is much lower. Condition also plays a role, Mintz adds: a very old scroll that is also complete “will have the most value.”
Within the past 10 years, Sotheby’s has sold several extremely rare Torah scrolls from before the 15th century, including a complete scroll from 13th-century Northern Spain that fetched $398,500 and a complete 13th-century Ashkenazi scroll for $310,00. In 2015, the auction house sold a 12th-century Samaritan Torah scroll to the Green Collection for $162,500 (this is one of only a few open Torahs on display in the museum and accompanied by a detailed provenance).
It would be almost impossible for any outside appraiser to determine the value of the MOTB’s pasul Torahs because none of them is publicly accessible to be inspected, let alone subjected to carbon dating, which Mintz says Sotheby’s has been requesting for almost every early Torah scroll it has sold.
For their part, museum officials would not comment on the appraised values of any of the MOTB’s Torahs and told The Jewish Week that information related to their dates and location of origin, which would inform any appraisal, “was not part of the paper with the scrolls in a detailed way.” They did note that the museum is engaged in a multi-year research project, led by its curator of Hebraica & Judaica, which eventually will result in a database of its Torahs accessible to scholars and the public. For now, however, the only details the museum’s chief curator, Jeffrey Kloha, was able to furnish were that most of the Torahs in the collection were acquired “through Israel” and are from “North Africa, Eastern Europe, Western Europe.” During a tour of the museum, Hepler noted that the collection includes Torahs bearing the stamp of Israel’s Ministry of Religious Services, which, he said, served as a repository for Torahs coming into the country after World War II. He added that many of the Torahs in the collection are not stable enough to be displayed.
Warehouses of Torahs
Based on these facts alone, several experienced Judaica dealers and appraisers expressed doubt that the Torahs rolled up behind the glass wall, or those in storage, could be legitimately appraised at anywhere near the values Carroll quoted to Baden and Moss.
Two religiously observant Judaica dealers in New York City, who requested anonymity so as not to compromise their businesses, told The Jewish Week that while Jewish law prohibits the sale of a pasul Torah, they do change hands. They estimated the going rate for a “run-of the-mill” pasul Torah at about $300-$500. (These dealers also made a point of saying that they would not sell one to anyone who planned to use it in a way that violated Jewish law, let alone to a non-Jew.) A New York-based Judaica appraiser told The Jewish Week that there are warehouses of deteriorated Torahs that will sell them for anywhere between $5,000 and $35,000, typically to synagogues who cannot afford to pay for a new Torah and will instead repair the old one.
Because of these considerations, according to a Brooklyn-based dealer named Yizrael Mizrachi, “an average Judaica auction house wouldn’t deal with [selling a pasul Torah], especially not in quantity. If it has historical importance, [if] you’ll find a text that has narration or something that’s important to scholars, that’s another story. But just an old Torah, [no].”
Sources knowledgeable about the situation told The Jewish Week that they were not aware of any Judaica dealers in the New York area who had been willing to sell pasul Torahs to representatives of the Greens and believed that most of the Greens’ collection was acquired through sources in Israel, as museum officials indicated.
Mizrachi told The Jewish Week that after the war, many pasul Torahs ended up in various Israeli government offices, where they were stored for decades before being auctioned off for what Mizrachi says were “pennies.”
While museum officials did not identify any of the dealers connected to its Torahs, two people with knowledge of the situation confirmed to The Jewish Week that one early source was a man named Moty Sender. In 1986, Sender, along with his wife, founded a silver, Judaica and jewelry business based in Israel called Pasarel. When reached via text, Pasarel did not reply to a request to confirm whether it was a source of Torahs for the Green Collection (several emails also did not receive replies). In mid-December, most of the Torahs Pasarel was offering on eBay were listed for a fraction of the values estimated by Carroll. (Two other individuals with information about the Green Collections’ acquisition practices named additional Israel-based Torah sources, including one with ties to Yemen. The Jewish Week was not able to confirm these peoples’ involvement.)
When asked by The Jewish Week about the valuations he gave to Baden and Moss, Carroll stressed that he “was never privy” to the financial details of any of the Green’s transactions (although in a speech at a Christian university in 2013, he told the audience that he was involved in many of those purchases); he also said that he is “not an appraiser” and has “never given an appraisal.”
That said, he explained that the spread he described between the purchase prices and appraised values of the Torahs could be attributed to the fact that there are effectively two discrete markets for them.
“There is a different view of how [pasul Torahs] are valued by, by let’s say … Jewish people, traditional religious people, because they’re pasul, as opposed to someone who might see them as a valuable object for the study of writing and history and things like that … that is, the value it would have in one community as opposed to another.”
This same explanation — that there are two markets for pasul Torahs —appeared on the now defunct website of a company registered in 2013 by a Christian writer named Todd Hillard, called Ancient Asset Investments (AAI). The site — which was the subject of a 2015 blog post by the Italian ancient historian, Roberta Mazza — touted a four-step process through which its clients could often acquire artifacts “for one-third or less of appraised values,” have them researched, appraised, and then gifted to a nonprofit in exchange for a tax deduction. Among the artifacts on offer were non-kosher Torahs. While these Torahs had “lost their purity for religious purposes,” the site explained, “the same imperfections and anomalies that DECREASE their value on the foreign and religious markets make them MORE valuable to collectors and researchers in North America.”
AAI, which has since been closed as a result of “tax forfeiture or an administrative forfeiture by Texas Secretary of State,” according to Texas public records, also claimed an “exclusive business relationship” with Scott Carroll Manuscripts and Rare Books. It described Carroll as “a leading expert” with “unparalleled access to undocumented and unidentified artifacts in the overseas markets.” (Carroll currently works with another organization, God’s Ancient Library, helmed by an evangelical couple who, through it, acquire and donate pasul Torahs.)
AAI also claimed it was willing to sell its artifacts at a discount because it bought collections, thus “passing on the savings to individual items,” and also in the hopes that lower prices would encourage clients to acquire and then gift them to institutions that might otherwise not be able to afford them.
For his part, Carroll told The Jewish Week that the price of pasul Torahs went up after the Greens started collecting because they were driving demand by buying “Torahs in large quantities.” He added that
“at the start of the buying frenzy, Torahs were purchased in large quantities and they were not carefully vetted.”
“There was a gap in knowledge,” Carroll added, suggesting that the initial sale prices were low because sellers did not know the value of what they had on hand. He claims that things have since changed.
“Scholars, collectors, people selling on the market began to collaborate, carefully studying Torahs to learn as much as they could before selling them and to set a proper price based on the researched value. Every detail and aspect of the Torah is (must be) carefully assessed.”
Carroll said that the “the cost of this work is reflected in the increased price of carefully vetted Torahs on the market and the research also raises the value of the Torah.”
Carroll also told The Jewish Week that the prices of pasul Torahs were driven up as the Greens sought to buy up more and more of them and in “in this process, the Torah has become more important and consequently valuable.”
He added that “these pasul Torahs have found new life, not piled like a prop in a room or forgotten, but carefully studied to extract each story. Each has a powerful story to tell. The realization of this has also led to the increase in value of the Torah.”
This logic is puzzling to the expert appraisers consulted by The Jewish Week. They acknowledge that a database containing information about such a vast number of pasul Torahs might serve as a useful reference to help scholars better date and place other Torahs. However, all said that the idea that the “story” behind a Torah could increase its value would be applicable only in cases where that “story” includes being very old, very rare and/or having a particularly notable author or owner.
By contrast, there is at least one appraiser The Jewish Week identified, Lee Biondi, who seems to share Carroll’s view that there are two distinct markets for pasul Torahs, one Jewish and the other Christian. Biondi is a California-based rare book dealer and Christian who told The Jewish Week that he has appraised pasul Torahs for clients involved in donating them to Christian institutions.
According to his CV, Biondi spent the 1980s working as a TV and film producer and chain bookstore manager before going on to manage an antiquarian bookshop in Los Angeles and then opening his own gallery and rare book and manuscript business now based in Santa Barbara. The CV also notes that he believes he is the only dealer “ever to purchase and sell actual Dead Sea Scroll Biblical fragments.” (In recent years, some DSS fragments have been determined to be fakes.)
In response to a question from The Jewish Week about whether he appraised any of the Torahs that were donated by the Green Collection to the MOTB, Biondi said that “by agreement” he could not “comment on any aspect of the Green Collection.” He told The Jewish Week that he did not do any pasul Torah appraisal work for the MOTB and but said that he “has looked at some of” the MOTB’s Torah scrolls and added that for every scroll that is in the museum, “they have commissioned an expert rabbinical report,” though a non-disclosure agreement he signed with the museum prevented him from revealing who these experts are.
Biondi made a point of saying that these rabbinical reports are critical, as the IRS “will never trust the original seller’s description.”
Three people familiar with the MOTB’s practices told The Jewish Week that one of those scribes was a Rabbi Reisman. A Nov. 24 comment posted on a blog and attributed to “Elliot Reisman” claims that he was “employed by the Greens to evaluate some of their Torah scrolls.” Elliot Reisman’s Facebook page contains a photo that matches that of a Rabbi Yitzchok Reisman, a Lower East Side rabbi who restores Torahs and, together with a scribe and Judaica dealer named Itzhak Winer, became well known in 2009 for identifying what experts thought was the oldest surviving Torah from Spain’s Golden Age. Attempts to reach both men were unsuccessful.
Dorothy Lobel King, an archaeologist and writer based in London, in 2015 obtained and circulated widely documents from the AAI site, which included an appraisal Biondi conducted for Scott Carroll on behalf of an anonymous donor in 2013. It included 10 Torahs and the valuations ran from $90,000 to $570,000. It also named a group of “scholars and experts of record”: Scott Carroll, Moty Sender, Amedeo Spagnoletto, Ron Sieger and Dirk Obbink. Sieger is a certified sofer, or scribe, in Los Angeles while Spagnoletto is an Italian sofer and the Chief Rabbi of Florence, who has also worked with the MOTB. Obbink is an Oxford professor in papyrology and Greek literature who was suspended from Oxford in October during an investigation by the university and the Egypt Exploration Society for allegedly illegally selling Egyptian manuscript fragments to the MOTB (the matter reportedly was made known to Thames Valley police in November of last year). Obbink has denied the allegations.
Two Different Markets
When asked by The Jewish Week how he typically arrives at his valuations, Biondi echoed Carroll, telling The Jewish Week that pasul Torahs are “not respected as objects in Israel because they are not kosher. The Christian market doesn’t care. That’s not a barometer of value or anything.”
How does the Christian market value them? According to Biondi, “Value characteristics are: age, condition, significance, if it can be traced to a particular region. Rare areas are more valuable.”
Without access to Hobby Lobby’s tax returns it is impossible to know the dollar amount of the deductions it may have taken on the pasul Torahs it donated to the MOTB. The museum’s 990 from 2011 show $23 million in donated artifacts from Hobby Lobby Stores; in 2015, the cumulative value of donated artifacts had jumped to $201 million (according to a note in the 2016 990, the museum elected on July 1 of that year “to no longer recognize donated or purchased artifacts in the statement of financial position … in accordance with accounting policies generally followed by museums with similar collections”). In their 2018 article, Baden and Moss report that the museum’s chief curatorial officer told them the museum owned 2,559 items, which would mean that, at that time, pasul Torahs made up around 72 percent of the entire collection.
A spokesperson from the IRS told The Jewish Week that “federal law prohibits” the agency “from commenting on or confirming or denying anything related to a specific taxpayer.”
However, Victor Wiener, who heads a New York-based art consultancy and appraisal company, has taught at NYU and served as the executive director of the Appraisers Association of America for 21 years, told The Jewish Week that in general “buying cheap” to get a tax deduction is a “standard operation of tax promoters” that is “immediately going to trigger some type of button at the IRS and they are going to recognize it as potential tax fraud.”
While Wiener has no specific knowledge of the pasul Torah market or the MOTB’s collection, he stressed that in order to claim that an object’s value has increased significantly over a short period of time, “you really need absolutely firm data.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a bargain sale per se,” Wiener said. “The question is, is it legitimate? Can it be repeated? And is there substantiation that it was competitive or that you weren’t taking advantage of someone one way or another? Or that it wasn’t a sale that was motivated by getting a tax deduction and it’s all fictitious. Is there more than one buyer?”
That last question is perhaps the most salient of all, as even Scott Carroll himself suggests that the Greens have essentially cornered the market in pasul Torahs.
“Given the decrease in the number of Torahs available and the increase in the cost of Torahs, I don’t think there could ever be a collection that could surpass the number they have acquired. It is staggering.”
This article was made possible with financial assistance from The Jewish Week Investigative Journalism Fund.