JERUSALEM - Parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are up for sale - in tiny pieces.
Nearly 70 years after the discovery of the world's oldest biblical manuscripts, the Palestinian family who originally sold them to scholars and institutions is now quietly marketing the leftovers - fragments the family says it has kept in a Swiss safe deposit box all these years.
Most of these scraps are barely postage-stamp-sized, and some are blank. But in the last few years, evangelical Christian collectors and institutions in the U.S. have forked out millions of dollars for a chunk of this archaeological treasure. This angers Israel's government antiquities authority, which holds most of the scrolls, claims that every last scrap should be recognized as Israeli cultural property and threatens to seize any more pieces that hit the market.
"I told Kando many years ago, as far as I'm concerned, he can die with those scrolls," said Amir Ganor, head of the authority's anti-looting squad, speaking of William Kando, who maintains his family's Dead Sea Scrolls collection. "The scrolls' only address is the State of Israel."
Kando says his family offered its remaining fragments to the antiquities authority and other Israeli institutions, but they could not afford them.
"If anyone is interested, we are ready to sell," Kando told The Associated Press, sitting in the Jerusalem antiquities shop he inherited from his late father. "These are the most important things in the world."
The world of Holy Land antiquities is rife with theft, deception, and geopolitics, and the Dead Sea Scrolls are no exception.
Their discovery in 1947, in caves by the Dead Sea east of Jerusalem, was one of the greatest archaeological events of the 20th century. Scholarly debate over the scrolls' meaning continues to stir high-profile controversy, while the Jordanian and Palestinian governments have lodged their own claims of ownership.
But few know of the recent gold rush for fragments - or Israel's intelligence-gathering efforts to track their sale.
Written mostly on animal skin parchment about 2,000 years ago, the manuscripts are the earliest copies of the Hebrew Bible ever found, and the oldest written evidence of the roots of Judaism and Christianity in the Holy Land.
They are also significant because they include the Hebrew originals of non-canonical writings that had only survived in ancient translations, and because they prove that multiple versions of Old Testament writings circulated before canonization around A.D. 100. While some of the scrolls are nearly identical to the traditional Hebrew text of the Old Testament, many contain significant variations.
The scrolls were well preserved in their dark, arid caves, but over the centuries most fell apart into fragments of various sizes.
Israel regards the scrolls a national treasure and keeps its share of them in a secure, climate-controlled, government-operated lab on the Israel Museum campus in Jerusalem. Pnina Shor, who oversees the antiquities authority's scroll collection, said the trove of fragments is so numerous - at least 10,000 - that staff haven't finished counting them all. Israel has been criticized for limiting scholarly access, but is partnering with Google to upload images of scrolls online.
Bedouin initally found them
How most of the Dead Sea Scrolls ended up in Israeli hands is a tale that begins with a Bedouin shepherd who cast a stone inside a dark cave and heard the sound of something breaking. He found clay jars, some with rolled-up scrolls inside. After a return visit, he and his Bedouin companions had found a total of seven scrolls.
They sold three of them through an antiquities dealer to a Hebrew University professor, and four to William Kando's father, a Christian cobbler in Bethlehem who in turn sold them to the archbishop of the Assyrian Orthodox church.
On the eve of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the archbishop smuggled the scrolls to the U.S. and advertised them in a Wall Street Journal classifieds ad. Yigael Yadin, Israeli war hero and later one of Israel's pre-eminent archaeologists, bought them through a front man.
More scroll fragments
For the next decade, archaeologists dug up thousands more scroll fragments in Dead Sea area caves and began to assemble them, like a jigsaw puzzle, in the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in east Jerusalem, then ruled by Jordan. Bedouins also found fragments and sold them to Kando, who in turn sold most of them to the museum. Other fragments went to Jordanian and French state collections, and universities in Chicago, Montreal and Heidelberg, Germany.
In the 1967 Mideast war, Israel seized the Rockefeller collection, and sent soldiers to Bethlehem in the West Bank, 5 miles south of Jerusalem, where Kando was rumored to hold another important scroll. After a brief imprisonment, Kando revealed the parchment scroll in a shoe box under a floor tile in his bedroom, and sold it to Israeli authorities for $125,000, according to a written account by Yadin.
It is called the Temple Scroll, because it partly describes the construction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. At 26.7 feet long, it is the longest ever found.
But Kando held much more than he surrendered to Israel. William, his son, said his father had fragments tucked away which he eventually transferred to Switzerland in the mid-1960s.
In 1993, just as scholars finally began publishing research of Israeli-held scrolls, and the world was abuzz with Dead Sea Scroll fever, Kando died, bequeathing his secret collection of fragments to his sons.
It was the perfect time to sell.
Norwegian businessman Martin Schoyen, a 73-year-old collector of biblical manuscripts, purchased his first Dead Sea Scroll fragment a year later, said Torleif Elgvin, a scholar with the Schoyen Collection. He eventually purchased a total of 115 fragments, many of them from Kando and some from an American scholar and a British scholar who kept them as souvenirs in the early days after their discovery.
A few years ago, Schoyen suffered financial losses in a business investment and could not afford to continue collecting scrolls, said Elgvin.
William Kando then took his business to the U.S., startling manuscript collectors who didn't know there was any scroll material still available for purchase.
"These were the hurdles I had to pass with collectors in America," said Lee Biondi, a California dealer who sold pieces on behalf of Kando. "The impossibility of it; people saying, 'you can't get a Dead Sea Scrolls fragment. That's impossible.'"
In 2009 and 2010, the Green family, evangelical Christians in Oklahoma City and owners of the Hobby Lobby arts and crafts retailer, bought 12 fragments for its private collection, the world's largest of rare biblical manuscripts. Jerry Pattengale, who oversees the scrolls in the Green Collection, would not say who sold them and for how much.
Representatives of the collections in Norway and the U.S. say they will publish their research on the writings in a few years.
Pattengale would only provide a basic inventory of the Green Collection's fragments: it includes material from Genesis through Leviticus; Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jonah, Micah, Daniel, and Nehemiah; a Psalm and a mysterious extra-biblical Hebrew document known as an Instruction text.
"They are really small pieces, but they are important because you may have two or three lines that may have not been found anywhere else. And suddenly it adds a lot to the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls," Pattengale said. "There is at least one rather amazing discovery in one of them."
He said a nondisclosure agreement bars him from revealing the finding until it is published.
He estimated it would be released in about 18 months and published by Brill, the leading publishing house of Dead Sea Scroll scholarship.
Greater access now
For decades, scholarly access to the scrolls was tightly controlled by a small circle of researchers. Access is freer now, but digital sharing of the artifacts among Israel, Schoyen, and U.S. institutions is limited.
Governments have also jockeyed for ownership of the scrolls, a dispute rooted in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the redrawn borders that changed control of the desert region where the scrolls were found.
Palestinian officials claim rights to the material because it was found in today's West Bank; Jordan claims rights because the material was discovered when it ruled the territory; and both have unsuccessfully petitioned to seize scrolls when they were displayed abroad in Israeli government-sponsored exhibitions.
Israel considers the scrolls its national patrimony, and says all fragments should be in its large repository for best preservation and research.