Hobby Lobby's Black-Market Buys Did Real Damage
The Justice Department announced on Wednesday that the crafting giant Hobby Lobby, Inc. has agreed to forfeit thousands of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts that it had illegally imported from Iraq. Along with a hefty $3 million payment, this concludes a federal investigation that has been going on since 2011, when United States customs agents seized an incoming shipment of cuneiform tablets, labeled "hand made clay tiles" and headed for the Hobby Lobby headquarters in Oklahoma City.
It may not be obvious why Hobby Lobby would be interested in 3,000-year-old Mesopotamian antiquities. These tablets formed part of the private collection of biblical artifacts purchased by Hobby Lobby — 40,000 items strong — destined for eventual display at the Museum of the Bible, scheduled to open this November in Washington, D.C., just steps from the National Mall. The Museum of the Bible was founded and funded by the Green family, the owners of Hobby Lobby, and they continue to play a central role in its administration, fundraising, and mission.
When we first broke the story of this investigation in 2015, it was suggested to us that this was merely a matter of "incomplete paperwork." It is now abundantly clear that this was untrue. Yesterday, Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby, said in a statement, "We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled." But even before these purchases, Green and his partners had been given clear guidelines by the antiquities law expert Patty Gerstenblith: "I read them the riot act," she said. Nevertheless, they proceeded to purchase artifacts of dubious origin from unscrupulous sellers and then import them from Israel and the United Arab Emirates with falsified documentation designed to avoid customs inspection.
The particular legal issue of falsified import papers is merely the tip of a much larger ethical iceberg. The real issue here is the black market in looted antiquities, a market that has loomed beneath the surface of storied museum collections and private holdings for many years, but that became especially visible during the first Iraq War and the period of regional destabilization that followed.
It is not the case, as some have alleged, that Hobby Lobby bought artifacts from ISIS. Though it is true that ISIS profits by looting artifacts and passing them on to dealers and collectors in the West, the shipments for which Hobby Lobby was scrutinized predate the rise of ISIS.But Hobby Lobby did participate in and perpetuate the same market from which ISIS profits. If collectors like the Green family were unwilling to purchase unprovenanced antiquities — items that do not have a clear and clean history of discovery and purchase — the black market would dry up. As long as there are buyers, there will be sellers. It is because collectors like Hobby Lobby are willing to pay a premium and look the other way that looting continues. They dramatically expanded the market for biblical antiquities in the late 2000s.
Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible are not identical, though Steve Green is president of the former and chairman of the board of the latter. The federal charges have to do with Hobby Lobby—the Museum of the Bible appears nowhere in any of the documents. "The artifacts that were referred to were never in our collection," said one Museum of the Bible administrator in response to yesterday's news.
But in 2015, the person who confirmed the investigation's existence to us was not a representative of Hobby Lobby, but the president of the Museum of the Bible, Cary Summers. He was the one who used the phrase "incomplete paperwork." That it was Mr. Summers who spoke with us about the investigation — frequently using the word "we," as in "We'll have to see if we can get it worked out" — serves as a reminder that the divide between the two is not especially sharp. (The corporate office for the Museum of the Bible is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Hobby Lobby's headquarters in Oklahoma City.)
The Museum of the Bible will contain more than just artifacts purchased by Hobby Lobby. But the core of the museum's displays will still come from the Green family's collection, and those artifacts come with ethical baggage.
Although we can now point to a large number of items in the collection that were illicitly acquired, there remain thousands and thousands more about which we can say nothing: not because their provenance is clean, but because it is unknown. Though scholars have been pleading for years with the Greens and the Museum of the Bible to provide all of the information for all of their artifacts, there has been no transparency whatsoever.
If the Museum of the Bible truly wants to distance itself from the illicit antiquities dealings of Hobby Lobby, it should make available to the public the full provenance of every item it displays, and of all those that are not visible to the public. If there are more artifacts that were purchased from the black market, they should be forfeited or repatriated—voluntarily.
The issue here goes beyond Hobby Lobby. The black market in illicit antiquities from the Middle East can be traced back to real-world violence and wholesale destruction of cultural heritage. Museums may think that the damage associated with illegal antiquities is in the past by the time an artifact reaches their hands, but this is untrue. As long as the market continues, the damage remains.
Joel Baden and Candida Moss are the authors of "Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby."
-- Sent from my Linux system.