Museum of the Bible involved in smuggling scandal

The evangelical Green family, founders of Hobby Lobby, are reported to have illegally purchased Egyptian papyrus and parchment.

When I was a young child, I was enamored with the idea of archeology. Of course, the archeologists I had in mind were more Indiana Jones than Jesse Fewkes, the guy that supervised the excavation of Mesa Verda in Colorado.

As I grew older, I learned that actions of Indy and those like him were less than legal, and that the theft of ancient artifacts was a little more complicated than wooden crates, gunfights and melting the faces off of Nazis.

However, David Green, whose family owns the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby store chain, must have missed that little module in second grade, because he and his associates have again come under fire for purchasing, smuggling and housing stolen artifacts.

In this instance, the Museum of the Bible, which was founded by Green and his Evangelical Christian family, has reported to the press that a highly distinguished papyrus specialist employed at Oxford, Dirk Obbink, sold 12 pieces of papyrus and one piece of parchment to the Green family.

These fragments were illegally removed from their home at the Egypt Exploration Society’s collection, and when they were stolen, the primary paperwork, including photographs and descriptions, mysteriously disappeared. The EES was able to identify the recovered fragments by using their backup copies of the paperwork.

Good job, Obbink; stellar heist.

Although the illicit sale of one-of-a-kind artifacts is a huge scandal, this event is only a portent of the larger issue surrounding the Museum of the Bible. Before it was opened in 2017, the Green family spent several years purchasing and excavating artifacts relating to the Bible. The Green family, through Hobby Lobby, spent 1.6 million USD in December 2010 to purchase a vast amount of artifacts from dealers in the United Arab Emirates, with the Greens then donating the artifacts to the Museum’s collection. If this situation sounds sketchy to you, that’s because it is. The Green family’s lawyers and advisors intimated that the several thousand artifacts were, now if you can believe this, potentially illegally sourced and sold by graverobbers and looters.

The Greens, again through Hobby Lobby, persevered and completed the sale, even after Customs and Border Protection Officers warned the Hobby Lobby representatives to verify the place of origin and the legitimacy of these artifacts. If they were not legally excavated and imported, Hobby Lobby would be stripped of the artifacts and fined. Of course, buying precious artifacts from completely legit dudes in the U.A.E. is a surefire way to find top tier, 100 percent not stolen and/or forged artifacts … or that’s what the sellers told the Hobby Lobby reps.

After a lengthy investigation, the District Court for the Eastern District of New York ruled that Hobby Lobby was complicit in the smuggling of these artifacts of dubious origin, and that they must be returned, with Hobby Lobby paying a steep fine of 3 million USD. So that’s it, right? They got the bad guys! The artifacts were returned! Hopefully some Nazis got their faces melted off! Or maybe aliens!

Well, no.

Obbink is certainly not the only specialist that has easy access to artifacts, and now that he has been caught, authorities and armchair detectives continue to speculate on his immense time alone with the EES’s collection.

As a prodigy in archeology, funding was not an issue for him, and his way of working led to isolation from his peers. His colleagues would let him be, and months later he would come out of his office with another discovery or book to publish. He was exceedingly valuable to the archeology community, acting as the leading authority in papyrus analysis, which meant he would oftentimes keep pieces of the collection in his office, studying it intensely and not bothering to lock it back up in its designated spot.

Another far more complicated aspect is how this whole mess fits together. The situation is complex and not completely known, so I’m hesitant to talk about it as an authority, but there are several names that appear multiple times in the scandal, indicating that there is a network of individuals using shell companies, fences, looters and dealers.

Without all the information, it’s impossible to definitively say, but the current idea is that this cabal would use one another as verified sources when buying and selling potentially fraudulent artifacts. With these potentially fake or stolen artifacts, an individual in this group would then verify other objects, using the first potentially dirty artifact as a standard model of comparison.
Suffice it to say, there is a dearth of information still out there to puzzle out, and this little piece of the scandal might only be a stepping stone instead of the ending place. Shell corporations, fake paperwork, smuggling and bold heists, it’s an Indy movie gone real and wrong.

Stealing objects that are fundamentally important to a culture is horrendous. No sarcasm, this stuff makes me sick to my stomach. I certainly won’t be purchasing anything at Hobby Lobby to make my baller Halloween costume, and I encourage you to do the same.

Post Author: Adam Walsh