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Not exactly Indiana Jones

Sloppiness and misdirection led to federal investigators confiscating thousands of smuggled items from Hobby Lobby’s Bible collection. Now as the Museum of the Bible opens, scholars wonder what will happen to the confiscated artifacts

Not exactly Indiana Jones

A portion of the Bibles and religious documents that have been collected by Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby.(Mark Graham/The New York Times/Redux)

In Washington, D.C., at the end of October, the Museum of the Bible was preparing to open its giant golden doors for a Nov. 17 debut. The museum, two blocks off the National Mall, promises to draw big audiences to its collection, which purports to be one of the greatest private Biblical collections on display for the public.

At the same time in New York, a judge officially forfeited about 3,500 items of unknown origin from the museum’s collection—ancient cuneiform tablets and clay seals—to the U.S. government. The confiscated items are now sitting in a climate-controlled warehouse in Queens under the oversight of the Department of Homeland Security.

The arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby technically owned the items, and the details in the settlement Hobby Lobby reached with the government this summer are ugly. They resulted in the company forfeiting the artifacts and paying a $3 million fine. Steve Green—CEO of Hobby Lobby, chairman of the Museum of the Bible, and the buyer of the Green collection that contains all of these artifacts—had executed the deal on the cuneiform tablets against advice from a top antiquities expert. The invoice included misleading information, saying the Iraqi items had originated in Israel. And Green’s executive assistant and another unnamed Hobby Lobby staffer decided to bypass their customs broker and instructed the Israeli dealers to handle the shipments.

Then Israeli dealers smuggled the artifacts into the United States by FedExing multiple packages to Hobby Lobby’s headquarters, mislabeling them as tile samples and undervaluing them to avoid customs scrutiny. For example, when Hobby Lobby bought the cuneiform tablets, it paid about $280 a tablet, but the customs declaration valued each one at $5.

Over the last few years the origin or provenance of artifacts has been a sharp concern as terrorist groups like ISIS funded themselves through looting and illicit antiquities sales. The Hobby Lobby purchases took place before the rise of ISIS to power, but the unknown origins of the Iraqi items raised the stakes.

Hobby Lobby is not alone in having acquired artifacts with questionable origins—prominent institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art have recently had to relinquish items. The difference here is the company’s acknowledgment of smuggling, but it excused its actions by saying it was “new to the world of acquiring these items.”

Steve Green and his team were at least sloppy in forming the collection behind the Museum of the Bible and had minimal input from antiquities experts.

Scott Carroll, now CEO of a Biblical exhibit in Hong Kong titled “Inspired,” was a consultant for the collection when Steve Green and Hobby Lobby were acquiring vast numbers of artifacts. He had experience working with Biblical collections, having curated another significant private collection for the Van Kampen family, but he was not involved in acquisitions. “The initial thought was to acquire as many of the pieces of the broad bibliographical narrative of the Bible for study purposes as possible,” Carroll said.

Johnny Shipman—a Dallas oilman who had long been hoping to establish a Bible museum and first sold the Greens on the idea—executed many of the acquisitions for the collection. Shipman died in 2013. Part of the selling point to the Greens, per Carroll, was that Shipman showed the tax advantage of buying antiquities at a discount (the market was cool due to the recession) and then donating the artifacts to the museum, receiving a tax write-off.

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The entrance to the Museum of the Bible. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Theoretically the Greens could buy artifacts below market value and then, after an independent appraisal, donate them to the museum at market value. According to the museum’s available 990s from 2013-2015, the museum received about $537 million worth of donated artifacts. Hobby Lobby has experience with charitable giving; the company donates half of its pre-tax earnings to charity. “They’re just very shrewd business people with their giving and their buying as well,” said Carroll.

Eric White, now at Princeton University but then the curator for Southern Methodist University’s Biblical and theological library, knew Shipman and heard about his bidding practices at auctions on the Greens’ behalf—“winning everything in sight.” The general impression among academics was that the Greens were buying up anything and quickly, without much consideration. Booksellers told White that the Greens had bought whole collections and multiple copies of the same thing. Shipman had “the requisite faith and enthusiasm but little experience and no formal training,” White said in an email, though he added that Shipman never pretended to have expertise either.

Though White finds the Green collection interesting, he believes other Bible collections are greater—like those at the Vatican, the British Library, the Württembergische Landesbibliothek in Stuttgart, and the John Rylands University Library of Manchester—“all formed over centuries.”

“In my opinion, a library cannot buy intelligently in a big hurry, no matter how rich,” White said. “With the exception of Scott Carroll and possibly others, they did not seem to have the right people in place to do the hard work or to make those decisions, and the speed with which it was done just deepened the suspicion that the collection was large but ultimately not that well-chosen.”

In those early years, again per Carroll, the Green collection had a bare-bones staff, which made it “all the more chaotic.” Shipman set up the 2010 Dubai meeting where Green and Carroll viewed the 5,500 artifacts that Green was considering buying, according to Carroll. Carroll said he tried to dissuade Green from the trip twice on the grounds that it was suspicious, but Green demurred. After seeing the items, Carroll said he reiterated the risks around Iraqi artifacts. “He said, ‘My family is not averse to risk,’” Carroll recounted.

Before Hobby Lobby bought the 5,500 artifacts, the company brought in a top expert on illegal antiquities, DePaul University’s Patty Gerstenblith, to discuss legal requirements for importing antiquities with Green, Carroll, and others at the company. Carroll thought surely the Greens wouldn’t execute the purchase after that talk. Later Gerstenblith wrote a memo to Hobby Lobby’s counsel strongly advising against buying Iraqi artifacts. Next Carroll knew, the cuneiform tablets were arriving in Hobby Lobby warehouses.

Through his spokesperson Green declined an interview for this piece. He and his wife Jackie Green have a new book out, This Dangerous Book: How the Bible Has Shaped Our World and Why It Still Matters Today—but a scan of the book doesn’t show any mention of the smuggling settlement as the couple recounts building the Bible collection.

Offering a more critical take is another book just out, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby by Joel Baden and Candida Moss. Bible Nation has some good reporting, but its tone is condescending toward the Greens, and the authors are plainly ignorant about some basics of the Christian world (for example, they equate the tithing of businessmen like the Greens with the prosperity gospel). They admit in the introduction that they had never heard of the Greens until four years ago, but they go on to make confident assertions about the Greens’ Christian motivations and beliefs.

More than a year after the Dubai transaction, Carroll and the Greens parted ways. The museum’s mission has shifted from its original approach (“to bring life to the living Word of God”) to something more subdued (“to invite people to engage with the Bible”). The hiring of David Trobisch as the new director of the collection also marked a shift. Trobisch is a liberal scholar who told Moss and Baden that the motivations of the conservative Christians he encountered in the course of the museum fundraising were “unbearable.”

From Carroll’s point of view, his departure was primarily because of the museum’s change in mission. As a more conservative Christian scholar, he felt he didn’t fit anymore. He emphasizes that he has no “ax to grind” with the Greens, and he’s hopeful about the success of the museum. While the museum’s mission is no longer so evangelical, the Greens haven’t changed: As their new book confirms, they have deep evangelical commitments to the Bible as the Word of God and think any encounter with Scripture—even academic—can be transformative.

Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Steve Green at the construction site for Museum of the Bible in 2014. (Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

While the confiscated artifacts sit in a government-monitored warehouse now, they may be out of the country before long. A special office in the Department of Justice, the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (MLARS), will decide their future. Iraq has filed a petition for the return of the items, which if they are indeed Iraqi antiquities, the country is entitled to by law.

Academics in this field want to know the future of the objects. In the past Iraq has made agreements with U.S. academic institutions to study unprovenanced artifacts before repatriation. Cornell University, for example, in 2013 discovered that its 10,000 cuneiform tablet collection had dubious origins; but Iraq came to an agreement with the school that allowed it to study and digitally catalog the objects before repatriation.

David Owen, who studies and oversees the large cuneiform collection at Cornell, argued returning the Green items to Iraq “would be a tragedy if they are sent before they are conserved, photographed and studied for publication.” Studying unprovenanced artifacts is a controversial position nowadays—Owen said some scholarly journals won’t publish articles about unprovenanced material.

A judge officially forfeited about 3,500 items of unknown origin from the museum’s collection—ancient cuneiform tablets and clay seals—to the U.S. government.

Morag Kersel, a top archaeologist, said simply that the U.S. government should ask what Iraqis want to do with the items, which are their cultural property. “If they give their permission [for U.S. universities to study the items], I’m fine with that,” Kersel said.

First the United States will decide what to do with the items. Homeland Security Investigations, the prosecutors, and Iraq will share any relevant information with MLARS—like any evidence they were looted. MLARS will bring in an expert to confirm that the items indeed are from Iraq, and eventually the office will recommend where the items go.

If MLARS agrees that the government should return the items to Iraq, it will be up to Iraq to decide whether to establish any agreements with U.S. institutions to study or display the items before their return. In the meantime, while the items sit in a secure storage facility in Queens, it seems unlikely that scholars will have access to them. “We have a strict obligation to preserve and protect an asset,” a Justice Department official said in response to whether scholars might visit.

U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York via The New York Times

A cuneiform tablet smuggled from Iraq, according to a civil complaint filed by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn. (U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York via The New York Times)

It seems only one scholar may have studied the items. Carroll said immediately after the Greens acquired the cuneiform tablets in question, he asked Fr. Marcel Sigrist, an expert in this area, to come study the tablets. Carroll wanted to find out as quickly as possible whether there was evidence of the items’ provenance, but Sigrist never found anything to indicate whether the items had come from a looted site.

Sigrist studied the items a few times over the space of a year and took some notes, which Carroll presumes the Greens have. A spokesperson for the Museum of the Bible said due to the imminent opening of the museum, no one was available to answer the question about whether the artifacts had been studied before forfeiture. The Museum of the Bible’s collections director Trobisch told Christianity Today that the museum won’t display any archaeological artifacts—only replicas—as a nod to the many provenance problems with ancient Mesopotamian items.

Even the most elite institutions have these provenance problems. Federal authorities seized two stolen ancient Roman items from the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this year and repatriated them to Italy.

In 2003, when the political temperature over unprovenanced items was lower (before terrorist groups were using artifacts as a funding stream), the Met had on display an ancient limestone fragment of unknown origin, known as the Naram-Sin fragment. The Met’s director at the time, Philippe de Montebello, defended displaying the item as a service of public knowledge.

“The marketplace is full of objects with mysterious pasts—a lot of them indeed looted—and it’s often anything but clear which ones are legitimate and which are not,” The New York Times wrote at the time.

(For a review of the Museum of the Bible, click here.)

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

Comments

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Fri, 11/17/2017 06:13 am

    Wow! Very interesting on a topic of which I had little knowledge. Though I enjoy reading koine Greek and have been exposed to manuscript evidence for the Greek text your article touches on areas that are quite new to me. Thanks!!

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Fri, 11/17/2017 11:33 pm

    "That stele belongs in a museum--er, village in Iraq!"

  • Hans's picture
    Hans
    Posted: Sat, 11/18/2017 05:33 am

    More like, “this belongs to the nation of Iraq and was stolen by ISIS and sold to Green et al on the black market to fund ISIS’s campaign of war crimes against humanity.” These laws are in place for a very good reason, and the actions of Museum of the Bible were completely inexcusable. 

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Thu, 11/23/2017 12:25 pm

    Hans, you are absolutely right.  I meant only to ridicule Green et al for their embarrassing foolishness, not make light of the serious nature of their offense.  I am appalled at Christians who do things like this without due diligence.  Now I do not think that I will ever be able to visit the museum without this in the back of my mind, if I visit it at all.