Why Hobby Lobby’s Illegal Smuggling of Artifacts Matters

Why Hobby Lobby’s Illegal Smuggling of Artifacts Matters July 10, 2017

Candida Moss and Joel Baden have an op-ed in the New York Times about Hobby Lobby and their smuggling of illegal and stolen artifacts from Iraq. They were the ones who originally caught what was going on, which led to a DOJ investigation, a $3 million fine and the forfeiting of those artifacts. Why that’s really bad:


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.

And the artifacts that were tagged may not be all of them:

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.

I’d go further than that. Every single artifact they own should have been part of the investigation, and if they couldn’t prove how they came to acquire them, they should have been forfeited.

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