Hobby Lobby, the Museum of the Bible and the antiquities market
Recently, the Hobby Lobby corporation—owned by the Green family—agreed to pay a $3 million fine for the purchase of thousands of artifacts believed to have been smuggled out of Iraq. Given the connection of the Green family and their massive collection of artifacts to the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., how are we to understand the significance of this civil case? Cultural heritage expert Roberta Mazza of the University of Manchester explains below.—Ed.
On July 5, 2017, the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York issued a press release stating that a civil complaint was filed to forfeit thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae originating from modern Iraq and smuggled into the United States through the United Arab Emirates and Israel. As explained in the complaint available online, these artifacts (over 3,500 items) were purchased in the context of amassing what is known as the Green collection—around 40,000 objects of various kinds, from ancient papyri to modern prints of the Bible, assembled by the Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. This collection was meant to form the core of what is nowadays known as the Museum of the Bible, which opens in Washington, D.C. in November.
While Hobby Lobby is a business, i.e., a for-profit organization, the Museum of the Bible is a non-profit institution to which the Green family and others are in fact donating resources, including ancient objects. Despite the Museum of the Bible’s management pointing out that there is a distinction between the Green collection and the museum, the public is struggling to understand how this is the case, since Hobby Lobby president Steven Green and other members of the Green family fill key roles on the museum’s board, and the museum was in fact a Green initiative, aimed at opening their private collection to the public.
Over the course of several years, many people, including myself, have expressed criticism regarding how the Green family was operating in the antiquities market. Current legislation on the circulation and purchasing of antiquities is very restrictive; museum associations and other institutional bodies have adopted rigorous ethical guidelines on the acquisition and handling of ancient artifacts based on the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and other national and international legislations. The fact that the Green family has been able to gather an enormous amount of items in a very short time (ca. 40,000 objects collected from 2009 to 2012) sets off alarm bells for those who know how rare licit antiquities are on the market.
The U.S. attorney’s complaint demonstrates that our worries were more than justified, and that serious and sustained breaches of national and international laws have occurred as well as violations of professional ethics on the part of the curators and other professionals, including the academics in charge of the collections.
Those who are concerned about the preservation of the past know too well that one of the most serious threats we are facing is the plundering and looting of archaeological sites and, especially in the case of war-zones like Iraq or Syria, of museums and libraries as well.
Individuals and, more often, specialized groups, including some terrorist organizations (e.g., Isis) and organized criminal associations (e.g., the Italian Mafia), plunder archaeological sites in order to retrieve objects to sell on the illicit antiquities market to make a profit and sustain their activities. Since the early 2000s, hundreds of thousands of archaeological objects have been smuggled from Iraq.1 But the spoliation is taking place everywhere in the world, from the South-Asian continent to the Middle East, from Africa to Latin America, and also in European countries like Italy and Greece. In short, it is a global phenomenon.
In the process, archaeological sites are damaged forever, since looters are obviously using destructive methods to be quick and efficient. The objects stripped from the ground are isolated from their archaeological context, which more often than not is also destroyed. The interpretation and understanding of the past is compromised forever.
Some say that in the case of written documents, the text inscribed is enough for us to appreciate objects without their provenance. But this is far from true. As one example among many, I can mention the Nag Hammadi Codices, the collection history of which is obscure. Of course, the Nag Hammadi Codices are extremely important manuscripts, but imagine how much more we could have learned by excavating them properly. Scholars are formulating various hypotheses on their find spot and the identities of their ancient owners, but the reality is that since they came to us through illicit excavations, we have been deprived forever of the possibility of fully understanding this complex collection of books.
So much for scholarship. But there is a much more important factor to be considered: as mentioned above, looters are very often violent individuals affiliated with criminal organizations. In Egypt, the context of which I am most familiar with, the government’s archaeological guards are constantly threatened by antiquities traffickers, and some of them were recently shot dead. In that country, looters exploit children to dig in shafts, which violates basic human rights; many children have been injured and even killed during these dangerous and obviously illegal activities. Once smuggled, these illicit antiquities are “cleaned” through transit countries and unscrupulous dealers and finally reach the market very often disguised among licit objects.
Collectors who do not pay careful attention to the provenance of the artifacts they purchase and even dismiss the warnings of specialists in the field when they flag up problems, as in Hobby Lobby’s case, are complicit in this circle of spoliation, exploitation and violence.
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This mainstream case is an occasion for all of us, including collectors and dealers, to reflect on how to curb the phenomenon of looting, smuggling and the market of illicit antiquities. It is self-evident that if collectors stop buying unprovenanced antiquities, the market will immediately decrease and slowly disappear. Therefore, the first point about which we should be more aware is documented provenance. By “provenance” we mean the story of an artifact from its discovery (find spot, when known) to its various ownerships (acquisition or collection history); in brief, the biography of an object. To excavate the biography of an ancient object might prove difficult, but due diligence cannot be neglected, and if doubts arise, the object must not be bought and should also be flagged to the police authorities where necessary. I also believe that collections (public and private) must allow academics studying the objects full access to the relevant purchase documents. Academics must be responsible for ensuring that the objects at the center of their study are legal through careful research of provenance before publication; the collection history of a manuscript or other artifact must always be included in their first and subsequent publications.
The difficulties connected with researching an object’s provenance lead me to a second fundamental point: transparency. This is a very complex topic, especially for conflicting legal issues. Current legislation protects anonymity in the antiquities market, especially through auctions. A buyer has the right to remain anonymous for fiscal, security and privacy reasons; but this is at odds with the interests of scholarship and academics, who need access to the objects they study. These objects often disappear once sold to an anonymous collector. As a consequence, some have argued that antiquities belong to museums and shouldn’t be sold. Others (mostly dealers and collectors) disagree. I believe that a shared conversation here would be helpful. I have made some efforts in the past, but there was little real interest in collaboration from the dealers’ side.
The third point to be aware of is control over publication (broadly conceived, including presentations at conferences and exhibits). Many associations and journals have already adopted rules that forbid publishing an unprovenanced manuscript or antiquity. In other words, presenters and authors should ensure that the object in question is licit (i.e., it reached the market through legal channels and did not leave its country of provenance after 1970 or 1972, the years in which the UNESCO convention was respectively adopted and enforced) and should include all the information concerning its provenance when presenting or publishing it.
We have seen this rule against publishing on unprovenanced material dismissed too often, ostensibly for the sake of the importance of an artifact: the new Sappho fragments with the Green collection and a London-based collector, and the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus are just two recent examples from a long list. (In the case of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus, provenance was provided, but it was clearly not researched in any depth.) Academics and the media commented endlessly on their contents while the first question that should have been asked was: Where did they come from? We now know that the Jesus’ Wife fragment was a fake with a dodgy history, while we are still waiting for documents proving that the new Sappho fragments (which were first published without any information about their provenance) were from a lot sold by Christie’s in a 2011 auction—a detail that was provided many months after publication of the first academic edition of the fragments.
It is not enough to state that an acquisition policy is now in place, as it has been declared by some members of the Green initiative. We know perfectly well that acquisitions started in 2009, so besides talking about future acquisitions, the Museum of the Bible should in fact clarify all its objects’ pasts, and not just release a statement regarding the seized objects. The only way to do this is by immediately publishing a comprehensive list of all objects in the museum’s possession. Of course the list must be accompanied by the provenance of each piece, which should not be difficult to document if due diligence has been followed. Since the museum is going to open in a few months, all this information should be filed and ready, and I cannot see any obstacle that prevents them from releasing a public database, since the institution has immense resources.
If this does not happen, the credibility of the Museum of the Bible will remain weak. I wonder who will visit a museum potentially full of smuggled antiquities, especially considering that the public will have to pay for tickets, the proceeds of which run the risk of funding this illicit circle.2
1. According to cultural policy specialist Lawrence Rothfield, “Archaeologist John Malcolm Russell, who served as senior cultural advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, estimates the number of artifacts ripped from the ground between 2003 and 2005 alone at 400,000 to 600,000, based on the average yield per site. This is an astounding figure, three to four times the number of artifacts gathered from excavations since the 1920s by the National Museum of Iraq (some 170,000—though some of these are not single pieces but sets of shards), and thirty to forty times the 15,000 or so items ultimately determined to have been stolen from the museum.” (Lawrence Rothfield, The Rape of Mesopotamia [University of Chicago Press, 2009], p. 137.)
2. At the time this article was published, The Times reported that Egyptian authorities are investigating whether Hobby Lobby illegally purchased a Coptic papyrus fragment of Paul’s letter to Galatians, which appeared on sale on eBay in 2012 and resurfaced in the Green collection in 2014.
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