Due to “Insufficient Provenance," 11,500 items to be returned to Egypt and Iraq
The Museum of the Bible’s Chairman of the Board, Steve Green, announced in late March the return of roughly 11,500 objects to Iraq and Egypt, including approximately 5,000 papyri fragments and 6,500 clay artifacts.
The objects in question belong to the Green family’s private collection, which forms the core of the holdings of the Museum of the Bible. While curators from the Museum of the Bible who studied the artifacts and identified concerns over their provenance, the objects set for return are not part of the museum’s collection. In a statement posted on the Museum’s website, Green cited the “insufficient provenance” of the objects and his aim to “do the right thing” as his primary motivations. He and curators are consulting with U.S. officials about the best way to facilitate the return of the objects.
The announcement came not two weeks after the museum admitted that their entire collection of Dead Sea Scrolls, also acquired by Green, are forgeries.
Green chided the “unscrupulous dealers” with whom he associated when he began collecting objects for the museum. “It is well known that I trusted the wrong people to guide me,” Green remarked in the statement. “One area where I fell short was not appreciating the importance of the provenance of the items I purchased.”
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The Green Collection was officially formed in 2011, although Green has been amassing biblical manuscripts and objects since 2009. For years, biblical scholars and archaeologists have scrutinized the perfunctory collecting practices of the Green family, appealing for more provenance research into the museum’s collection. Countless articles and entire volumes, including Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon’s The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction (2019) and Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (2017) by Candida Moss and Joel Baden, have probed the museum’s furtive operations.
This is not the first time the Green Collection has come under scrutiny. In 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Memphis seized a shipment of several hundred cuneiform tablets the Greens had purchased from an Israeli dealer. The subsequent investigation revealed that the Green Family, the founders and owners of the craft store chain Hobby Lobby, frequently used the business to import purchases for their collection.
The incident provoked widespread public criticism and many scholars were concerned that Steve Green was not taking the necessary precautions to investigate the provenance of his purchases. “It isn’t that the Greens are looking to make illicit or inauthentic acquisitions,” wrote Candida Moss and Joel Baden, Professors at University of Birmingham and Yale Divinity School, respectively. “But unprovenanced artifacts beget unprovenanced artifacts.”
After the conclusion of the investigation in 2017, U.S. Customs agents seized another 3,800 clay bullae and tablets from Hobby Lobby. The civil action alleged that “cuneiform tablets were falsely labeled as product “samples” and shipped to Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., and two corporate affiliates.” The Greens listed the value of the imported “samples” as only $300 but had purchased the antiquities for more than $1.6 million. Cary Summers, President of the Museum of the Bible, chalked it up to naïveté, insisting that mislabeling the crates was a bureaucratic error by a few inexperienced collectors, rather than intentional deception. The objects were returned to Iraq and Hobby Lobby settled for a $3 million fine.
In the recent statement, Green announced that his “goal was always to protect, preserve, study, and share cultural property with the world. That goal has not changed.” He also promised to continue to work with scholars to study the provenance of the collection and make appropriate restitution if necessary.
Originally published on April 6, 2020; corrected on April 24, 2020.
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