The Hobby Lobby, which founded and funds the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) in Washington, D.C., is in trouble with its collection of Biblical Era objects—again.
Yet this time, those who provided objects of dubious origin to the Oklahoma company are in trouble, too. These include Christie’s auction house, which the Hobby Lobby is suing for fraud, and a distinguished professor of classics at Oxford University, who sold the firm ancient objects from the collection of a private charity.
The news comes as Hobby Lobby and MOTB founder Steven Green also announced that he would be sending more than 11,000 Biblical Era objects back to Iraq and Egypt that the company had acquired without any verifiable provenance, or history of ownership. Experts say that un-provenanced objects are likely to have been smuggled out of countries that ban their sale and export.
Such is the case, the U.S. government says, with the object it seized in September, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a 6-by-5-inch object in clay from around the 16th century B.C., on which cuneiform inscriptions tell the story of one of the world’s earliest epics.
A provenance that was prepared for the tablet’s 2014 private sale at Christie’s London stated that it was among items sold at a California auction house in 1981, before export controls were in place on objects from Iraq. In fact, the government says, the tablet was sent to the U.S. by an American antiquities dealer in 2003, which would have been illegal.
Michael McCullough, the lawyer representing Hobby Lobby, said that in 2013 another antiquities dealer who acquired the tablet warned the head of Christie’s antiquities department in London that doubts about provenance meant that the tablet would be hard to sell at a public auction.
“If you hear that, from the dealer who bought this and owned it, they’re telling you that there’s a problem,” McCullough said. “You can’t ignore that.”
Christie’s London organized a private “treaty sale” of the tablet to Hobby Lobby in 2014 for $1,674,000.
“Based on what the government is saying, Christie’s lied to Hobby Lobby,” said McCullough. “It’s pretty clear what happened here.”
Hobby Lobby is cooperating with the government, which seized the Gilgamesh tablet in September, McCullough said. The firm is suing Christie’s, he explained, to recover what it paid for the tablet that it no longer owns.
“That Christie’s followed through with facilitating the sale of the Gilgamesh tablet suggests that they either weren’t competent enough to dig into the dealer’s shaky claims about provenance, or that they just didn’t care,” Brent Nongbri told Observer. Nongbri is an expert on ancient manuscripts at the Norwegian School of Theology in Oslo. Nongbri’s blog, Variant Readings, is an informative and contentious source on the Biblical trade.
Christie’s, which had one of its experts deliver the tablet to Oklahoma so Hobby Lobby could avoid paying New York State sales tax, disputes Hobby Lobby’s charge of fraud.
“This filing is linked to new information that has come to light regarding an unidentified dealer’s admission to government authorities that he illegally imported this item, then falsified documents over a decade ago in order to perpetrate an illegal sale and exploit the legitimate market for ancient art,” a Christie’s spokesperson said in a statement. “Now that we are informed of this illicit activity pre-dating Christie’s involvement, we are reviewing all representations made to us by prior owners and will reserve our rights in this matter. Any suggestion that Christie’s had knowledge of the original fraud or illegal importation is unsubstantiated.”
Neither Christie’s nor Hobby Lobby is accused of a crime in these dealings. But in March, British police arrested Dirk Obbink, an American-born Oxford professor of classics, on grounds that he had sold Hobby Lobby fragments of 1st century gospels that belonged to a charitable society. Obbink, once the star of his field, who had been a dealer and a paid adviser to Hobby Lobby (and a former recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant for his research on ancient papyrus), is now free while police investigate those sales. Obbink says the charges were made to damage his reputation.
Colorful tales of intrigue in the Biblical trade involving Obbink are now multiplying in the news media and in the spirited blogosphere of Biblical scholars. Some fault their peers for getting too close to collectors with cash.
“My hope is that scholars will learn to be more cautious in where they place their trust,” said Joel Baden, a specialist in Pentateuch Studies at Yale Divinity School and co-author of Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby. “Many of the people who became involved with Hobby Lobby at the beginning did so precisely because Obbink was involved, and he was considered pristine.”
Roberta Mazza, who teaches Graeco-Roman Material Culture at the University of Manchester (England) and blogs on the site Eidolon, still had hope. “There is very low to no ethics in most sectors of the trade,” she said. “I believe that practices and ethics in these fields will benefit from this scandal—it’s a paradox, I know.”