Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Friday, July 7th, 2017.

Hobby Lobby and the Bible Totem


After a stressful week I’m ready to indulge in some schadenfreude over Hobby Lobby’s recent tangle with the Justice Department.

The arts-and-crafts retailer Hobby Lobby has agreed to pay a $3 million fine for illegally importing thousands of ancient Iraqi clay artifacts smuggled into the United States, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

In addition to the fine, Hobby Lobby will forfeit thousands of clay bullae, cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals that were falsely labeled and shipped to the company through the United Arab Emirates and Israel, according to a civil complaint and settlement agreement in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

Hobby Lobby says they didn’t know the tablets were stolen.

According to the complaint, Hobby Lobby got conflicting information about where the artifacts had been stored and never met or communicated with the dealer selling them. When it came time to pay, the company wired money to seven separate bank accounts. …

… Starting in late 2010, a United Arab Emirates-based dealer sent 10 packages to three different Hobby Lobby addresses in Oklahoma City, with shipping labels reading “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample),” according to the complaint. No formal entries were made for the shipments. Prosecutors said the use of multiple addresses was “consistent with methods used by cultural property smugglers to avoid scrutiny by Customs.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection later intercepted five additional packages, all of them falsely declaring that the artifacts inside came from Turkey. A final shipment containing about 1,000 clay bullae arrived at one of Hobby Lobby’s addresses from Israel in September 2011. That one also misrepresented the artifacts’ country of origin, according to the complaint.

They didn’t know the artifacts were stolen. They didn’t understand the laws about shipping antiquities into the country. Yeah, right.

Making all this even juicier is that the Green family that owns Hobby Lobby also is the main force behind a new Museum of the Bible, scheduled to open soon in Washington DC near the Mall. The Greens had promised to house more than 44,000 biblical texts and artifacts in this museum. Museum administration is in damage control mode, righteously declaring that all the tablets the Greens were importing were not intended to be put in the museum. So the Greens were going to line their driveway with them?

Or, maybe not.

Candida Moss, the co-author of a forthcoming book on the Green family’s rapid acquisition of Biblical antiquities and attempts to promote the influence of Christianity on public life, said that the museum has tried to distance itself from its chairman and his craft stores since the media began reporting on his antiquities acquisitions two years ago.

“The Greens remain very much involved. Green is still head of the board,” she said. “The fact is, they’re not as separate as they claim. Many of the artifacts will be on loan from the Green collection. There are other items in their collection that scholars are asking questions about.”

Brent Clark, an Oklahoma lawyer also working on a manuscript about the Green family, agreed: “Steve Green is going to be in charge of that thing, come hell or high water.”

The museum is still expected to be a popular tourist attraction, but scholars are likely to keep their distance.

Yates, the art crime expert, said that many major journals of archaeology research refuse to publish articles based on artifacts whose provenance can’t be proven, and researchers won’t be willing to do work that they can’t publish.

I’m not an archaeologist, but it’s not hard to imagine that if an artifact is looted from its original site so that its provenance is lost, its  value for historical research is greatly diminished.

Candida Moss and Joel Baden, who are writing a book titled Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, wrote an op ed for the New York Times that vigorously pooh-poohed the idea that the Green’s looted stuff was not intended for the museum. Further, they allege that a whole lot of the stuff that is scheduled to be displayed in the museum has a sketchy provenance as well.

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.

What part of “Thou shalt not steal” skipped your attention, folks?

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.

Note that Moss is a professor of New Testament studies at Notre Dame, and Baden is a professor of the Hebrew Bible at Yale.

The point is not just that the Greens have been encouraging the looting of historical artifacts in the name of “preserving” them, they’ve also been breaking biblical law to stock their glorified Museum of the Bible. Yeah, that makes the Greens hypocrites of the first order, but what else?

The whole champions of Christianity pose may have just been a marketing ploy all along. But it’s also the case that for the more fanatical Christians in the U.S., the Bible ceased to be a scripture a long time ago. It’s become more of a totem, a sacred symbol assumed to have spiritual power that represents the tribe of self-proclaimed conservative Christians. What it actually says about anything is irrelevant.

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