The Owners of Hobby Lobby Are Returning Biblical Antiquities That Were Allegedly Stolen by an Oxford Professor

This is the second time that the family and its Museum of the Bible have bought illicit antiquities.

The Museum of the Bible. Image courtesy museumofthebible.org
The Museum of the Bible. Image courtesy of museumofthebible.org

The Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, is on the hot seat once again for acquiring illicit antiquities that must now be returned.

The latest scandal involves at least 13 biblical fragments that Oxford papyrologist Dirk Obbink is accused of stealing and improperly selling to the museum’s owners, David Green and his family, who also own the chain store Hobby Lobby, according to the Daily Beast.

The Egypt Exploration Society, a London-based nonprofit, posted a statement on its website yesterday saying that photographs provided by the museum led the society to identify 13 texts on papyrus or parchment from its collection that “were taken without authorization.” It added that “in most of the 13 cases the catalogue card and photograph are also missing.”

Obbink did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He is still listed as a professor on Oxford University’s website.

Hobby Lobby. Image via Flickr courtesy of m01229.

Hobby Lobby. Image via Flickr.

The museum’s board has accepted the Egypt Exploration Society’s claim to ownership and is arranging to return the 13 pieces. The Museum of the Bible helped the society “recover antiquities that had been sold illegally during the years 2010-2013,” it said in a statement. “The items referenced were acquired by Hobby Lobby stores in good faith between 2010 and 2013, but sold by a known expert from Oxford University.”

In June, the Daily Beast reported that Obbink may have also sold an ancient fragment relating to the Gospel of Mark that did not belong to him.

David Green, an evangelical Christian, and his family founded Hobby Lobby in 1972. The nationwide chain operates some 800 stores and is valued at $4.6 billion, according to Forbes. Hobby Lobby rose to notoriety in 2014 when it won a Supreme Court lawsuit allowing the company to deny its employees health insurance coverage for contraceptives on religious grounds.

The Green family outside the US Supreme Court on March 25, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Hobby Lobby professes a mission of “honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.” In 2010, the company spent $1.6 million to buy thousands of ancient artifacts in an effort to amass a trove of Biblical antiquities and, seven years later, opened the Museum of the Bible.

That year, the US Department of Justice filed a civic action claiming that the family had participated in a years-long, willful pattern of smuggling Iraqi artifacts into the US despite numerous warnings, interceptions, and large-scale purchases that were “fraught with red flags.”

As part of the related settlement, Hobby Lobby was forced to surrender thousands of artifacts and pay a $3 million fine.

The Egypt Exploration Society did not re-appoint Obbink as an editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, “primarily because of unsatisfactory discharge of his editorial duties, but also because of concerns, which he did not allay, about his alleged involvement in the marketing of ancient texts.” In June, the society banned him from its collection. It says it is now investigating with Oxford University the removal of the texts from the university’s premises.


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