The Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, is in discussions with the Iraqi government to reach a settlement regarding thousands of antiquities in its collection with suspicious or incomplete provenance.
The museum, which was founded by the president of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, Steve Green, has returned thousands of antiquities to Iraq since it opened in 2017.
While a final agreement is still pending, the Iraqi government has reportedly consented to a $15 million settlement over 4,000 disputed antiquities in the Museum of the Bible’s collection, which have been handed over to Iraqi control based on the suspicion that they were looted. In exchange, the museum may retain the right to display some of the objects on loan.
“Iraq’s culture ministry says agreement in principle will pay Iraq $15 million for training, technical and other assistance in exchange for loan of objects,” NPR’s international correspondent Jane Arraf tweeted. Arraf also said that Iraq has dropped lawsuits against Hobby Lobby as part of the deal. Artnet News reached out to the Iraqi embassy in DC to confirm but did not hear back by press time.
A spokeswoman for the Museum of the Bible confirmed to Artnet News that the museum has recently returned artifacts that “do not meet its acquisition standards” (she did not immediately specify exactly how many) and that the museum’s chairman Steve Green is in discussions with the Iraqi embassy. The museum “seeks to support research, exhibitions, and technical assistance projects with Iraq,” she said, although the full details of these plans have yet to be finalized. The museum denied knowledge of any previous or pending lawsuits from the Iraqi government.
The saga of Hobby Lobby’s ties to Iraq is long and winding. Questions about the provenance of Green’s many antiquities have dogged the executive since he began collecting in 2009. In 2017, the company was the subject of a US Department of Justice civil action that accused it of engaging in a years-long, willful pattern of smuggling Iraqi artifacts into the US, including by importing ancient cuneiform tablets as tile samples. As part of a settlement with the US government, the company returned 5,500 artifacts to Iraq and paid a $3 million fine for not exercising proper due diligence in its acquisition practices.
At the time, the museum’s founder attributed the mistakes to his inexperience as an antiquities collector and vowed to reform the museum’s approach to collecting. As part of this resolution, Green revealed in March that he would be returning a further 11,500 artifacts from the collection to the governments of Iraq and Egypt after their provenance could not be verified.
These items included a valuable clay tablet etched with the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh that Green had bought for $1.67 million from Christie’s in 2014. In May, Green announced that Hobby Lobby was suing the auction house for selling him the tablet after it turned out to have been looted from Iraq in the 2000s. (The US government seized the tablet from the museum in September of last year.)
Meanwhile, other controversies surrounding the collection have also cropped up, including the shocking revelation earlier this year the museum’s collection of 16 fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls were fake.
Additional reporting by Eileen Kinsella.
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