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More Money than Sense? Hobby Lobby and Artifacts

July 7, 2017

Over the last several days news has broken that Hobby Lobby (big American firm selling household decoration items) has settled with the U.S. Justice Department over the purchase and importation of several thousand artifacts illegally obtained from Iraq.  E.g., news story here, and the Justice Department press release here.  Hobby Lobby had to hand over several thousand artifacts to the Justice Department and paid a $3 million fine.

Most damning of all is probably the Justice Department press release, which lists a number of facts not contested by Hobby Lobby in the civil suit.  The President of Hobby Lobby (Steve Green) and others, back several years ago, ignored the warnings and advice of experts in artifacts and the legal issues involved.  They purchased the artifacts in situations that were patently irregular, accepted shipments that were falsely labeled to conceal their true nature, and paid out a huge sum into several individual bank accounts (not to any reputable dealer).

All along this dubious process, the alarm bells should have rung in their minds.  From the outset, they should have recognized that they were being taken into a shady arrangement.  Instead, out of . . . what?  Hubris, stupidity, your guess as good as mine, they pressed ahead with this purchase of cuneiform tablets, clay bullae and cylinder seals, that are now admitted to be stolen items illegally taken out of Iraq.

As one of a number of scholars asked to advise in the displays that will form part of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC (the big project funded by Hobby Lobby), I feel betrayed.  I and others have repeatedly been assured that every step was being taken to ensure that any artifacts (manuscripts or other items) acquired were legal and legitimate. It is now clear that we were deceived.

Moreover, this massive dodge of legal obligations in the acquisition and transport of historic artifacts was conducted by the same organization that loudly trumpeted itself as an Evangelical Christian business, in a law suit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Hobby Lobby case was that as a business owned by a Christian family they should not have to pay for workers insurance that covered abortions.  But the same people obviously found no problem in the nefarious activities that have now come to light, and, I repeat, are uncontested.  Certainly, to critics, this will seem another example of a selective ethical behavior that brings discredit to the claim of “Evangelical” Christian faith.

On a final and more positive note, however, I have been assured that this “fast and loose” approach to acquiring artifacts by the Museum of the Bible has now ceased, subsequent to the appointment of David Trobisch in 2014 to oversee these matters.  Let’s hope so.  For the regrettable activities brought to light from the prior years indicate that previously it was a situation of lots of money and less than enough good sense.

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16 Comments
  1. Well said, as usual, thanks for your insight.

  2. Dear Prof. Hurtado,
    As someone well respected in the guild and who has advised for displays in the Museum of the Bible, I thought you would be interested in this forthcoming book by Moss and Baden: Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (https://www.amazon.com/Bible-Nation-United-States-Hobby/dp/069117735X/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=). Personally, I am skeptical of the book’s claim that the Green family has created “a closely controlled group of scholars to study and promote their collection.”

  3. (Quote)
    Certainly, to critics, this will SEEM another example of a SELECTIVE ETHICAL BEHAVIOR that brings discredit to the claim of “Evangelical” Christian faith. (/Quote)

    Steve Green has been a collector for decades. We have always heard tales of a grand and illustrious collection amassed over a lifetime. So excuse me if I would like to strike your “seem”.

    You don’t do business this way – “They purchased the artifacts in situations that were patently irregular, accepted shipments that were falsely labeled to conceal their true nature, and paid out a huge sum into several individual bank accounts (not to any reputable dealer).” – and he knows business.

    No, this may well be an (authenticated) example of “selective ethical behavior”.

  4. I think you are being way too harsh with respect to simple, well-meaning people trying to preserve priceless artifacts before their likely destruction at the hands of the ISIS Caliphate. It is my understanding that they felt they were responding to a higher law, God’s law, in preserving these antiquities and insuring them for future generations. Indeed, they could be regarded as farsighted. Most of these purchases were initiated before the destruction and looting of the Iraqi museum and the wholesale obliteration of Palmyra. Calling Hobby Lobby’s actions misguided I can understand, but “nefarious” really?

    • The nefarious actions were those involved in obtaining the artifacts for illegal sale. My point was that Hobby Lobby at least ignored the clear indications of such nefarious activities, and so made themselves effectively complicit. This is clearly indicated in Hobby Lobby not contesting the Justice Dept’s claims, handing over the thousands of artifacts, and paying a $3 million fine.

    • If that was/is the case sir. There are several well known experienced groups/agencies that do just what you describe may be the case for the Green Family.

      The difference? They do it the right way.

  5. What I find even more disturbing is that the money paid for those illegally traded artifacts probably financed ISIS, as they are well documented (by UNESCO and such agencies) to loot ancient monuments and museums, destroying bigger artifacts in propaganda videos but selling smaller, easier-to-transport artifacts.

  6. Mark Dixon permalink

    “I and others have repeatedly been assured that every step was being taken to ensure that any artifacts (manuscripts or other items) acquired were legal and legitimate. It is now clear that we were deceived.”

    “On a final and more positive note, however, I have been assured that this ‘fast and loose’ approach to acquiring artifacts by the Museum of the Bible has now ceased.”

    Whew! Those assurances (the recent ones, I mean) are a huge relief!

  7. Ron Minton permalink

    I hope whatever project they are doing in DC will be one that educates and inspires people to look into matters more seriously. I do not know anything about this case, but in the end it may be that some artifacts were actually rescued from bad guys who can make them disappear forever.

  8. Arvo permalink

    I was very much relieved by your final paragraph. That said, my understanding is that, in general, HL is a good company that takes good care of its people and customers. It’s closed on Sundays which, as a pastor, I find very helpful. I concede the point that they should have known better. Buying anything, whether on HL’s scale, or me on eBay, from dubious sources (eg, countries that are barely governed) is fraught with peril.

    Apparently HL was quick to admit that mistakes were made. While they obviously “.. ignored the warnings and advice of experts in artifacts and the legal issues involved…” they likely also had the advice of experts that said, “This is fine; go for it.” It is difficult for me to imagine that Green went ahead against the advice of a unanimous host of experts and lawyers in his employ.

    I’m not sure about the point of bringing up the SCOTUS case re forcing them to cover something they objected to morally. I will certainly grant you the point of allowing the enemies of Christianity an opportunity to exploit. However, those opportunities are legion and very difficult to prevent. As the culture continues to lurch away from traditional Christian morality, the Christians seem more ridiculous to the culture at large. Is there something inherently hypocritical about using the available legal remedies against requirements that are injurious and looking for legal opportunities to accomplish one’s goals? Specifically, I mean going to court to block the abortion requirements vis a vis trying to legally buy artifacts?

    Finally, it sounds like HL knew something was amiss and consequently brought in Trobisch three years ago. From where I sit, with substantially less information than you, HL was trying to do a good thing, got some bad and almost certainly conflicting advice, was admonished by the DOJ, took the mea culpas, paid the fines, and handed over the material.

    Sounds like an honest mistake that HL lived up to.

    Always an admirer of you and your work. Thank you.

    • Arvo permalink

      Oh, I forgot to bring up your use of, “nefarious.” This seems a bit strong. Did you really mean, “evil; wicked; sinful”? (Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014 © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014) Perhaps the colloquial use is more along the lines of, “A bad idea.”

      • No. I meant nefarious. The whole transaction was illegal. The really bad people were those who stole and sold the objects, but Hobby Lobby people were all too ready to look the other way.

    • Arvo: Would that it were as simple as you hope/assume. There is no reference to Hobby Lobby following legal advice encouraging them to make these dubious purchases. There was no conflicting legal advice. And the appointment of Trobisch in 2014 came well after the Justice Dept commenced an investigation into the matter. It was hardly “an honest mistake”, more some kind of heedless stupidity

      • Arvo permalink

        That is disappointing. I hope they will do better in the future.

  9. Doug Bridges permalink

    Agreed. Well said. Hypocrisy.

  10. Larry Burton permalink

    Excellent and well said. Thank you (as usual) for thoughtful and clear thinking.

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