Feds look into Hobby Lobby owners' acquisition of ancient artifacts

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Jordanian officials display cuneiform tablets confiscated from smugglers in Amman June 16, 2005. Jordan, which shares a border with Iraq, had already seized 1,347 looted Iraqi archaeological relics when the picture was made. | REUTERS

OKLAHOMA CITY (Christian Examiner) – Federal authorities are reportedly looking into the illegal acquisition of archaeological relics for the Museum of the Bible, a project planned and funded by the Christian owners of Hobby Lobby, the Daily Beast has reported.

The museum, conceived by the Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby and Mardel Christian Bookstores, will house some 40,000 Bibles, artifacts and historical documents in a 430,000-square-foot facility close to the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall. According to its website, the museum will "provide guests with an immersive and personalized experience as they explore the history, narrative and impact of the Bible."

There was a shipment and it had improper paperwork—incomplete paperwork that was attached to it ... Sometimes this stuff just sits, and nobody does anything with it.

Sources familiar with the federal investigation told the Daily Beast the Green family's shipment of several hundred cuneiform tablets from Israel to their private collection in Oklahoma may have violated U.S. customs law and, potentially, international laws which prohibit the transference of stolen antiquities from the Middle East. Cuneiform was the style of writing used by the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian empires, located in what is today Iraq.

In 2011, authorities seized the shipment labeled "hand-crafted clay tiles" – technically a truthful statement – because the description and value assigned to it were suspect. According to the source, the monetary value assigned to the clay tiles was said to be only $300 – far less than archaeological relics from ancient Mesopotamia would be worth.

Law enforcement sources said the Green family has been under investigation for illegally importing cultural artifacts since then, the Daily Beast claimed. The news site said Cary Summers, president of the Museum of the Bible, confirmed the investigation.

There is no word yet on whether the investigation could delay the scheduled opening of the museum in 2017.

Summers also told the Daily Beast the federal investigation was largely the result of a problem with paperwork – a logistical problem resulting from "incomplete" documents filed with U.S. Customs.

"There was a shipment and it had improper paperwork—incomplete paperwork that was attached to it," Summers said. "Sometimes this stuff just sits, and nobody does anything with it."

Skeptics, however, claim that minor paperwork issues wouldn't result in the shipment being held for four years or a still-open inquiry into the origin of the antiquities.

One attorney familiar with customs investigations said customs officials deal with two types of "entries" into the country – informal and formal. A "formal entry" pertains to objects worth more than $2,500 and whose country of origin is specified. An "informal entry" receives less scrutiny, but has become one way to smuggle artifacts into the U.S. because the objects are described as being worth significantly less than they actually are.

According to Steve Green, CEO of Hobby Lobby, the family's massive collection of historical and biblical relics may contain some pieces obtained through nefarious dealings at their source in the Middle East, but nothing he or the family has done on their end is illegal, he said.

In fact, he and the family have taken great pains to ensure the acquisition of antiquities was above board. In 2010, according to the Daily Beast, the family met with Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor at DePaul University who specializes in the regulation of the antiquities trade. She reportedly explained to the family potential legal issues with the purchasing of antiquities.

Since the Israel Antiquities Authority, which vets potential host sites for its archaeological relics, is partnering with the Museum of the Bible to display thousands of artifacts, it seems unlikely that an illicit trade in antiquities is systemic within the Green family or its collections. If they had, it also seems likely some prosecution would have taken place by now. Federal officials did not say when the investigation would be completed. 

Given the elevation of the Green's public profile in the past three years as a result of the landmark Hobby Lobby v. Burwell case at the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the Christian-owned business defied the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) and won, the recent investigation could raise questions of retaliation.

That is unlikely, however, since the investigation stems from the shipment of antiquities in 2011. The Green family and Hobby Lobby did not file suit against the federal government over its contraceptive mandate until 2012.