Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have announced a civil forfeiture proceeding against 5,500 objects from Iraq. The current possessors of the objects have also quickly announced they will not contest the forfeiture, and have agreed to pay a $3 million fine. The objects were imported by Hobby Lobby and its president, Steve Green, to create the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.
The Museum of the Bible, set to open in November near the National Mall in Washington D.C., has been rapidly acquiring antiquities from the Middle east for the last several years. History shows this kind of rapid acquisition with generous financial backing will inevitably lead to buying objects which may be looted, illegally exported, stolen, or orphaned. The questions surrounding the quick acquisition of all these objects has generated speculation for many years that these objects would cause legal difficulties for the museum.
The government’s civil forfeiture complaint tells a fascinating story of how Green traveled to the United Arab Emirates in July of 2010 and agreed to purchase 5,548 objects, including “500 cuneiform bricks, 3,000 clay bullae, 35 clay envelope seals, 13 extra-large cuneiform tablets, and 500 stone cylinder seals”. These objects were then then shipped via Federal Express to Oklahoma City to various different addresses of Hobby Lobby and its subsidiaries. The complaint notes an important reality of customs—not every shipment raises suspicion. Only some of the shipments of this material were seized by customs agents. Five shipments which traveled through Memphis, Tennessee were seized between January 3-5 of 2011. Other shipments successfully reached their destination in Oklahoma City.
Steve Green has amassed 40,000 objects since 2009 for his Museum of the Bible. His name may be familiar, he’s President of Hobby Lobby (and one of the major funders of a successful Supreme Court challenge which allows employers to opt out of paying for insurance on religious grounds, which pays for some health care). Given that nearly all of those 40,000 objects originated from the Middle East, and given the unstable situation in that part of the world, where armed conflict has made securing heritage difficult, there was always a strong likelihood that a substantial amount of that material may have been looted, stolen, illegally exported, or even faked. The illicit nature of that material may be about to put the future of the museum in serious jeopardy. The Museum of the Bible will sit very near the National Mall, an important national space where the Smithsonian, the National Gallery, the Air and Space Museum, and other museums sit. America has reserved this space as a place for museums, so the optics of having a new museum filled with tens of potentially looted artifacts should not be underestimated.
Candida Moss and Joel Baden reported for the Daily Beast that Federal investigators are looking at whether the Greens have illegally imported objects from Iraq. One of the allegations is that some objects were misdeclared on customs paperwork:
If the investigation ends with a decision to prosecute, on either criminal or civil charges, the Greens may be forced to forfeit the tablets to the government. There may also be a fine involved. The Green family, who successfully forced the federal government to legally recognize their personal moral standards, now find themselves on the other side of the docket, under suspicion of having attempted to contravene U.S. laws. . . .
When Summers spoke with us, he made it sound as if the ongoing federal investigation was simply the result of a logistical problem. “There was a shipment and it had improper paperwork—incomplete paperwork that was attached to it.” That innocuous phrase—“incomplete paperwork”—makes it sound as if some forms were simply missing a date or a signature. That is rarely the case with questionably-acquired ancient artifacts—and were the problem merely logistical, the chances are slim that it would take four years to resolve.
Summers suggested that the tablets were merely “held up in customs,” as if this was merely a case of bureaucratic delays. “Sometimes this stuff just sits, and nobody does anything with it.” But an individual close to the investigation told us that investigators have accumulated hundreds of hours of interviews, which doesn’t sound like bureaucratic delay—and which also suggests that there is more at stake here than merely a logistical oversight.
Gary Vikan, formerly of the Walters Art Museum, noted in an Op-Ed last week that Henry Walters amassed a relatively modest 1700 works from an Italian priest in 1902 and discovered many illicit works, including fakes which were purportedly by Titian, Raphael, and Michelangelo. The test according to Vikan will be whether the Greens will undertake the kind of rigorous study and authentication required of a serious cultural institution:
The collection in its entirety must, of course, be properly conserved and safely preserved — including those works the staff does not plan to exhibit, both for scholars, and in anticipation of possible repatriation claims.
This process, done right, will entail significant expense, but just a tiny fraction of what has already been invested. And it will go a long way toward repairing the Greens’ reputation as responsible stewards. As the Walters example suggests, there is a place in the profession for ex post facto due diligence on high-speed collecting: if you can’t get it right at first, make sure you do it right later. Full transparency is also the ticket price for membership in the museum and academic worlds to which the Greens aspire.
I urge Steve Green to announce that this approach is part of his strategic agenda, that it has his full support, and that its urgency is no less than that of his new museum. Should these efforts reveal specific evidence of illegally excavated and/or exported works from, for example, Iraq, I would urge Green to initiate an open, good-faith dialogue with officials in the country of origin and with the U.S. State Department, with the aim of repatriation.
What’s done is done. Now is the time to look toward the future, and to act.
In many respects these problems were predictable and foreseeable. The age when you could spend freely on the international antiquities market are gone. Buyers must be more careful. Another consideration I suppose is whether it would have even been possible to put together a museum of the bible if those questions were asked. Perhaps not.