I’m a professor of art crime. To teach my students about the varieties of cultural heritage crime, like forgery, fraud, and looting, I’ve spent decades researching cases from throughout history and around the world. Which, frankly, was a big waste of time. They could have learned nearly everything about heritage crime by looking at what the Museum of the Bible has been caught doing in the past few years.
The District of Columbia museum, founded in 2010 by Steve Green, the president of the crafting superstore empire Hobby Lobby, is in the news again after September’s handover of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to Iraq. This 3,500-year-old cuneiform tablet, inscribed with part of The Epic of Gilgamesh, was one of many similar antiquities smuggled out of Iraq in the chaos of conflicts in the 1990s. The tablet ended up at the auction house Christie’s, complete with a letter that proved it had been out of Iraq by 1981. This letter, of course, was a forgery—a rather bad one, as became obvious once Iraq and the Department of Justice started asking the questions that neither Christie’s nor Hobby Lobby had when the company paid the auction house $1,674,000 for the tablet in 2014.
The Greens are power players in the evangelical world, and their museum seems intended to prove to its visitors that the Bible is historically accurate and literally true. Over the years, commenters on the right have argued, with varying degrees of coherence, that harsh criticism of Hobby Lobby and of the Museum of the Bible must be motivated by anti-Christian bias. But this is like saying that criticizing John Wayne Gacy reveals an intolerance for clowns.
Let me explain. In 2010, customs officials inspected several boxes being shipped from the United Arab Emirates to three of Hobby Lobby’s corporate addresses in Oklahoma. Rather than “clay tiles (sample)” as the shipping labels claimed, the boxes contained ancient Near Eastern artifacts. After extensive investigation, the feds ended up seizing about 3,800 cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, and other antiquities from Hobby Lobby and repatriating them to Iraq. And in 2021, Green handed over to Iraq another 8,106 antiquities he had purchased for the museum, and returned to Egypt about 5,000 ancient papyrus fragments and other antiquities, because it could not be determined that these objects left their countries legally.
It’s hard to keep track of all these repatriations, in part because of the shifting legal identity of who’s purchasing, holding, and surrendering the artifacts: the Museum of the Bible, Hobby Lobby, or members of the Green family. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to them interchangeably, since, as Candida Moss and Joel Baden showed in the book Bible Nation, they are intimately intertwined. Hobby Lobby, which is entirely owned by the Green family, began purchasing artifacts in 2009 to donate to the planned museum. The legal separation between the entities allowed Hobby Lobby to claim tax deductions for charitable donations, increasing the Greens’ profits. You can indeed, as reporter Matt Pearce joked in 2017, think of the museum as “Hobby Lobby’s robby hobby.”
In 2016, the museum declared it would only retain antiquities in its collection if they had sufficient provenance documentation. That didn’t leave much. The museum’s public collections database includes, of the more than 16,900 antiquities Hobby Lobby bought from 2009 on, only a single cuneiform inscription, 15 papyrus fragments (which you can see if you click here and limit the search result to the oldest date category), and about 10 other ancient bits and bobs. In its galleries, the museum fills the gaps between its remaining antiquities with replicas, loans, and screens flashing videos of biblical sites. Dramatic lighting from oversize sconces and lots of random columns make the whole thing look like the private museum designed by Nicolas Cage’s character in the National Treasure movies.
Surrendering 99 percent of your antiquities purchases because they were most probably looted makes it seem more like you went on a crime spree instead of just a shopping spree, no? But the museum would like you to forgive it for being so naïve. Green said he “trusted the wrong people” and “unwittingly dealt with unscrupulous dealers.” Even the New York Times has taken the bait, sympathetically describing the museum as “forced to repatriate antiquities lacking proper paperwork.”
While it’s true that the Museum of the Bible is not staffed with supervillains rappelling down from skylights to snatch cultural treasures, it didn’t simply accidentally drift into the black market. When the Greens first started their shopping spree, they consulted with noted cultural heritage specialist Patty Gerstenblith about the laws governing the antiquities market. I know Gerstenblith. Don’t let the “Patty” fool you; she is formidable, knowledgeable, and very clear about what’s right and what’s wrong. She should have put the fear of God into the Greens—or, at least, the fear of the Department of Justice. But instead, they seem to have turned her warnings about what not to do into a handy checklist of tips for evading the law.
Apologists have also argued that the museum has fully cooperated with the federal investigations into the Dream Tablet and the falsely labeled antiquities shipments. This might be true—but, at the very same time, Hobby Lobby was trying to get Iraq and Egypt to sign away their rights. In 2020, I received a leaked copy of the agreement Hobby Lobby was asking Iraq’s ministry of culture to sign, and shared it with Candida Moss, who wrote about it for the Daily Beast. Among other things, the agreement promised to return the Dream Tablet and other antiquities to Iraq in return for the right to display some of these antiquities as loans—and a total waiver of all causes of action Iraq might have against the museum or any of its donors (e.g., Hobby Lobby and the Greens). But the company was trying to bargain with a chip it didn’t have—the feds had already seized the Dream Tablet in 2019. Unsurprisingly, the museum had to admit that it was “not able to finalize the desired agreements,” since both Iraq and Egypt refused to let them keep drawing in audiences and gaining scholarly legitimacy with their illicit purchases.
The museum would like you to think it takes a proactive approach to provenance concerns. Indeed, its description of the 2020 return of a manuscript to the Greek Orthodox Church is enough to practically make you tear up, with its description of a curator’s generous scholarly sleuthing to connect the manuscript to the World War I looting of a monastery in Greece. But the museum conveniently fails to note that in 2018, this church sued Princeton University for failing to return another manuscript looted from the same monastery. In this context, once an outside scholar noticed the marks on the museum’s manuscript identifying its origins, the museum had little choice but to grin and bear the repatriation.
The museum returned yet another stolen manuscript to the University of Athens in 2018, after a Greek researcher spotted it; in that case, the museum handled the negotiations well enough that the manuscript is now on display as a loan. In another prominent case, the Greens bought about 150 papyrus fragments in 2010–13 from Dirk Obbink, a professor who most probably stole them from the collection of papyri he oversaw at Oxford University. Although museum staffers were questioning how Obbink got the papyri as early as 2016, and Hobby Lobby asked him to refund the money for one of their purchases in 2017, it was not until 2019 that they got in touch with the Oxford collection’s leaders to share their suspicions, well after scholars began to raise alarms. (Last month, Hobby Lobby sued Obbink.) Rather than the careful, research-heavy approach to acquisitions the antiquities market demands, the museum seems to have taken more of a catch-and-release approach to collecting, grabbing what it could and letting go only when the authorities seemed likely to pay attention.
But the museum hasn’t always acquired looted or stolen antiquities. Sometimes it dabbles in fakes, too! When the museum opened its doors in 2017, it exhibited cracked fragments of leather inked with biblical texts as examples of the famed Dead Sea Scrolls. But a little placard noted that “scientific analysis of the ink and handwriting on these pieces continues.” Scholars had been publicly questioning the authenticity of these fragments since at least 2016, but it was not until 2018 that the museum took five of them off display and 2020 when it finally admitted that all 16 of the fragments were fakes.
Although the museum said that its consultants performed a comprehensive battery of tests, it had only taken one look under a powerful microscope to show that the fragment’s ink had dripped down into ancient cracks in the leather. In other words, while the leather might be ancient, the text written on it was not. But the delay in announcing the results was important: It was long enough to let the Greens retain the benefit of what was likely a multimillion-dollar tax deduction for donating the fragments to the museum.
The Greens have used other parts of their crafting fortune to fund scholarly work on Aramaic incantation bowls held in other collections—even though they were mostly probably looted from Iraq—and what experts call an illegal excavation in the occupied West Bank, led by a man the Atlantic called a “Biblical pseudo-archeologist” who had previously tried to dig for Noah’s Ark.
You see what I mean about my ability to teach a whole class on heritage crime with just the Museum of the Bible as my source material. And, extensive as this list is, I’m guessing it’s incomplete. Moss and Baden have described the museum’s use of nondisclosure agreements, which might be preventing scholars who have seen their collections from reporting other problems. The museum isn’t above threatening the odd journalist, either. They hold an early Hebrew prayer book, allegedly stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. The museum’s website notes that its research into this claim is ongoing, but its chief curatorial officer, Jeffrey Kloha, took a different tone in April 2021, when he told a Jerusalem Post reporter that “the museum will consider legal action” if the paper published an article about the claim.
The museum wants to tell a story about the inerrancy of the Bible. The idea is that when we flip open the Bible, what we’re reading came straight to us from God’s lips—not through a millennialong game of telephone played by storytellers and then scribes. The cuneiform tablets were supposed to prove that writing existed at the time of Abraham, so he could have left accounts of his experiences. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the papyri with scraps of the New Testament were to show that biblical text has survived in the same form since it was written. The Greens wanted to prove that human fallibility hasn’t stood in the way of God’s word. But scholars know that this text has changed over time. In the end, the Greens have only proved their own fallibility, time and time again.
Correction, Oct. 6, 2021: The original photo accompanying this piece portrayed the Bible Museum Münster in Germany instead of D.C.’s Museum of the Bible.