In March, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about how Steve Green, the CEO of Hobby Lobby and President of Museum of the Bible, plans to return 11,500 illicit Iraqi and Egyptian artifacts currently owned by the company or museum to their countries of origin. Among this vast collection of undocumented items that the museum was voluntarily returning is the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet an ancient clay tablet that, among other things, records part of history’s oldest creation story. One detail Green left out of the story? The tablet had been seized on September 24, 2019 by the Department of Homeland Security and Homeland Security Investigations. Now, Hobby Lobby wants the $1.6 million it spent on the tablet back.
On May 19, 2020 Hobby Lobby filed a lawsuit against world renowned auction house Christie’s and a dealer identified as “John Doe” alleging that both parties deceived Hobby Lobby about the legality of the sale and seeking the return of funds spent on the item, interest since 2014, and attorney fees. They acquired the item in 2014 for $1,694,000.
The story, as it can be pieced together from the government’s complaint and Hobby Lobby’s filing, begins in 2001 when a dealer and unnamed cuneiform expert identified the tablet on the floor of the apartment of London based Jordanian antiquities dealer Ghassan Rihani. At the time it was unreadable and was purchased for $50,000. The antiquities dealer brought the tablet to the U.S. where it was worked on by a then unnamed professor at Princeton.
In 2007 the antiquities dealer sold the tablet to two other dealers for pretty much what he had purchased it for. When these unnamed dealers asked for provenance, the antiquities dealer used, the suit claims, a “False Provenance Letter [that] indicated that the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was purchased at a 1981 Butterfield & Butterfield auction in San Francisco as part of lot 1503.”
Why does the date matter? Because if it hadn’t legally been in the U.S. for decades, then the tablet would have been illicit. Under the UNESCO convention, items of cultural and historical interest discovered after 1970 cannot be removed from their countries of origin except under special agreement. The false provenance letter suggested that the tablet had been in the U.S. for decades.
In the same year as the fake letter was acquired, the tablet was published for the first time in a reputable academic journal by Professor A. R. George, a leading expert on Assyriology who teaches at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London). According to his article, George is the same scholar who viewed the tablet in 2005. He says that he published the tablet with the permission of the owner, who wished to remain anonymous. He also notes that the “tablet has since been offered for sale by a Californian bookseller, Michael Sharpe Rare and Antiquarian Books, as item 53 in his catalogue no. 1, issued on 4 September 2007.” The article does not mention the provenance of the item, although by the time the tablet went up for sale in 2007 the faked provenance was already attached. The catalog produced by Sharpe offered it for sale with an asking price of $450,000. At this point “John Doe” bought the item from the immediate owner.
The falsified provenance and George’s article certainly lent legitimacy to the project. When the item was subsequently sold via private treaty by Christie’s to Hobby Lobby in 2014, they were allegedly told about the involvement of only a few relevant parties: the faked Butterfield provenance, Michael Sharpe, and John Doe. They were not, Hobby Lobby’s suit alleges, told about the American dealer who had imported the object into the country in the early 2000s, or the exchange of hands in 2007.
According to Hobby Lobby’s complaint, Georgiana Aitken, the Head of Antiquities at Christie’s London office, had made inquiries about the provenance letter from the first dealer and was told “over the telephone [that the letter] could not be verified and would not withstand the scrutiny of a public auction.” Christie’s, Hobby Lobby claims, organized the private sale to Hobby Lobby when “they should have known that … [the provenance] was false.”
After Hobby Lobby purchased the tablet (no later than July 2014), it was “hand-carried by an Auction House representative [the Hobby Lobby suit alleges that this was Margaret Ford] to Hobby Lobby in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma so that Hobby Lobby could avoid incurring a New York sales tax.”
It is worth noting that Christie’s have facilitated many such private sales to the Green Family (Hobby Lobby) and that in some cases, for example the sale of papyri, those items turned out to be illicit and also had to be returned. Now, it seems, Hobby Lobby is mad about it.
As made clear by the United States Attorney General’s complaint against the item (for legal reasons the governmental complaints are brought against objects and not people), Hobby Lobby didn’t do anything wrong. They were shown faked provenance documents. In contrast to earlier seizures of Hobby Lobby acquisitions, first reported in The Daily Beast by Joel Baden and me in 2015, the Green family were clearly and overtly deceived. Certainly, their willingness to spend large sums of money on Bible-related antiquities and their history of being cavalier about provenance helped make them a target for what Steve Green has called “unscrupulous dealers.” Allegedly, that group may now include one of the world’s most famous and highly regarded auction houses.
In a statement issued to The Daily Beast after publication, a Christie’s spokesperson said, “This filing is linked to new information that has come to light regarding an unidentified dealer’s admission to government authorities that he illegally imported this item then falsified documents over a decade ago, in order to perpetrate an illegal sale and exploit the legitimate market for ancient art. Now that we are informed of this activity pre-dating Christie’s involvement, we are reviewing all representations made to us by prior owners and will reserve our rights in this matter. Assertions within the filing that suggest Christie’s had knowledge of the original fraud or illegal importation do not comport with our investigation.”
There are two important things to note in this story. First is that for the past year Hobby Lobby have been conducting a media campaign to reframe themselves as “victims” of “unscrupulous buyers.” They made mistakes, they claim, but things are different now. The language they use is, as Jill Hicks-Keeton, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, has told me, oddly evocative of Christian narratives of repentance and rebaptism. Certainly, the crime and greater blame lies with the dealers, auction houses, and (allegedly) scholars who knowingly perpetrated these crimes. These dealers exploited the religious interests of a powerful evangelical family. At the same time, as early as the Summer of 2010, the Greens were warned about the dangers of buying illicit antiquities by Patty Gerstenblith, one of the country’s leading experts on the subject. As she told Chasing Aphrodite, they chose not to take her advice.
The issue is not just that the Green Christian story of confession and rebirth has been told several times before (in 2012 when they replaced key figures in their organization, 2017 when the museum opened, and again this year) but that it doesn’t note that all of their changes have been brought about because of external pressure by scholars. For example, their widely publicized revelation that they own forged (and thus illicitly purchased) Dead Sea Scrolls this year obscured the fact that scholars like Årstein Justnes have been publicly calling them forgeries since 2016. We discussed this and other examples in our 2017 book Bible Nation, and yet Museum of the Bible would have you believe that their investigation was sui generis and, thus, demonstrates that the organization has changed. They do finally seem to be trying to set things right, but it’s also a carefully managed media campaign that ignores their own culpability.
The more troubling thing is that the media is buying it. An April 5 article in The New York Times entirely omitted the recent revelation of the Museum’s possession of 13 fragments of papyri that were stolen from the Sackler Library at the University of Oxford and rightly belong to the Egypt Exploration Society. The article claims to represent the views of the Museum’s “toughest critics.”
However, none of those who spearheaded academic criticism of the Museum were cited.
One would expect to hear from Roberta Mazza, who sounded an early alarm about the illicit nature of the Green family’s papyri collection and has pursued the story since; Brent Nongbri, whose blog Variant Readings is the premiere source of information on the Greens’ illicit papyrus collecting; Mark Chancey, who was the first to criticize attempts to introduce their Bible Curriculum to Oklahoma; Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon, co-editors of The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction (Fortress, 2019); and, at risk of sounding arrogant, myself and Joel Baden, who authored the first book on the museum Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton, 2017). None of these scholars were asked for comment. (I attempted to contact the author of the article but did not hear back). Instead the article cites only those academics and experts who have collaborated with the Museum (even if they have offered some criticism of it in the past).
The Museum is doing a masterful job at being allowed to control its own press and rebaptize itself in the waters of public opinion. At no point has Steve Green, who does seem genuinely contrite, offered to repay the sizeable tax deductions Hobby Lobby received for worthless forged Dead Sea Scrolls. At risk of being too Catholic about this, what is repentance without penance?
The second important thing is that while individual scholars have been instrumental in bringing the problems with Hobby Lobby’s collecting practices to light, the academy also unwittingly participates in the illicit antiquities market. Prior to the publication of Andrew George’s article, the Gilgamesh tablet traded for roughly $50,000, after his publication its value rose first to $450,000 and then to over $1.6 million. The Michael Sharpe catalog mentions George’s analysis. George’s article notes that he had presented his material at seminars at several distinguished universities. Did any of the attendees of these seminars ask where the tablet had come from? George published a tablet that had forged provenance and while there’s no suggestion that he knew it was forged or that he financially benefited, that publication was instrumental in raising the value of the item in question.
For Hobby Lobby, using the skills of academics to raise the value of objects was always part of the plan. Scott Carroll, former director of the Green Collection, told me that that was part of the initial business pitch that he and Johnny Shipman had offered the Greens in 2005 and 2008. Academics would jump at the opportunity to work on these texts (for almost nothing), and the Greens would reap the financial rewards. As archaeologist Neil Brodie has said before, when academics work on unprovenanced artifacts, they raise the value of illicit antiquities. As an academic myself, I can only say that we are part of the problem.
Andrew George has not returned inquiries for comment.