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American Billionaire Admits Acquiring Smuggled Iraqi Artefacts

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The American art and craft chain store Hobby Lobby has been fined $3 million and ordered to hand over 5,500 Iraqi artefacts. Company president and founder Steve Green approved the payment of $1.6 million into seven personal bank accounts for Mesopotamian relics including cuneiform tablets and clay seals from the Sumerian and Babylonian era.

Responding to the federal prosecutors complaint filed yesterday, Hobby Lobby admitted wrongdoing.  “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.

“Hobby Lobby has cooperated with the government throughout its investigation, and with the announcement of today’s settlement agreement, is pleased the matter has been resolved.”

The items will eventually be returned to Iraq, from where they were stolen in the months and years following the 2003 US-led invasion. Massive theft from museums and archaeological sites fed an illegal private market that operated through Turkey, the UAE and most significantly Israel, where dealers fenced the antiquities by bundling them into sales lots of unknown collectors from the last 60 years. 

The US Department of Justice yesterday confirmed that Green had been advised by a cultural property law expert, retained by Hobby Lobby, that the objects were ‘risky purchases’ in October 2010.

“Notwithstanding these warnings, in December 2010, Hobby Lobby executed an agreement to purchase over 5,500 artefacts, comprised of cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay bullae and cylinder seals, for $1.6 million. The acquisition of the artefacts was fraught with red flags.”

The purchase was made through a dealer based in the UAE, but the money was paid into a network of seven personal bank accounts, and eventually onto three unnamed Israeli dealers.

The items were intended to go on display at the Green-funded Museum of the Bible in Washington DC. The fundamentalist Christian family are set to open the museum in the autumn and are estimated to have spent $800 million on the project.

Green began a spending spree on Biblical texts in 2009 and within 6 months had amassed a collection of over 30,000 items, at an estimated cost of $40 million. Dr. Eric White, curator of special collections at the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, told the New York Times in June 2010: “They have caught everyone’s attention because no one in recent memory has spent so much so quickly on Bibles.”

Academics and curators have questioned the speed with which the collection was assembled, with some withering in their assessment of what the museum will represent.

Professor Roberta Mazza from the University of Manchester raised doubts about the provenance of Green’s purchases, pointing out that a papyrus fragment in his collection was once put up for sale by a dealer on eBay, later banned for selling stolen artefacts. Speaking to The Washington Post, she said: “[How did Green collect so much] in such a brief period of time and in the context, in theory, of a strictly regulated antiquities market?”

Archaeologist Dorothy King believes the project to be both financially beneficial, and religiously-motivated. “I don’t expect the Bible Museum to be anything other than a tax-deductible kitsch attempt at spreading Christian fundamentalist propaganda,” she said in 2015.

Not only this, but the authenticity of key elements of the collection has been called into question, with Dead Sea Scrolls expert Michael Langlois telling Newsweek that he reported a suspected forgery to the museum last year, but had been rebuffed: “I was told that Green is not interested in finding out whether his scrolls are genuine or not.” The museum denies this.

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