Greens investigated for museum acquisitions

This Gilgamesh cuneiform is among The Green Collection of biblical antiquities.
Museum of the Bible photo
NASHVILLE (BP) -- Hobby Lobby craft chain owners the Greens are under federal investigation to determine whether the family illegally imported Assyrian and Babylonian cuneiform tablets from Israel for display in the family's Bible museum, the Daily Beast reported.

The U.S. government has confiscated a shipment of as many as 300 small clay tablets that were in route to Oklahoma, the Hobby Lobby headquarters, the Daily Beast reported, citing confirmation from Cary Summers, president of the Museum of the Bible set to open in 2017 in Washington, D.C.

"There was a shipment and it had improper paperwork -- incomplete paperwork that was attached to it," The Daily Beast quoted Summers, saying he hinted the items might have simply been held up in customs for the past four years because of the paperwork.

Hobby Lobby's corporate office affirmed the company's cooperation with the investigation.

"Hobby Lobby is cooperating with the investigation related to certain biblical artifacts," Zack Higbee, corporate communications coordinator, told Baptist Press in written comments. "The Museum of the Bible is a separate not-for-profit entity made possible, in part, by the generous charitable contributions of the Green family."

The Association for Research of Crimes Against Art, ARCA, said in an Oct. 27 blogpost that the investigation is partly centered on Article 2.3 of the International Council of Museums Code of Ethics, which states, "Every effort must be made before acquisition to ensure that any object or specimen offered for purchase, gift, loan, bequest, or exchange has not been illegally obtained in, or exported from its country of origin or any intermediate country in which it might have been owned legally (including the museum's own country). Due diligence in this regard should establish the full history of the item since discovery or production."

The tablets, believed to have originated in Iraq, are described on their FedEx shipping label as "hand-crafted clay tiles" valued at under $300, The Daily Beast reported. Archaeological and ethnological imports defined as the "cultural property of Iraq" have been restricted within the U.S. since 1990, according to The Daily Beast.

The Greens, a Christian family that closes its national chain of Hobby Lobby stores on Sundays, have amassed the world's largest private collection of rare biblical texts and artifacts, which would be the centerpiece of the eight-story, $800 million museum (see related stories here and here). The Greens have previously displayed portions of their collection in a traveling exhibit.

Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green said he is unaware of any pieces in the collection having been obtained illegally, but couldn't rule out such a possibility, The Daily Beast reported.

"Is it possible that we have some illicit [artifacts]? That's possible," the Daily Beast reported. If charges are filed, the Greens could be forced to forfeit the artifacts and pay a fine, according to reports.

The museum will allow visitors to explore the Bible's impact on world culture and modern civilization, including literature, fine arts, architecture, education, science, film, music, family, government, law, human rights and social justice. Archaeological and historic treasures, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient Torah scrolls, early New Testament texts, rare biblical manuscripts and first-edition Bibles will be included, Summers has said of the museum.

"We've assembled," Summers said in a press release, "the best in architectural, interior and environmental design to provide Museum of the Bible guests with an experience that is unique, innovative, customizable to each visitor's level of interest and, most of all, memorable."

The Greens made national headlines in 2014 when they won a U.S. Supreme Court appeal against a key mandate of the Affordable Care Act which would have required the Christian business owners to provide abortion-inducing contraceptives to employees through their health insurance plans.

The Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby and other "closely held" companies could exercise their religious opinions and conscientiously object to the mandate.

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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