Showing posts with label Green Collection.. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Green Collection.. Show all posts

July 8, 2017

Thou Shall Not Covet thy Neighbor's Cuneiform

Op/Ed By:  Lynda Albertson

As the US press and social media came alive in condemnation as a result of the Hobby Lobby smuggling case, I couldn't help but notice that while the hashtag #HobbyLobbyisISIS is noticeably attention-grabbing, (as well as probably inaccurate), the more important facet of the "is-that-object-looted" puzzle was still being overlooked. 

I asked myself, instead of simply rewording the press release announcement released by the government, why hadn't US news organizations dug deeper into the development of the Green Collection in ancient art.  Especially since everyone now seems hellbent, (excuse the pun) on crucifying the fundamentalist Christian collector or finding some way to tie Hobby Lobby to Da'esh.

This is a case that has been widely publicized since 2015, and it's not the only time the Greens or their large collection have come under scrutiny or been accused of acquiring objects through untrustworthy channels with illicit ties.  

In June 2014 Dr. David Trobisch, Director of Collections for the Museum of the Bible even attended ARCA’s annual art crime conference where he heard concerns made by Dr. Roberta Mazza, a papyrologist and ancient historian from the University of Manchester about the Green Collection's unprovenanced papyrus fragments.  Those fragments however were not mentioned in this current civil complaint. 

While this US civil forfeiture case underscores that illicit traffic in cultural objects contributes to the despoliation of a country's ancient heritage and causes irreparable loss to the world's heritage knowledge, why is it then that the public only wakes up and takes notice when ISIS ties are tangentially inferred?

Are trafficked Middle East artifacts only worthy of the world's indignation when they are looted to fund terrorism?  


As the general public responded to the press coverage over the last two days most of the grumbling I've come across was either ISIS-funding related or centered on whether or not the punishment fit the crime.   I use the word "crime" here loosely because no criminal charges were filed for the looting and theft of the 450 ancient cuneiform tablets and 3,000 ancient clay bullae which ultimately were the subject of this civil forfeiture.  

In civil cases, the object of the law is the redress of wrongs by compelling compensation or restitution.  As those following this case closely are painfully aware, civil law deals with the disputes between individuals, organizations, or between the two, in which compensation can be awarded to the victim.  Criminal law is the body of law that deals with crime and the legal punishment of criminal offenses.

A civil fine is not a criminal punishment.  

Civil case fines are primarily sought in federal investigations in order to compensate the state for harm done to it, rather than to punish a wrongful conduct, something many like myself would have liked to have seen happen given the Green's less than stellar record when it comes to vetting antiquities for inclusion in their collection.   In this case, Hobby Lobby only suffers so much harm as is necessary to make good the wrong they have done (to the state). 

Civil penalties, in this case a $3M fine, do not carry any jail time or other legal penalties.  This fact illustrates why no one from Hobby Lobby was criminally charged, despite the large number of objects seized and subsequently forfeited.

This may also explain the absence of any noticeable public remorse on Hobby Lobby's part for their role in this antiquities smuggling affair.  The lack of regret can also be seen in the unrepentant statement by Hobby Lobby President Steve Green, in his company's press release after the federal civil ruling was publicized. 


Was new to the world of acquiring these items?  Did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items?

Let's look at his statements more closely.  

While Hobby Lobby, may be "new" to the world of acquiring antiquities, the fact that it has purchased more than 40,000 objects since November 2009 does not in any way make it a neophyte collector of ancient art.  

In addition to the cuneiform tablets seized in this well publicized case, the Green Collection already had in its possession the third largest holding of cuneiform tablets in North America (over 10,000 pieces). This means Green and Hobby Lobby by proxy had ample prior opportunity to explore what could and should go on any customs declaration for objects that contain writing first developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia between 3500-3000 BCE.  

In 2010, a year before the seized cuneiform tablets arrived in Memphis, the Greens had also already consulted with Dr. Patty Gerstenblith, a cultural heritage law expert with DePaul University 's College of Law, about import restrictions for ancient antiquities who is reported to have advised them about their need for deeper due diligence in their collecting.   Given Gerstenblith's impeccable familiarity with the cultural heritage law, it can be assumed that the Greens as collectors were not as ignorantly naive to the road they were embarking down as the firm's press statement this week seems to imply.

But setting aside the intricacies of import and customs documentation specifically related to ancient antiquities coming from Iraq, Hobby Lobby itself has some 32,000 employees, 750 stores in forty-seven states, and $4 billion in yearly revenue, much of it based on imported items. 

It's corporate headquarters include a 9.2 million-square-foot manufacturing, distribution, and office complex in Oklahoma City.  Its warehouse has an hourly employee base of 2500+ employees with 80+ members of management, headed by an Assistant Vice President of Warehouse Operations, who reports to the Senior Vice President of Distribution.

When importing merchandise from foreign countries Hobby Lobby is fully aware there are certain trade laws and regulations, and that U.S. Customs oversees the compliance of those laws. They even have an international department responsible for training and compliance to ensure the import process go smoothly, not to mention a manual outlining laws and regulations, valuation, assists, and country of origin requirements which can be downloaded here

So to imply to the public that Hobby Lobby "imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items" seems a bit unapologetic coming from an apologist.   

Especially given Green's business thrives on supply-chain distribution members in its shipping department who would have to have, given the large scale operation of receiving imported cargo from across the globe in support of Hobby Lobby's national operations, sufficient knowledge of what the legal requirements are for import.  If they didn't, they certainly knew who to ask. 

As I have mentioned in a previous post, the estimated 40,000+ objects in the Green Collection equates to acquiring 6,666 objects per year or collecting a whopping 18 new objects per day.  Compare that acquisition rate to the number of employees working on the Green's or the Museum of the Bible's payroll who are tasked with historic object provenance and one can easily surmise that an object's ethical collection history has never been either group's overriding priority.  

Emphasis instead has been on filling the Museum of the Bible, Washington DC's about-to-be-opened 430,000-square-foot, eight story massive red brick museum located over the Federal Center SW Metro station.  To put that into perspective, one NFL football field is 57,600 square feet.  The Museum of the Bible has seven and a half football fields of space it needs to fill. 

Given the scale of archaeological theft in biblical area source countries and the number of objects with questionable origins which have already been identified by various researchers following the Green Collection prior to this forfeiture, it's time for Hobby Lobby's founders to do more than just open their wallets, purchase, and if caught, pay civil fines and forfeit the objects in question.

Opening their wallets has been the crux of the problem, as the Green's appetite for unprovenanced antiquities, and the profits to be had from this appetite, have likely been a motivating factor for others to loot, thereby destroying whatever context the objects may have had.

It's time for the Greens to fulfill the promise previously made by their employee. 

In 2014 the director of Collections at the Museum of the Bible, David Trobisch, informed Dr. Roberta Mazza that the Green Collection was going towards full digitisation and open access.  This has yet to happen. 

They should also make every effort, before making any further acquisitions, to ensure that the objects they are purchasing have been legally obtained and been legally exported from their country of origin.  

If the Greens truly want to make amends, they should fill their future Museum of the Bible with acquisitions collected ethically, and make the details of their past purchases open to researchers and investigators so that they can start to set things right by restituting any objects previously purchased without sufficient moral and ethical consideration. 

Exodus 20:15 and 17 King James Version (KJV): 

“Thou shalt not steal." 

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”

I think that includes cuneiform tablets, clay bullae, incantation bowls and papyrus fragments.

July 6, 2017

Civil Complaint requires forfeiture of thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae, but is that enough?

Cuneiform Tablet - Image Credit U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York
By: Lynda Albertson


At the heart of the investigation, were import irregularities related to ancient artifacts shipped to Hobby Lobby, Mardel, Inc. and Crafts, Etc! The firms Mardel, Inc. and Crafts, Etc! were affiliates of Hobby Lobby and both maintained their principal corporate offices adjacent to Hobby Lobby’s headquarters in Oklahoma City.  

The antiquities were shipped to Hobby Lobby and their associates by dealers in Israel and the United Arab Emirates (“UAE”), all of whom have been left unnamed in the civil complaint.  The objects were shipped without required customs entry documentation being filed with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and bore shipping labels that falsely and misleadingly described their contents and their value, in some cases as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample).” In truth, the mislabeled objects were ancient clay and stone artifacts that originate from the area of modern day Iraq, which had been smuggled into the United States after their contracted purchase in the Middle East. 

Hobby Lobby's growing Green Collection is purported to be the largest private collection of rare biblical texts and artifacts worldwide and is estimated to be made up of more than 40,000 biblical-related antiquities, purchased and assembled by the Green family, who are founders of the national arts and crafts chain.  The bulk of this collection is intended to be displayed in their 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible, which is scheduled to open in Washington DC in November of 2017.

As is often the case with illicit antiquities smuggled around the globe, the intercepted packages, destined eventually to join the museum's collection, had their shipping labels intentionally mislabeled, stating the country of origin as imports from Turkey and Israel, not Iraq.  The shippers also used multiple shipping addresses for objects destined for a single recipient.  This too is a technique used by smugglers of all types, not just illicit antiquities, as it is a means of avoiding scrutiny by customs authorities. 

In the DOJ press release Bridget M. Rohde, Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and Karin Orenstein, Assistant United States Attorney, of counsel, announced that Hobby Lobby Stores has agreed to pay a $3 million federal fine and forfeit thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts believed to have been smuggled in 15 shipments, 5 of which were stopped by the CBP on their way to the Greens.   

Hobby Lobby had executed an agreement to purchase the objects, despite their likely illicit origins, in 2010 for $1.6 million.  They paid for the antiquities via wire payments to seven personal bank accounts held in the names of five individuals.  This despite noticeable suspicious irregularities in the objects purported provenance and no direct contact with the objects' "owner.  The civil complaint also outlines conversations related to the purchase and import which indicate intentional changes to invoices and shipment to disguise the objects' value, and in some cases to change to purported seller. 

As DOJ documents state Title 19, United States Code, Section 1595a(c)(1)(A) provides that “merchandise which is introduced or attempted to be introduced into the United States contrary to law . . . shall be seized and forfeited if it . . . is stolen, smuggled, or clandestinely imported or introduced.”

Legal measures specific to Iraq also make it a violation of U.S. law to import any cultural objects removed from Iraq since August 1990, unless exported with the permission of Iraqi authorities.  Illegally importing objects that meet this criteria are subject to criminal penalties and fines.

Equally important Under Article 3 of Iraq’s Antiquities Law No. 59 of 1936 (as amended in 1974 and 1975), all antiquities found in Iraq, whether movable or
immovable, on or under the ground, are considered property of the state. Under Article 16 of Antiquities Law No. 59, private persons generally cannot possess antiquities. Article 26 of the same antiquities law prohibits the export of Iraqi antiquities and defines “antiquities” as movable possessions which were made, produced, sculpted, written or drawn by man and which are at least 200 years old.  Southern Mesopotamian objects definitely fall into this category as any collections management expert in Near East antiquity would be aware of.


Is a $3 million fine and the forfeiture of 450 ancient cuneiform tablets and 3,000 ancient clay bullae enough?

As a result of this investigation, Hobby Lobby has agreed to adopt internal policies and procedures governing its importation and purchase of cultural property, provide appropriate training to its personnel, hire qualified outside customs counsel and customs brokers, and submit quarterly reports to the government on any cultural property acquisitions for the next eighteen months.


So much for remorse. 

NB: No one has faced criminal prosecution (read: jail time) for their actions. 

October 27, 2015

America’s Museum of the Bible - Hobby Lobby Owners Under Federal Investigation for Possibly Trafficked Assyrian and Babylonian Cuneiform Tablets

For years various academics have questioned the collecting and conservation practices of billionaire collector Steve Green, the philanthropist behind the $800 million, eight-story Museum of the Bible.  Slated to open in 2017, the museum will occupy a historically protected warehouse built in 1923 just minutes away from the National Mall and the US Capitol in Washington DC.  But Green's collection raises more questions than it answers.

Where are the thousands of antiquities coming from that have been purchased to supply this expansive museum?   And as a private museum, has the largest evangelical benefactor in the world cut corners in formulating his museum's acquisition policy, forgoing the standards propounded by museum associations and those dictated by international treaties?

Most of the general public are more familiar with the Green family via their landmark case against the US government objecting to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act which required that corporations above a certain size provide medical insurance benefits to their employees, including coverage for certain contraceptive methods.  In approving an exemption as a result of the case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. (2014), the US Supreme Court decided in Hobby Lobby's favour stating that the Affordable Care Act's mandate requiring that for-profit corporations supply their employees with access to contraceptives at no cost to the insured employee could be opted out of by commercial enterprise owners who are opposed to contraceptive coverage based upon their religious beliefs.

GC.MS.000462, a papyrus fragment sold
on eBay in 2012 which has a text from
Galatians 2:2-4, 5-6 in the New Testament
But the Green's success in rulings over contraception has now been overshadowed by a federal investigation into the museum's collection practices regarding antiquities from ancient Assyria and Babylonia, what is now Iraq.

According to the Museum of the Bible website, the Green's purchased their first biblical object in November 2009.   Since that time, their collection has grown to an estimated 40,000 objects including Dead Sea Scroll fragments, biblical papyri, rare biblical texts and manuscripts, cuneiform tablets, Torah scrolls, and rare printed Bibles.   That's 6,666 objects per year or a whopping 18 objects purchased per day. Compare that to the number of employees currently working for the Greens in relation to their new museum and one can surmise that an object's collection history has not been a principle concern among the staff or consultants vetting historic items for inclusion in the museum's collection.

In April of 2014 Italian papyrologist Roberta Mazza, a lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at University of Manchester, pointed out her concerns surrounding a papyri fragment in the Green's collection. Mazza identified a small papyrus codex page containing lines from Galatians 2 in Sahidic Coptic during a visit to the exhibition, Verbum Domini II, organized by the Green Collection in Vatican City, Rome.  As might be expected, the fragment had a less than stellar collection history.

Belonging to the Green Collection, the fragment was first identified back in October 2012 by Dr. Bryce C. Jones, then a PhD student at Concordia University's Department of Religion.  The Galatians 2 papyrus had previously been listed for sale on the online auction site eBay that same year through an irreputable dealer using the name “mixantik”.  “Mixantik”, who also has used the names "ebuyerrrrr" and "Yasasgroup", is/was an Istanbul-based trader with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ancient Coptic and Greek papyrus fragments from Egypt, all with little or no provenance.  This seller was also someone whom academics like Dr. Dorothy King and archaeologist Paul Barford had openly reported for trading contrary to Turkish and International law.

Concerned about the provenance of this piece of papyrus as well as other Green Collection practices, Roberta Mazza asked David Trobisch, the current director of the Museum of the Bible, both publicly and privately for more information on the acquisition circumstances of two specific pieces in the family's collection, GC.MS.000462 (Galatians 2) and P. GC. inv. 105 (the Sappho fragments). 

From the Green's employee she learned that the Galatians 2 Coptic fragment was purchased in 2013 by Steve Green from someone referred to as "a trusted dealer".   Records in the Museum of the Bible/Green Collection archives attest that the papyrus was part of the David M. Robinson collection which was sold at a Christie’s auction in London in November 2011.   

The fact that the auction sale records give no mention of the eBay seller, and conveniently does not contain a photographic record or detailed description of what the 59 packets of papyri fragments contain is suspect to say the least.  This lack of detailed documentation on auction sales involving antiquities makes it difficult to ascertain if any given object's origin is either licit or illicit.  This easy loophole leaves the door open for both buyers and sellers to slide suspect objects into the stream of international commerce undetected.  In a nutshell this method may be used to effectively launders smuggled cultural contraband and give an illegitimate object a plausibly legitimate collection history. 

Speeding forward to today, The Daily Beast has reported that the Greens have been under federal investigation for the illicit importation of cultural heritage from Iraq over import irregularities related to 200 to 300 clay cuneiform tablets seized by U.S. Customs agents in Memphis on their way to Oklahoma City from Israel.  The jointly-written article was written by Biblical scholars Joel Baden, professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale University and Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame.

Cary Summers, president of the Museum of the Bible, spoke with Daily Beast reporters exclusively on Monday and stated that a federal investigation was ongoing and that “There was a shipment and it had improper paperwork—incomplete paperwork that was attached to it.” 

In 2008, the U.S. imposed an emergency import restriction on any archaeological and ethnological materials defined as "cultural property of Iraq. This import restriction was imposed to protect items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance at risk of trafficking as the result of unrest in the country.  This import restriction continues additional restrictions already in effect continuously since August 6, 1990.

The selling of ancient Iraqi artifacts is absolutely prohibited under UN resolution 1483 from 2003, as you may find in paragraph 7 of the link here. 

A source familiar with the Hobby Lobby investigation told reporters at the Daily Beast that the cuneiform tablets were described as samples of “hand-crafted clay tiles” on their FedEx shipping label and were valued at under $300.   If true, this seems less like an simple oversight on the part of the shipper and more like direct falsification, not just of these objects' value but of their historic significance and origin as its doubtful that cuneiform tablets will be showing up in the Wall Decor section of Hobby Lobby anytime soon. 

American imports of art, collections and collectors' pieces, and antiques from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria increased sharply between 2011 and 2013. Is a pattern developing?  Is this how heritage artifacts from source countries plagued by conflict are being folded into legitimate museum and private collections?

David Trobisch has stated that the Green Collection has one of the largest cuneiform tablet collections in the country.

In selecting antiquities, individual collectors and museums have choices. They can choose to focus exclusively on the historic, aesthetic and economic benefits of their acquisitions in formulating their collections or they can add ethical and moral criteria to their purchase considerations and not purchase conflict or blood antiquities.

By Lynda Albertson 

Excerpt from ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums
©2013