The proudly Christian proprietors of the craft store chain Hobby Lobby have been under federal investigation for the past four years for illicit importation of religious artifacts and cultural antiquities from Iraq for their soon-to-open Museum of the Bible, according to a recent report by the Daily Beast.
“Is it possible that we have some illicit [artifacts]? That’s possible,” Steve Green, the CEO of the craft company, told the authors of the report.
While Green admitted that some of its ancient holdings might have been sourced illegally or sold in defiance of international standards on antiquities sales, experts consulted by ThinkProgress said that that the Green family likely turned a blind eye towards these provisions in order to amass its holdings.
“If you’re spending millions of dollars on antiquities, you should be able to afford to have very professional investigations to establish the legality of the entire collection and if you don’t, that suggests recklessness [or] negligence at the very least,” Sam Hardy, an archeologist based at the University College of London, said in a phone interview.
Hardy runs the website Conflict Antiquities which has helped identify antiquities looted from Iraq and Syria. Without knowing the details of the investigation, Hardy said that it’s become relatively easy for interested dealers or collectors to source illicit archeological material from Iraq and Syria.
He said, “The thing that surprises many people is that there aren’t many steps” between when an antiquity is illegally mined and when it is sold in a legitimate marketplace like an auction houses or international dealers.
“People have told me that stuff was being flown out [of Iraq and Syria] on private planes,” Hardy said. “And that’s basically going straight from [its origin] site or near to the site to an international dealer or collector. Other material is being smuggled out by Western buyers who have smuggled into the territory themselves.”
The illicit trade in stolen artifacts is believed to have swelled into a nearly $2 billion business since a civil war broke out in Syria four years ago. At least one-third of Syrian museums and 16 of its major archeological sites have been pillaged. Some have argued that the situation in Iraq where conflict has been ongoing since 2003.
The investigation into the Green family began when hundreds of clay tablets they imported from Israel were seized by U.S. Customs agents in 2011. The family has imported 40,000 or so artifacts for its Museum of the Bible, which is due to open in Washington, DC in 2017.
Cary Summers, president of the Museum, suggested the investigation was triggered by a seemingly innocent mistake.
“There was a shipment and it had improper paperwork — incomplete paperwork that was attached to it,” he said.
What might be seen as an oversight, however, has been used by many antiquities dealers and collectors to avoid having to answer hard questions about the provenance of the items they buy and sell.
While a lack of what Hardy called “due diligence” doesn’t necessarily imply criminal intent, it is cause for suspicion — partly because it allows everyone involved to plead ignorance about illegally sourced or illicitly traded items.
“If they just don’t ask the right questions or keep any of the records, everybody in the chain can say, ‘I had no reason to believe that this was looted’ or ‘I have no reason to believe that this was illicitly imported from Iraq or Syria’ rather than saying ‘I had reason to believe that it had not been looted’ or ‘I had reason to believe that it had not been illicitly imported,’” he said.
Antiquities are not even as regulated as eggs.
That’s because there are significant regulatory failings when it comes to the antiquities market.
“Antiquities are not even as regulated as eggs,” Hardy pointed out.
“I can go into the village right now and go into the smallest shop with the smallest operating margin and they will be able to tell me exactly where the eggs came from, from source to market. They won’t even need to tell me. The information will be provided with the eggs,” he said.
As a contrast, even high-end antiquities dealers in cities like London or New York provide little public information about the source of their holdings. At times, that information won’t even be available to private clients.
“There’s no reason why the antiquities market should not be regulated…in the same way as other commodities,” Hardy said.
Deborah Lehr is the head of the Antiquities Coalition which is advocating for just that sort of transparency.
“We are aware of museums who are not questioning in great detail the provenance of some of the antiquities that they’re buying,” she said in an interview. “If museums are acquiring these antiquities legally, there’s no reason that these provenances couldn’t be published in some way.”
She too said a lack of due diligence as to the provenance of antiquities from conflict areas would be standard procedure.
“When you’re purchasing something from [Iraq or] Syria and you know that there’s a conflict going on, one would think that it would be a logical step to take the necessary actions — particularly when you have the resources to do so — to ensure that it has a history that’s reputable,” she said.
The Green family’s oversight might not even be an oversight. The Greens met with Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor at DePaul University before they began amassing their collection of Bible-related antiquities in 2011. The family discussed issues of due diligence procedures to prove the legal provenance of antiquities with Gerstenblith, along with measures to ensure the legality of their purchases.
Even with that guidance, however, the Greens appear to have circumvented the law and opted to purchase and import antiquities with dubious provenance, or none at all.
“The issue is not whether they were caught smuggling stuff, the issue is why they were doing it,” said Amr Al-Azm, a professor at Ohio’s Shawnee State University who has helped save antiquities from all out destruction or illegal sale through a league of archaeologists in Syria.
The reason that he thinks the Green family might have broken international law or avoided ethical standards in the antiquities trade is to promote their overtly Christian beliefs — beliefs they fought for and won at the Supreme Court last year in their landmark case on the religious freedom of employers with regards to government mandates on healthcare.
“In their hearts, [I think] they think they’re doing the right thing,” Al-Azm said. “They look at this cultural heritage and they have a close affinity to it. They feel that this is something that touches their deep core beliefs, and they see it in an area or a place that is dangerous or unstable. So they can justify this sort of activity by saying I’m doing something good for posterity.”
The problem is that they have to disregard the law and support brutal forces in order to “save” Christian antiquities from Iraq and Syria.
“In the end they’re just supporting and encouraging an illicit trade in looted items that are in many cases going to fund potential terrorists or, in many cases, directly fund terrorism,” he said.
A federal investigation will determine whether the Greens purchase of antiquities provided material support to terrorist groups like ISIS which have been active participants in the trade of such items. As the Daily Beast pointed out, however, no fine leveled against them is likely to make a dent in their $4.5 billion fortune.