The Museum of the Bible (MOTB) in Washington, DC is embroiled in yet another scandal involving illicit artifacts. The museum, founded by the owners of the arts-and-crafts store chain Hobby Lobby, announced this week that it will be returning allegedly stolen biblical fragments it had acquired from an Oxford professor.
On Monday, October 14, the Egypt Exploration Society (EES), a London-based nonprofit, released a statement accusing professor Dirk Obbink, an Oxford University papyrologist, of allegedly swindling 13 biblical texts on papyrus and parchment from its holdings and selling them to Hobby Lobby in 2010. The statement summarizes the conclusions of an investigation that EES has opened in June of this year in collaboration with MOTB: “These texts were taken without authorisation from the EES, and in most of the thirteen cases the catalogue card and photograph are also missing.” EES added that it was able to identify the missing texts with the help of back-up records.
Dirk Obbink did not respond to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.
MOTB’s board of trustees has accepted the EES claim to ownership of the 13 pieces, and is currently arranging to return them to the organization, the museum said a statement on Monday. “The items referenced were acquired by Hobby Lobby Stores in good faith between 2010 and 2013,” MOTB said in its statement. The museum added that it had alerted EES of its suspicions against Obbink in June of this year. “We have collaborated with EES in the investigation, have shared all relevant documentation with them, and will continue to assist them in recovering other items that may have been removed without authorization from their holdings,” said Dr. Jeffrey Kloha, MOTB’s chief curatorial officer.
The texts (12 on papyrus and one on parchment) date back to the 2nd or early 3rd century. They include passages from Genesis, Psalms, Exodus, and an ancient copy of the Ten Commandments. The ancient findings were under Obbink’s care as a member of EES when he sold them to Hobby Lobby in 2010, the Daily Beast first reported in June. In a different Daily Beast story from May of 2018, the publication investigated Obbink’s alleged attempts to sell David Green and his family, owners of Hobby of Lobby, rare fragments of the Gospel of Mark that were reportedly dug up in an “Egyptian garbage dump.” Obbink at the time denied the allegations. But in June of this year, Michael Holmes, director of the MOB’s Scholar’s Initiative, announced that Obbink presented himself as the owner of the Mark fragment and sold it, together with other fragments, to Hobby Lobby for an undisclosed amount. Following these accusations, EES and MOTB opened their investigation into the matter. Obbink, according to EES, was immediately banned access to the organization’s collection for failing to provide satisfactory clarification of his dealings with Hobby Lobby.
Obbink, a celebrated classics professors and a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, has had issues with EES before. In August 2016, the organization discharged him from his position as a general editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri for “unsatisfactory discharge of his editorial duties” and for “concerns, which he did not allay, about his alleged involvement in the marketing of ancient texts, especially the Sappho text,” EES wrote in its statement.
This is not the first time that Hobby Lobby, owned by the known Evangelist David Green and his family, finds itself involved in illegal trade of artifacts. In 2017, the US Justice Department fined the company $3 million and forced it to relinquish thousands of looted Iraqi artifacts it had acquired. And last year, MOTB conceded that five of its purported ancient Dead Sea Scroll fragments were found to be modern forgeries. Hobby Lobby has not responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.
Oxford University is currently investigating the removal of the professor from University premises and alleged sale of EES texts, the university confirmed to the Washington Post. As of this writing, Obbink is still listed as a faculty member on the university’s website.