Duped again on biblical artifacts, Hobby Lobby sues once-renowned Oxford prof

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(Reuters) - The Museum of the Bible and its founder, Hobby Lobby president Steve Green, have weathered quite a bit of controversy since Green began buying up antiquities for the museum’s collection.

In 2017, Hobby Lobby paid $3 million and forfeited more than 140 ancient artifacts to resolve U.S. Justice Department allegations that the pieces were illegally imported into the U.S. In March 2020, the museum disclosed that its Dead Sea Scroll fragments were modern forgeries. Then in May 2020, the museum sent more than 13,000 artifacts back to Iraq and Egypt after determining their provenance was questionable.

Green admitted to The Wall Street Journal in 2020 that he didn’t know much about collecting antiquities when he began shelling out millions of dollars for biblical-era artifacts in 2009. But he also laid blame on “unscrupulous” dealers who took advantage of him as a novice collector.

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On Wednesday, Hobby Lobby struck back at one of those allegedly deceitful dealers -- a once-renowned Oxford professor who sold the company bible-era papyrus fragments in several transactions totaling more than $7 million -- in a fraud complaint in federal court in Brooklyn.

Hobby Lobby’s suit against Dirk Obbink, who received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant" in 2001 but was detained by Oxford police in March 2020 on suspicion of stealing papyrus fragments from his onetime employer, the Egypt Exploration Society, is actually the company’s second attempt to recoup money it paid to allegedly deceptive antiquities dealers.

As I’ve reported, Hobby Lobby previously sued Christie’s in May 2020, accusing the famous auction house of covering up the questionable provenance of a cuneiform tablet recounting a story from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Hobby Lobby, which bought the tablet for $1.7 million in 2014, filed an amended complaint in the Christie’s case in February, adding the tablet’s seller as a defendant. The seller has moved to dismiss the suit. Christie’s said in an answer to the complaint that it’s not liable for the seller’s conduct and did not defraud Hobby Lobby.

Obbink has vehemently denied stealing papyri. He told the Waco Tribune-Herald in 2019 that he believed the “documents being used against me” had been “fabricated in a malicious attempt to harm my reputation and career.” The civil cover sheet for Hobby Lobby's suit said Obbink still lives in Oxford. He could not immediately be reached for comment and no lawyer has yet entered an appearance for him in the docket in Brooklyn.

The Hobby Lobby complaint lays out quite a tale. The company alleged that it became aware of Obbink as one of the world’s foremost authorities on ancient papyri as it amassed the antiquities collection that would become the heart of the Museum of the Bible. Obbink, an American, was an international scholar but also a private dealer, according to the complaint. He entered into seven transactions with Hobby Lobby between 2010 and 2013, including the 2013 sale of four papyrus fragments containing New Testament Gospels.

Those fragments were never delivered to Hobby Lobby in the U.S. At first, according to the complaint, Obbink said he was retaining them to conduct additional research. Then, in December 2017, Obbink allegedly informed Hobby Lobby that he had mistakenly sold the fragments, which belonged to the Egypt Exploration Society.

Hobby Lobby demanded in writing that Obbink repay the $760,000 it had paid for the four fragments, according to its complaint. Obbink agreed to repay the money, according to the company’s suit, but kept insisting that bureaucratic red tape was delaying the sales he needed to complete to raise the $760,000. Obbink eventually sent Hobby Lobby $10,000 in September 2019, the complaint said, but that was all he ever paid back.

An official from the Museum of the Bible, meanwhile, met in June 2019 with officials from the Egypt Exploration Society, where Obbink had served as an editor until 2016. After reviewing images of the papyrus fragments and Obbink’s repurchase agreement with Hobby Lobby, the society concluded that the fragments had been stolen from its collection.

Once that realization struck, according to the complaint, the Egypt Exploration Society and the Museum of the Bible checked all of Hobby Lobby’s purchases from Obbink. In October 2019, the society disclosed that at least 13 ancient texts had been stolen from its collection and sold to the Museum, 11 by Obbink. Hobby Lobby’s new complaint said the society has now identified a total of 32 texts allegedly stolen by Obbink.

I asked Hobby Lobby counsel Michael McCullough of Pearlstein & McCullough if those 2019 meetings between the Egypt Exploration Society and Museum of the Bible officials had led to the criminal charges against Obbink in the U.K. He said by email, “The allegations in the (Hobby Lobby) complaint relate to Dr. Obbink’s activities for which he was arrested in March 2020 by the Thames Valley Police in Oxford,” but that he did not know if Hobby Lobby’s dispute with Obbink led to the criminal investigation. The Atlantic has reported that the Egypt Exploration Society alerted Oxford police in the fall of 2019 after its conclusion that ancient texts had been stolen from its collection.

Hobby Lobby's complaint is a relatively bare-boned 10 pages, leaving a lot of questions about its dealings with Obbink unanswered. One thing is sure: The company's pursuit of holy artifacts for the Museum of the Bible has created quite an unholy mess.

(By Alison Frankel)

Read more:

Hobby Lobby, Christie’s and the Epic of Gilgamesh: a new chapter for ancient saga

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