In 2011, a shipment of between 200 and 300 small clay tablets destined for the Hobby Lobby compound in Oklahoma City, was seized by U.S. customs agents in Memphis. The tablets were part of a large purchase of 10,000 tablets, all thousands of years old, that were written in cuneiform, the script of ancient Sumer, Assyria, and Babylonia. These ancient Iraqi tablets were brought into the country illicitly and it was unclear if they had been legally acquired in the first place. The 2011 seizure set in motion a chain of federal investigations, civil forfeiture and repatriation agreements, and lawsuits that shone a harsh spotlight on the substandard collecting practices of Hobby Lobby and their owners, the Green family.
Now, over nine years later, it appears that Hobby Lobby and Museum of the Bible, the museum founded and funded by the Green family, are close to reaching an agreement with the Iraqi government about the fate of the numerous items in their collections that are the rightful property of the people of Iraq. Among the illicit items in the collection were stolen papyri that belong to the Egyptian Exploration Fund, an ancient Egyptian papyrus purchased via eBay, thousands of cuneiform tablets from Iraq, and, most famously, the Gilgamesh Dream tablet.
Last March, Steve Green, the CEO of Hobby Lobby and president of Museum of the Bible, told the Wall Street Journal that he plans to return 11,500 illicit Iraqi and Egyptian artifacts currently owned by the company or museum to their countries of origin. (He neglected to mention that the Gilgamesh Dream tablet had been seized on Sept. 24, 2019 by the Department of Homeland Security and Homeland Security Investigations or that he is required to do this by law). In a statement released in March 2020, Steve Green announced that, “We also hope to finalize agreements with organizations in Egypt and Iraq that will allow for us to provide technical assistance, and support the ongoing study and preservation of their important cultural property.”
The problem? The proposed agreement with Museum of the Bible (MOTB) and Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc (HL) is a terrible deal for the people of Iraq. Nor is it necessary: Green has already promised to return their artifacts, and MOTB/HL are obligated to do with or without this agreement.
The Daily Beast has received a copy of a draft of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Antiquities of the Republic of Iraq and HL/MOTB. (Despite MOTB’s repeated insistence that it is a separate organization and is not implicated in HL’s actions, they are both identified as “the second party” in the memo. Green appears as the signatory for both organizations). The memo draft is the product of ongoing negotiations between the two parties and thus no individual element of it can be firmly credited to either side. That said, it’s a shoddy deal for Iraq. So bad that the Iraqi people themselves have felt compelled to respond. An article published in an Arabic newspaper on Aug. 15 expressed grave concerns about the terms of this proposed memo calling it “exploitative and degrading.”
The Daily Beast reached out to both MOTB and lawyer Thomas Kline, of Cultural Heritage Partners, who represents and advises them. Neither were able to verify the document we received but a MOTB spokesperson confirmed that “discussions are ongoing and appear to be proceeding in good faith." Multiple other sources confirmed authenticity of the document.
The memo itself outlines the plan for the return of Iraqi cultural heritage, the process of identifying that heritage, and the money ($15 million) that MOTB/HL will use to fund “a program to help strengthen the institutional, technical, and human resource capacities of Iraq’s antiquities sector.” MOTB/HL also agrees to pick up the considerable tab on the costs of returning the artifacts to Iraq. In exchange, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Antiquities agrees to loan some items to MOTB for up to five years; allows MOTB to research and publish the antiquities in question; and agrees not to sue MOTB/HL or the Museum’s donors about anything at all that has happened up until this point. To be very clear, if Iraq was to sign this memo as originally written they would be giving up their legal rights to damages.
The Daily Beast has consulted with experts in Iraqi archaeology, international law, and art crime about this document. Here are some of the problems they identified with it.
Many parts of the agreement are just basic things that MOTB/HL has to do to comply with the law and yet in exchange it is mandating that Iraq loan valuable parts of its cultural heritage to the museum. Dr. Zainab Bahrani, the Edith Porada Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University and an Iraqi by birth, told me: “Hobby Lobby has to return these looted objects to Iraq anyway. Iraq is not obliged to send them loans for their museum as part of the deal, or to let them conserve objects, and to renounce any future challenge of things in their collection. Why would anyone in Iraq ever agree to this? I do not see how this MoU is at all beneficial for Iraq, for the Iraq Museum, or for the [State Board of Antiquities and Heritage].”
Professor Patty Gerstenblith, a world-leading expert on cultural heritage and director of DePaul’s Center in Art, Museum and Cultural Law, who advised Green about Hobby Lobby’s practices in 2010, echoed those concerns and said, “I think Iraq is giving up more than it will gain through this proposed MoU, as it was originally proposed, and I do not think its interests are being well served.”
The $15 million promised to the Iraqi government is insufficient. The money, Bahrani pointed out, is for MOTB to provide training courses for Iraq Museum staff but are they the right people for the job? “It is a matter of public record,” Bahrani said “that this company and its museum have been involved in the illicit trade in antiquities, and that scholars associated with it have participated in destructive practices with ancient artifacts that would be condemned by the international community of scholars and scientific conservators who are experts in this field.”
As Joel Baden and I wrote in our book Bible Nation, the prioritization of biblical artifacts over non-Christian cultural heritage led to unnecessary irrevocable damage to Egyptian artifacts. Is MOTB really in a position to train anybody about conservation when not so long ago their representatives were dissolving Egyptian funerary masks on the stove while watching football games?
Beyond the irony of positioning themselves as conservation experts and teachers, the agreement is very vague about the specifics of the administration of these funds. Erin L. Thompson, professor of art crime at John Jay College (CUNY) and author of a book on the history of private collecting of antiquities, said, “If this agreement is signed, MOTB/HL gets to put out a press release saying they’re donating $15 million to protect Iraqi antiquities” but “There’s no time frame specified… The agreement does not specify who gets the money, [and] under this wording, they could pay American consultants to train Iraqi museum staff, for example, with none of the money actually going to Iraqis.” All of money could be spent financing visas and paying for the travel expenses and meals of American consultants.
Thompson added that while $15,000,000 sounds like a lot of money, it’s actually not. “We will never know the extent of the damage caused by the looting of Iraqi archeological sites undertaken to produce the thousands of artifacts purchased by Hobby Lobby, but I am confident that this damage, to Iraq and to the world, was far, far greater than $15 million.”
In the past some academics have defended and even championed efforts to keep Iraqi artifacts in the U.S. so that they can study them. In 2018, David Owen, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Cornell University who has published descriptions of hundreds of (looted) tablets from the lost city of Irisagrig, called for Hobby Lobby’s tablets to remain in the United States. “Once they enter the bowels of the Iraq Museum,” he told LiveScience, “it is unlikely scholars will ever have access to them, nor are there any Iraqi scholars capable of publishing them given the many thousands of unpublished texts already in storage in the museum for generations and mostly inaccessible to scholars.”
Beyond the dismissive comments about the skills and capabilities of Iraqi academics (for the record, Eckart Frahm, a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at Yale University, publicly disagreed with Owen on this point) this statement is no more true for Iraq than it is the U.S. or U.K. In the 19th century, British academics used arguments about how “no one is as good as [the British]” in order to justify the export of the priceless Oxyrhynchus collection to the U.K. For the past century these papyrus fragments have been housed at the University of Oxford. Not only were the fragments vulnerable to theft, a very small proportion (between 1 percent and 5 percent) of them have been published so far and only select scholars are allowed to access and work on this collection.
MOTB has similar problems; access to their collection is restricted to members of their Scholar’s Initiative (formerly the Green Scholar’s Initiative), the composition of which was governed by shared religious commitments. This is not to say that these scholars are unqualified, on the contrary there are many brilliant individuals working for Museum of the Bible, but the museum’s collection is not and has never been open to all. None of these situations are ideal, but if anyone has the right to tightly control access to and publication of the cultural heritage of Iraq, surely it is those who own this heritage—the Iraqi people?
Many parts of the agreement appear to be PR spin or toothless unenforceable promises. As one Iraqi researcher told The Daily Beast, the discussion of intellectual property rights to the objects is strange when ancient tablets do not have property rights attached to them. Photographs, copies, and publications of the antiquities, on the other hand, do have intellectual property rights but those rights aren’t under full discussion in this document. Nor does the memo guarantee that the process of collaboration will include Iraqi academics as co-authors on any future publications.
Similarly, a clause about cooperating with the Iraqi government to identify other antiquities that belong to the people of Iraq in the MOTB/HL collections is, Thompson said, “a meaningless promise that serves no other purpose than looking good when quoted in a press release.” It is illegal to import into the United States any archaeological material illegally removed from Iraq. “This clause is nothing but self-congratulation for following laws that the Museum of the Bible and Hobby Lobby are already obligated to follow—and which they have repeatedly broken. You don’t get to issue press releases patting yourself on the back for cooperating with a murder investigation—you’re simply obliged to do so!”
One of the strangest elements of the memo is the discussion about the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet. It is the only named object in the putative agreement, but it doesn’t belong to nor is it in the custody of HL/MOTB. It was seized by the U.S. government last September and is currently owned by it. HL/MOTB and Iraq are negotiating about a renewable five-year loan of an object of which neither has custody. The U.S. government has a history of returning artifacts to their rightful owners, even when diplomatic relations are fraught. The 2013 return of a silver ceremonial drinking vessel to Iran, for example, actually helped thaw diplomatic relations between the two countries. If Iraq signs an agreement to loan the tablet to MOTB, it may in fact slow the return of the tablet. In fact, given that the loan is renewable, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet might never make it home.
Arguably the most disturbing part of the memo is that it releases MOTB/HL and donors to MOTB from any and all past liabilities relating to “Iraq.” The donors that the MOU probably has in mind for this blanket release of responsibility are the Green family, the owners of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc, who oversaw the importing of illicit antiquities in the first place and are MOTB’s biggest donors. But that’s not what the MOU says. It just reads that donors will be released from “any and all demands, causes of action, liabilities, obligations, damages or claims of any kind whatsoever… which Iraq may have” against them. As Thompson told The Daily Beast “if Iraq signs this agreement and finds out that someone once donated $10 to the Museum of the Bible and then killed an Iraqi citizen, or embezzled from the Iraqi government, it has agreed not to prosecute them.”
Thompson told me that she believes that the agreement as written is much too broad, but says, “Even if you interpret the immunity as applying just to antiquities, I interpret this as asking [Ministry of Culture] to release MOTB/HL from any liability for other looted antiquities that may still be discovered in their collections. This is asking for a get out of jail free card, valid no matter what wrong-doing is discovered.”
In the past there have been examples of governments working together with museums who have had to return looted antiquities to the benefit of both parties. For example, the Getty Museum worked with the Greek and Italian governments in ways that were mutually beneficial. This, however, is something altogether different. Thompson, who is the nation’s foremost academic expert on art crime, told me: “The proposed agreement is an attempt to bully Iraq into surrendering their legal rights in return for a payment that, even if it goes to Iraq, is in no way commensurate with Iraq’s losses. I am also concerned that it would set a horrible precedent. Unscrupulous collectors will believe that if they are caught, they can escape all punishment by dangling promises of a payout to countries under the pretense of helping them preserve the antiquities that the collectors haven’t already managed to loot.”
In a statement on Monday, a Museum of the Bible representative told The Daily Beast, “Museum of the Bible Chairman Steve Green and museum staff have been in discussions with Iraqi embassy staff regarding the cultural heritage of Iraq since fall of 2019, after earlier meetings in 2017. Recently, there was a meeting with Dr. Nazim to continue those discussions. The museum has elected to legally return the artifacts that do not meet its acquisition standards, has recently done so, and seeks to support research, exhibitions, and technical assistance projects with Iraq. The details of these plans have yet to be finalized, though we anticipate that to occur soon. The museum is not aware of any previous or pending legal action on the part of Iraq.”
A statement issued by the Ministry of Culture last week stated that the memo has not yet been signed or agreed upon. It is, thus, still subject to change. The statement added that the Iraqi government would not give up its rights to recover its property. Negotiations are ongoing, let’s hope this remains the case and that the Iraqi government does not reach an agreement that gives away the proverbial farm.