In 2013, Cornell University agreed to forfeit 10,000 cuneiform tablets amid suspicions they were looted from Iraq in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War.
Four years later, the items remain in the university’s hands. And it is one of many collections of ancient artifacts that have come under scrutiny in America.
Just last week, New York prosecutors seized a 2,300-year-old Greek vase from the Metropolitan Museum that they suspect was looted. For years, museums and institutions, from Yale University to Chicago’s Field Museum to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, have contained items of questionable provenance that had to be returned.
Some of these missteps generated headlines, and sometimes the pieces are kept, like the Parthenon frieze, acquired in the early 19th century, which the British Museum has refused to give back to Greece.
But they haven’t tarnished the overall reputations of these institutions, many of whose coffers were filled before the art and artifact markets were as regulated as they are currently, and customs laws had the strong teeth they now do.
In the case of the 10,000 Iraqi cuneiform tablets, there has been hardly any public attention given to the matter since the initial agreement, even though the pieces “continue to be stored, preserved and studied at Cornell University … with the consent of the Iraqi government,” university spokesman John Carberry said this week.
By contrast, earlier this month, when the arts-and-crafts chain store Hobby Lobby agreed to a $3 million settlement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York over its purchase of clay artifacts from present-day Iraq, it was widely seen as a blemish on the forthcoming Museum of the Bible. Its board chairman, Hobby Lobby President Steve Green, owns one of the world’s largest private collections of biblical texts and artifacts.
The fine, The Washington Post reported, is “casting a cloud over the much-anticipated Museum of the Bible.” And The Atlantic added that the Green family name is “likely to bring even further scrutiny and attention” to the museum, given that it is “now tied to a story of dealer intrigue and black markets.”
Scott Thumma, an academic dean and professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary, sees a double standard.
“Many of the collections of our great national museums and universities are full of the very objects that Hobby Lobby is being fined for smuggling and are seldom required to return or pay compensation,” Thumma said.
The allegations against Hobby Lobby are certainly serious.
In December 2010, the family-owned firm based in Oklahoma City, which posts $4 billion in annual sales, purchased 5,500 artifacts for $1.6 million. The sale was “fraught with red flags,” notes a U.S. Justice Department release, and the clay artifacts from present-day Iraq were misidentified and mislabeled as Turkish tile “samples” when they were smuggled into the country via the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
Last weekend, Israeli authorities arrested smugglers who were alleged to have sold $20 million worth of antiquities to Hobby Lobby from 2010 to 2014.
Hobby Lobby agreed to surrender the artifacts in the U.S. Justice Department case and, in a statement, said it “was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process,” resulting in “some regrettable mistakes.”
Museum of the Bible vice president Steven Bickley said the museum is “an independent organization governed by a broad and diverse board of directors, with strong professional and academic credentials, who make decisions in accordance with prevailing industry standards.”
He added that “only a small number” of the 40,000 items in the Green Collection would be exhibited in the museum, slated to open in November just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall.
But many academics have long viewed the museum — and its association with Hobby Lobby, which famously won a 2014 Supreme Court decision in which it challenged the requirement under the Affordable Care Act that employers pay for insurance for employees’ contraception — as compromised.
“Mainstream scholars certainly have taken more delight in pointing out the illicit dealings connected with the conservative Christian Green family’s project, than they would have if the Metropolitan Museum had been found to have been connected with something similar,” said James McGrath, chair in New Testament language and literature at Butler University.
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SOURCE: Religion News Service