Mutual Art Magazine: 'Looted Art: The Silver Lining of Hobby Lobby'

Published 27 September 2021 in Insights

Mutual Art

'Looted Art: The Silver Lining of Hobby Lobby'

By Maya Garabedian

Mutual Art - Magazine

Published 17 September 2021

While modern-day looting looks different than in times when governments were the main perpetrators, hundreds of thousands of artifacts are still illegally traded. With one big difference.

Artist unknown, Mesopotamian Clay Bullae, ca. 2000 BCE, clay. Courtesy of the New York Times

Tracing the origins of cultural artifacts held in museums can quickly become a harrowing tale —the means through which colonial nations acquired a fair share of art is difficult to make peace with. When forced to confront these historical truths, as well as the morally questionable decision of most institutions to hold on to these works despite desperate pleads for repatriation, we may find ourselves considering a tempting rationale: These works were looted a long time ago and have sat in museums ever since; what’s done is done. However, that is not the case. In recent years, as the origins of artworks began to be explored and their ownership contested, some institutions decided it would best serve them to forgo the route of humility altogether and exploit the controversy instead. At the British Museum, ever the example when it comes to pillaged art, a “Stolen Goods Tour” was devised in 2018. While the tour itself is given by an external guide, not officially affiliated with the institution, the museum was happy to give such tours the green light. Around this same time, newly minted institutions such as the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, made the choice to turn a blind eye to works of questionable origin, while still acquiring them nonetheless.

In the years leading up to the Museum of the Bible’s fruition, Steve Green, billionaire, art collector and president of craft store chain Hobby Lobby, began acquiring artifacts. In 2014, just five years after he began collecting for the first time, he had amassed a whopping 40,000 cultural artifacts, largely from the Middle East. His collection was comprised of hundreds of unstudied antiquities, thousands of clay tablets, papyri, and textiles from ancient Egypt, unbelievably rare relics like Iraq’s Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, and even alleged fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, pieces of the first-known Bible. Despite his own claims of knowing very little about collecting, or even art for that matter, as a devout evangelical Christian his religiosity guided his choices in acquisition. In this short time frame, Green purchased the entire collection that would be featured in his $500 million museum. A substantial portion of these items would later prove to have been stolen by colonial powers, looted from unknown archaeological sites, smuggled out of the region, and sold illegally, with doctored paperwork that falsely proved US ownership.

Artist unknown, Coptic Texts, ca. 3100-30 BCE, papyrus. Courtesy of Egypt Independent

Just as the Museum of the Bible prepared to open its doors, Green’s retail giant, Hobby Lobby, was forced to pay a $3 million fine in a settlement with the US Justice Department for its carelessness in acquisitions. Furthermore, Green had to forfeit thousands of items to the Iraqi government — pieces that were proven to be stolen or illegally imported. Choosing to acquire artifacts from the dubious “gray market,” with little care for proper documentation, has continued to be a problem for the museum. This past year, Green had to forfeit additional works, to the tune of 13,000 total objects, which had been pillaged from Iraq and Egypt. Among the lot was The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a Sumerian epic poem written in cuneiform that had been removed from its region of origin, Mesopotamia, and with the help of a false provenance letter in the early 2000s, began its journey through the United States, ultimately leading to Hobby Lobby’s purchase. US prosecutors seized and investigated the tablet, concluding that it was indeed the rightful property of Iraq and should be returned.

Artist unknown, Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, ca. 2100-1200 BCE, clay. Courtesy of BBC

Part of the heavy policing of the matter may stem from the controversial modern-day events that enabled the looting of cultural artifacts. One such example is the US military presence in the Middle East, and more specifically Iraq, during a particularly dramatic period of pillaging. Following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which prompted the US to involve itself, parts of Iraq fell out of the regime’s control. In the aftermath, at least nine of the country’s 13 regional museums suffered from widespread looting, amounting to the loss of thousands of culturally significant works. By current counts, some 500,000 objects of Iraqi origin are known to have been looted since the 1990s, with 5,000 taken from the Iraqi National Museum in 2003, in direct response to the US invasion of Iraq.

Artist unknown, Dead Sea Scrolls, ca. 408 BCE-318 CE, papyrus, parchment, bronze. Courtesy of BBC

Furthermore, Western auction houses played a role in the sale of many works with unsupported provenance — records that should be required when facilitating a sale, as they prove both ownership and authenticity. Beyond the value proper documentation has in verifying whether works of art have been acquired legally and voluntarily, it also proves the legitimacy of a work. Without it, the art itself may be fraudulent — yet another discovery that damaged the reputation of the Museum of the Bible. Through careful inspection, a large number of works from the collection have been identified as modern forgeries of ancient relics. The most notable of which are the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the world’s oldest-known Biblical texts.

The latest controversy emerged a few months ago over the legal ownership of an ancient Jewish prayer book from Afghanistan. Despite the claims that the artifact was “legally exported” from the UK, where it had been since the 1950s, it is now believed to have been taken out of Afghanistan after 1998. This distinction matters greatly, as UNESCO passed a law in the interim that made it illegal to export any antiquities without government approval. This new development has reaffirmed reexamination of the museum’s collection. In general, it seems much of the collection originated from lands subject to Western occupation, like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and that the objects themselves were last seen there during a time of chaos. There is, in fact, a silver lining to the never-ending stream of investigations. While the museum’s collection is problematic, it has proved to be a somewhat ironic symbol of hope — when forced to acknowledge illegitimate ownership, works of art are then returned to their place of origin. And that certainly is refreshing.

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Image Credit: Artist unknown, Jewish Prayer Book, ca. 800 CE, papyrus. Courtesy of the New York Post