Christian Retailer Hobby Lobby Stole Middle East History to Make a Bible Museum in Washington

Hobby Lobby President Steve Green addresses the Faith & Freedom Coalition Road to Majority Conference in Washington June 15, 2013. Reuters

Updated | `When Hobby Lobby's CEO Steve Green traveled in 2010 to the Holy Land-as the Biblically minded like to call Israel and a swath of the greater Middle East-to inspect and make an offer on what turned out to be 5,500 pieces of looted Iraqi cuneiform and other objects, he was setting off on a mission that continues to this day.

The fundamentalist Green family has poured $800 million into a Bible Museum so close to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., that domestic and foreign tourists who don't read the fine print will think it's a U.S. government project.

Now, the ancient Mesopotamian cultural relics that Hobby Lobby intended for the Green Collection will never get to the museum, with its glass ark on top and shiny high-tech displays inside, must be turned over to federal authorities in New York, according to a complaint filed Wednesday by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn.

The feds have been looking into Hobby Lobby's collection ever since keen-eyed clerks at a U.S. customs office in Memphis in 2011 opened several Fed Ex packages labeled as hand made tiles form Turkey. The "tiles" turned out to be thousands of rare cuneiform tablets, dating to the Sumerian and Babylonian era and the dawn of writing.

The Greens aim to present Middle Eastern history and culture through a narrow and historically dubious Judeo-Christian lens. Besides fighting a case to the Supreme Court and winning the right not to provide contraceptives for women in its health plan, the billionaire Hobby Lobby fortune is being put to use specially to erode the separation of church and state that has been bedrock to American culture since the founding of the country. Beyond the Bible Museum, the Greens, known as the Koch brothers of the evangelical movement, have spent millions creating a Bible-centered curriculum for American public schools (now in use in Israel), that so far, courts have ruled cannot be implemented.

The announcement of the agreement and forfeiture late on Wednesday in Brooklyn stated that Green had been warned by a cultural heritage consultant to be wary of Iraqi artifacts, but went ahead anyway, eventually hoovering up pieces from a trio of Israeli dealers who are not named in the complaint.

"Notwithstanding these warnings, in December 2010, Hobby Lobby executed an agreement to purchase over 5,500 Artifacts, comprised of cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay bullae and cylinder seals, for $1.6 million," the Department of Justice announced Wednesday. "The acquisition of the Artifacts was fraught with red flags."

Hobby Lobby has agreed to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit the looted objects to the U.S. Department of Justice, which will eventually return them to Iraq. The Oklahoma-based retail giant earned $3.7 billion in income in 2015.

Almost immediately after the Iraq war, in 2003 and 2004, looters engaged in what's been described as "industrial" levels of theft, stealing and digging up artifacts and moving them out of the country, and into the private market, through the Gulf States, Israel and Turkey. In Israel, where antiquities dealers are licensed to operate legally, the dealers apparently played a shell game with the objects, claiming that they had been part of collections put together by unknown persons in the 1960s.

As Christian collectors seeking objects that put facts behind their faith, the Greens join a long tradition of pseudo-archaeologists, tourists and businessmen who have labored to prove the Bible is as factual an account of history as Herodotus. The seamy and saintly business of biblical relic collecting dates back to the fourth century, when Helena of Constantine came to Jerusalem looking for pieces of the True Cross. For the next millennium or so, Europeans filled reliquaries with loot and forgeries from the Holy Land, including the alleged bones and other bits of the apostles, and even the Virgin Mary's wedding ring. In the 19th century, Victorian pastors, armed with spades in one hand and Bibles in the other, flocked to the Middle East.

The Greens have put a patina of legitimacy on their collection with their Green Scholars Initiative, which funds young, aspiring archaeologists and students and gives them access to the vast and growing Green Collection—a hands-on experience with antiquities that most students cannot get at relatively poorly funded university programs.

The Scholars Initiative has already involved hundreds of young students and mentors, some of whom are studying and writing about materials in the museum's collection. But conventional scholars have been criticizing their rigor, pointing out misidentified archaeological sites on the museum's Facebook page.

Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Michael Langlois, who is on the Near East studies faculty at the University of Strasbourg in France, told Newsweek last year that he contacted the museum to report what he believed was a forgery in its collection and asked to inspect it. "I was told that Green is not interested in finding out whether his scrolls are genuine or not," Langlois says. A spokesman for the Museum denied this.

Updated: The article was updated to reflect that all artifacts in the Green Collection will not be displayed at the Museum.