Hobby Lobby Purchase Shows Ethical Problems in the Antiquities Trade

By Chabin, Michele | The Christian Century, September 13, 2017 | Go to article overview

Hobby Lobby Purchase Shows Ethical Problems in the Antiquities Trade


Chabin, Michele, The Christian Century


The arrest of five antiquities dealers who allegedly helped Hobby Lobby purchase illegally obtained ancient artifacts has shone a spotlight on the sale of antiquities in Israel and revived questions about the ethics of the trade in general.

Earlier this summer, five Jerusalem-based dealers were arrested and charged with tax evasion on the sale, which took place in the United Arab Emirates. Israeli and American authorities believe the dealers drafted bogus invoices and receipts for antiquities sold to Steve Green, president of the national craft store chain.

The Justice Department announced a $3 million settlement with Hobby Lobby after an investigation into its acquisition of 5,500 artifacts that originated in Iraq. The artifacts, which Hobby Lobby has since returned, were earmarked for the Museum of the Bible, which is being funded chiefly by the Green family and slated to open in Washington, D.C., in November.

"We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled," Green said in a statement. "We have implemented acquisition policies and procedures based on the industry's highest standards."

Israel is the only country in the Middle East that permits state-licensed antiquities dealers to sell ancient artifacts. This situation, critics say, encourages unscrupulous people around the region to loot and smuggle valuable items via licensed Israeli dealers.

The country's 1978 Antiquities Law was enacted to protect artifacts through strict regulation, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority's Unit for Prevention of Antiquities Looting. The law requires the authority to approve the transfer of antiquities from a museum or private collection. Dealers must be licensed and keep a precise inventory of any item that dates from before the year 1700. They are prohibited from selling antiquities considered to be "of national value." And no antiquities may be taken out of Israel without the written approval of the IAA.

The law was tightened in 2012 and again last year, so that all licensed dealers are now required to share images of everything in their inventory. Fraudulent transactions are easier to detect now, but the reforms did not come soon enough to prevent the Hobby Lobby scandal.

In 2010 Hobby Lobby, which is headquartered in Oklahoma City, paid $1.6 million for 5,500 ancient artifacts from Iraq. Six years later, an investigation by U.S. and Israeli law enforcement and tax officials determined that dealers in the United Arab Emirates and Israel had intentionally misidentified the items as Turkish ceramics. …

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