March 28, 2020

The Museum of The Bible's Chairman's letter leaves many unanswered questions


Issued on 26 March 2010 and uploaded quietly to the Museum of the Bible website here

Statement on Past Acquisitions Published: Mar 26, 2020 

Museum of the Bible’s Chairman of the Board, Steve Green, makes the following statement on past acquisitions: 

In 2009, when I began acquiring biblical manuscripts and artifacts for what would ultimately form the collection at Museum of the Bible, I knew little about the world of collecting. It is well known that I trusted the wrong people to guide me, and unwittingly dealt with unscrupulous dealers in those early years. One area where I fell short was not appreciating the importance of the provenance of the items I purchased. 

When I purchased items in those early years, dealers would make representations about an item’s provenance, which the consultants I employed would say was sufficient. As I came to understand taking a dealer at his or her word was not good enough, I cut ties with those consultants. When I engaged with new advisors, I acquired a better understanding of the importance of verifying provenance and we developed a rigorous acquisitions policy that would help avoid repeating those early mistakes. 

For the past several years, the many dedicated curators at Museum of the Bible have quietly and painstakingly researched the provenance of the many thousands of items in the collection. That work continues. 
While this research was proceeding, beginning in late 2017, we also engaged with officials in several countries, including Egypt and Iraq, to open a dialog regarding items that likely originated from those countries at some point, but for which there was insufficient reliable provenance information. Those discussions have been fruitful, and continue to this day. 

I long ago made the decision that when our research revealed another party had a better claim to an item, I would do the right thing and deliver such items to that party. We have already proactively made several such returns. 

Today, I am announcing that we have identified approximately 5,000 papyri fragments and 6,500 clay objects with insufficient provenance that we are working to deliver to officials in Egypt and Iraq respectively. As discussions with officials in Egypt and Iraq continued, we also engaged with officials in the U.S. government to determine the best way procedurally and logistically to make the deliveries, and are appreciative of their assistance. We are working to finalize the deliveries in the near future. 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. 

These early mistakes resulted in Museum of the Bible receiving a great deal of criticism over the years. The criticism resulting from my mistakes was justified. My goal was always to protect, preserve, study, and share cultural property with the world. That goal has not changed, but after some early missteps, I made the decision many years ago that, moving forward, I would only acquire items with reliable, documented provenance. Furthermore, if I learn of other items in the collection for which another person or entity has a better claim, I will continue to do the right thing with those items. 

I understand established museums, universities, and other institutions have evolved over the years and developed sound protocols for dealing with cultural property with insufficient provenance. I intend to continue to learn from the collective efforts and wisdom of those institutions, and support every person and organization possessing such items to continue their research into the provenance of their items. 

Steve Green Chairman of the Board Museum of the Bible

Takeaways:

This letter and these restitutions do not adequately address the negligence of the museum's management or the indiscretions of its philanthropists.  Nor do statements like these erase the indelible blemish on the museum's founding history.

Green claims to have unwittingly dealt with unscrupulous dealers without appreciating the importance of the provenance of the items he purchased. Does he want us to believe that HAD he appreciated the importance of provenance he would have walked away from the many once-in-a-lifetime pieces dangled before him?

Green explains that the consultants he employed were overly trusting of dealers, which is why he made mistakes and why he "cut ties" with those consultants. Emphasis on the word cut ties.  Fired? Let go? Contract not renewed? Swept under the rug? Who and When? What does "cut ties" mean exactly?

When he relates only his own story of events, it seems more like he is trying to control the narrative than do anything to actually make amends.

If we look back in the history of this scandal, it took Green an exceedingly long time to "cut ties" and when he did, we didn't see a great deal of improvement in the museum's operational model, purchasing due diligence, or its transparency.

January 3-5, 2011 is when US Customs inspected Five Federal Express antiquities-filled packages shipped bearing air waybills:


  • No. 7286 2809 6729 from the UAE Dealer to the “[President] or [Executive Assistant]” at Hobby Lobby's Mardel’s address.
  • No. 7286 2809 6751 from the UAE Dealer to the “[President] or [Executive Assistant]” at Hobby Lobby’s principle address. 
  • No. 7286 2809 7162 from the UAE Dealer to the “[President] or [Executive Assistant]” at Hobby Lobby's Crafts, Etc!’s address. 
  • No. 7286 2809 7173 from the UAE Dealer to the “[President] or [Executive Assistant]” at Hobby Lobby's Mardel’s address. 
  • No. 7286 2809 7162 from the UAE Dealer to the “[President] or [Executive Assistant]” at Hobby Lobby's Crafts, Etc!’s address. 

But despite this embarrassing faux pas, by May 16, 2011 Hobby Lobby was still sticking to their guns that the plundered material was rightfully theirs.  To substantiate that claim, they had their attorney file an administrative petition with the CBP seeking the return of their seized property, which one can assume by all the lawyer fees that would have entailed, that at least on paper, Hobby Lobby still felt their claim to the ancient objects, was legit. 

As spring turned eventually to autumn, on September 7, 2011 Hobby Lobby was still defending its honor, submitting a supplemental petition to the CBP trying to satisfy the governments concerns about the payment methodology used in the purchase of the antiquities contained in these shipments.

The Supplemental Petition stated that the reason the payments for the order were made through “separate wire transfers was that various original owners were to be paid directly.” This explanation however proves inconsistent with the fact that Israeli Dealer #3’s provenance statement covered almost the entire order and Israeli Dealer #3 was not one of the payees. It was also inconsistent with representations made to Hobby Lobby about listing Israeli Dealer #3 in the purchase agreement “because the invoice is from [Israeli Dealer #3’s] family and the collection is the [Israeli Dealer #3] family collection.”

Two days after the Supplemental Petition on the problematic shipment, on September 9, 2011, still-consulting "Director" of the Green Collection, Scott Carroll, was out destroying mummy masks at Baylor University with washing up liquid.

Nine months after the problematic shipment, on October 15, 2011, still-consulting Carroll took the last flight out of Heathrow bound for Israel to retrieve still more "unknown, significant Hebrew biblical manuscripts", where upon arrival he poured over 1100+ scrolls spanning 700 years, and spent the day looking at someone's private collection of papyrus.



Such were the Green's buying power that on November 27, 2011, and despite an open investigation into their previous purchases, Carroll set off yet again on another international buying trip.  A voyage which would take him from West Africa, to Istanbul, and then on to London, where in addition to making purchases, he met with people in Oxford, in all probability, Dirk Obbink, regarding the Green Scholar Initiative.




Three and a half months later, on March 12, 2012, Carroll, still consulting for the MoTB, is quoted in the Toledo Blade saying:

“I tell the Greens that I trust them to know where to put a store, and they need to trust me to stock the shelves,”
Carroll goes on further to add:
“We’ve been extremely careful to vet everything acquired and are fully aware of the issues and problems,” declaring “I work closely with international and national agencies reporting suspicious items that come our way.” 

The Greens eventually cut ties with Carroll only in May 2012, yet the continued to put their trust in Dirk Obbink, whom they had purchased from since 2009.  Despite terminating their relationship with Carroll, by January 17, 2013 the Museum, had arranged to purchase four early gospel papyrus fragments from the Oxford-based scholar via a private sales agreement.  These turned out to be stolen from the EES Oxyrhynchus collection.  By November 2019, a total of 13 stolen fragments from the EES collection had been identified as having been purchased by the Museum of the Bible through various buying channels. 

Given all that, the fact that Green's press release statement yesterday, relays that they did not get around to speaking with the source countries of the looted material until 2017 is not surprising.  In an earlier Wall Street journal article, also by Crow, the Museum of the Bible's Vice Chairman of the board Robert E. Cooley indicated that the museum's board itself only learned about the government’s six-year smuggling investigation involving Hobby Lobby when the craft company was close to signing the settlement... so again, the year 2017.

Green purportedly did not tell the museum's board sooner because he considered it a Hobby Lobby matter which brings into question Green's statement yesterday about having "acquired a better understanding of the importance of verifying provenance... we developed a rigorous acquisitions policy that would help avoid repeating those early mistakes."

So this more vigorous acquisitions policy applies to the problems in Green's private collection or to the objects from that collection he donated onward to the Museum?

That said, it was around 2017 that the Museum's board hired cultural-heritage lawyer, Thomas Kline, to vet the pieces remaining in the museum’s collection.  One question which remains is whether or not they hired anyone else besides one busy lawyer, who does not have manuscript provenance experience.  If not, then that might explain why it took an additional three years for this next, and I suspect not last, round of at a snail's pace restitutions.

The final interesting statement is Green's letter is his hope that Egypt and Iraq will allow the Museum of the Bible to provide technical assistance, and support the ongoing study and preservation of their important cultural property.

Having (possibly) worn out their welcome with the EES, and having hooked their dreams on folks like Carroll, Obbink and company, Green now hopes that the very source nations their purchases robbed will see their better late than never restitutions and a single carefully-worded, reputation management letter from the Museum's principle donor as a sincere and real attempt at righting several wrongs.

For me it doesn't even start. 

It should not have taken this many years for Mr. Green to own up to his and his buyers indiscretions. He may have been blindsided by his consultants in the beginning, but throughout this process he has been the one to control the narrative.

If he truly wants to earn my trust, and really make meaningful amends, he could start by addressing the degrees of his own culpability, both for his actions (wantonly and  heedlessly purchasing objects without any due diligence consideration) and his inaction, (to get ahead of this, to his refusal to answer researchers questions about where and from and in what time frame he or his consultants purchased suspect material) from 2009 to present.

For now I remain skeptical and as unconvinced as my venting yesterday further explains.

Lynda Albertson

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