Henry Wright featured in South Bend Tribune
Candida Moss wasn't surprised to learn the owners of the Hobby Lobby store chain will pay a $3 million federal fine and forfeit thousands of ancient Iraqi religious artifacts the government says were intentionally mislabeled and smuggled from the Middle East.
Moss, a University of Notre Dame professor since 2008, had been expecting it.
"If nobody was willing to acquire items without proper paperwork, there would not be a black market," Moss said in a telephone interview. That black market helps fund terrorist groups, she said.
Moss left Notre Dame this month to join the theology department at the University of Birmingham in her native England.
Moss for several years has closely followed and written about Steve Green, the billionaire founder of the Hobby Lobby chain, and his amassing of one of the world's largest collections of religious artifacts. He's building a $400 million Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., set to open in November, with more than 40,000 artifacts from the family's collection.
Moss is co-author of a new book, "Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby," set for release Sept. 1.
She says Americans should be concerned about falsified import papers because of looted antiquities and their connection to terrorism. If collectors, including the Greens, weren't willing to buy antiquities with unclear records of discovery and purchase, there would be less incentive for looting and selling such objects, Moss said.
Green has been vague about where many of the items in his collection came from and whether they were gathered and sold legally.
He said in early July that the company cooperated with the government and "should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled," the Associated Press reported.
Hobby Lobby executed an agreement to buy more than 5,500 artifacts in December 2010 for $1.6 million, the federal complaint said. Prosecutors said acquisition of the artifacts "was fraught with red flags" and that packages bore shipping labels that described their contents as "ceramic tiles."
Importing Iraqi cultural property into the United States has been restricted since 1990 and banned outright since 2004. Under Iraqi law, all antiquities found in Iraq are property of the state and private individuals can't generally possess them without authorization of the Iraqi government.
What does the Green family collection include and where did the items come from? "We have no idea," Moss said. "They won't tell anyone."
She interviewed Green in 2015 in Los Angeles. She doesn't think he and his family are intentionally buying looted artifacts.
In 2015, Green said some items amassed in the family collection may have been looted or smuggled out of their native countries, Moss said. He matter-of-factly described that as a risk of gathering such a collection, she said. At the time, Green already knew his family's collection was being investigated by federal authorities.
Moss also visited a traveling museum exhibit displaying part of the Green collection.
"We saw a lot of artifacts and we've seen a lot of (additional items) the family has posted on social media," she said. When the Greens are asked where specific objects came from, "there's no real answer," she said.
The Greens have not permitted open scholarly access to the items they have, unlike owners of most museum-quality collections of significant artifacts, Moss said.
The family has permitted only a few hand-selected evangelical scholars to study the collection, and those individuals are hired by the family and sign non-disclosure agreements, according to Moss. That creates problems when it comes to authenticating objects, she said.
The South Bend Tribune sought a response from Hobby Lobby regarding issues raised by Moss. Telephone calls on Thursday and Friday to the company's corporate headquarters in Oklahoma City were referred to company spokesman Bob Miller, who did not reply.
Reputable museums and collectors acquire only objects with a clear provenance and documentation, and make those details available, said Henry Wright, a University of Michigan anthropology professor and curator of Near Eastern archaeology at the university's Museum of Anthropological Archaeology. And museums generally welcome scholars who seek to study artifacts, he said.
Wright didn't comment on specific issues raised about the Green collection, saying he has no direct knowledge of those artifacts.