BROOKLYN (CN) — Craft chain Hobby Lobby is going to court again, this time to recover some $7 million it paid a former Oxford University classics professor for ancient fragments of the Christian gospels and other artifacts that turned out to be stolen.
Hobby Lobby says it had looked to professor Dirk Obbink while curating artifacts for its planned Museum of the Bible in Washington. Owned by a billionaire evangelical named Steve Green, the store has made Christianity a pillar of its business, perhaps most famously when it sued to be exempt from providing employees with free contraception under the federal health care law.
Since its 2017 opening, however, Hobby Lobby's museum has been plagued by scandal over its acquisitions, resulting in the returns of manuscripts that were smuggled out of Egypt and cuneiform tablets looted from Iraq. Last year, experts concluded that “ancient” Dead Sea Scrolls that served as the museum’s centerpiece were in fact counterfeit.
Hobby Lobby's dealings with Obbink are another chapter in that story. Represented by art lawyers at Pearlstein & McCullough, the store sued the disgraced 64-year-old professor Wednesday in Brooklyn. The 10-page federal complaint notes that Obbink earned a reputation as “one of the world’s leading scholars of ancient papyri" but had been privately dealing antiquities throughout that storied career. As general editor of the Egyptian Exploration Society, part of the Sackler Classics Library at Oxford, the American-born Obbink oversaw the world's largest collection of ancient papyri — including artifacts excavated at the ancient Nile valley capital of Oxyrhynchus.
Those honors disintegrated, however, when Obbink was arrested in March 2020 for the alleged theft of as many as 120 pieces of Oxford-owned ancient papyrus. The school began investigating Obbink a year earlier over his sales to Hobby Lobby.
While the probe remains ongoing, according to the complaint, "to date, thirty-two (32) items have been identified as having been stolen by Obbink from EES and sold directly to Hobby Lobby."
Hobby Lobby wants to be refunded in full, saying Obbink had fraudulently held himself out as the owner of all of the items he sold it.
"The fact that some unknown number of the fragments were stolen renders all the fragments unsalable and worthless to Hobby Lobby, which stands to lose both the fragments and the entire value of the purchase price it paid to Obbink," according to the complaint.
Nailing Down Obbink's 'Mistake'
Obbink could not be reached for comment on Wednesday but he denied wrongdoing through his lawyers in 2019.
"The allegations made against me that I have stolen, removed or sold items owned by the Egyptian Exploration Society collection at the University of Oxford are entirely false," Obbink told the Waco Tribune-Herald. "I would never betray the trust of my colleagues and the values which I have sought to protect and uphold throughout my academic career in the way that has been alleged.
"I am aware that there are documents being used against me which I believe have been fabricated in a malicious attempt to harm my reputation and career. I am working with my legal team in this regard."
In the complaint, Hobby Lobby notes that it paid Obbink more than $7 million for various artifacts over the course of seven transactions spread out between 2010 and 2013. Though Hobby Lobby usually managed to import its purchase into the United States after the sales, it says its seventh and biggest acquisition never arrived.
At $1.8 million, the seventh set was billed as containing papyrus fragments from the four gospels of the New Testament, plus other antiquities. Hobby Lobby says it waited over four years for Obbink to conduct "further research" on the items before he revealed in December 2017 that "he had 'mistakenly' sold the Gospel Fragments in Purchase #7 and that they were, in fact, owned by his employer."
While the store was initially ready to settle for a partial refund, Obbink allegedly told it to hold tight while he purportedly auctioned off other objects, held up by an export permit process. The Museum of the Bible waited about six months before it got in touch with Oxford’s Egypt Exploration Society about the purchase.
Hobby Lobby says Obbink did send it a wire transfer of $10,000 that fall, but no more money ever arrived.
“I crave your indulgence to exercise some patience to enable us get this export permit and have the clients make the payment so we can close this long drawn out issue,” Obbink wrote to Hobby Lobby in October, as quoted by the complaint. “I am convinced that this whole issue will be settled latest by November and if complete payment is not made by then, I will accept whatever actions you decide to take against me.”
Earlier this year, the Museum of the Bible returned 5,000 manuscripts and bits of papyrus to Egypt. The country had “long asserted the items were ferreted from the country in 2011 amid the upheavals of the Arab Spring,” as The New York Times reported in January.
In 2017, U.S. federal prosecutors seized thousands of artifacts from Hobby Lobby, including cuneiform tablets and ancient seals called bullae, saying they were likely looted from Iraqi archaeological sites.
The company agreed to a $3 million settlement and to return the items to Iraq. Fareed Yasseen, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, held a repatriation ceremony at his Washington home in 2018.
An attorney for Hobby Lobby did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday, nor did company representatives. Back in 2017, Hobby Lobby's president acknowledged that his team should have vetted its acquisitions more closely.
“We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” said Green, who is also chairman of the store's Bible museum. “Hobby Lobby has cooperated with the government throughout its investigation,” he continued, and was “pleased the matter has been resolved.”
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