It was in the air, and finally it has become official yesterday: Mr Steve Green has announced that ca. 11,500 items in the ownership of Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible are going to be repatriated. About 5,000 papyri and other antiquities are heading back to Egypt.
The decision has huge implications, most are positive and other can be positive if some further action will be taken. In line with the character of the family and their business (including MOTB), the statement released yesterday is full of rhetoric with the aim to contain damage: I have enough negativity to deal with at the minute so I prefer to skip the bullshit and concentrate on the positives.
Together with other colleagues (a very long and beautiful list!), we have carried on a campaign to raise awareness about the way the Green were behaving on the antiquities market and on scholarship too since at least 2014. It was a long way, some people and institutions (including academics, journals, and universities) could have definitely behaved better, but I have to say that for me this is a victory for good, ethical scholarship and collecting. The Museum of the Bible is now an important case study on the damages irresponsible collectors could cause, and at the same time this case provides a good model of how experts can fight to push back and change things. Yes, I am bloody happy.
The job of Mr Green & Co. is, however, far from finished. As we have asked repeatedly in the course of the years, and Lynda Albertson flagged yesterday, they must be transparent and provide the list of the dealers that sold unprovenanced material over the years. Their online database is still scanty on that side and some information that MOTB had since ever had been clearly released only recently because it became convenient to them to do so. (I refer to the entries that involve items said to have been sold by Dirk Obbink from 2010 onwards).
It should be borne in mind that some of this kind of information might be at the moment withhold because there is at least one police investigation on going, the one concerning the Egypt Exploration Society papyri theft. The Turkish dealer – who sold at least ca. 1,000 papyrus fragments, including the Sappho Green papyri, to Hobby Lobby as officially stated by Mike Holmes – might also be at the centre of law enforcement enquiries, but we will know if this is the case maybe later on. As Erin Thompson has recalled in her recent article regarding the MOTB fake Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, there are also tax implications connected with the pay-offs Hobby Lobby received over the years for donations to MOTB: perhaps there will be developments on that side too.
The focus now has to move on other collectors who have bought antiquities from the same sources as the Green. For what concerns the papyri, it is well known that a collector in Finland has bought from the same circle of Turkish dealers as the Green. Some of these papyri have been published by academics in academic journals. I am alluding to the P.Ilves, a clearly meaningless abbreviation that covers an anonymous collector. Josh McDowell and a circle of evangelical apologists have been clients of Scott Carroll and his many businesses over the years. There is at least one other collector in Europe who has also bought from the same circle of dealers, a circle that included Andy Stimer too, as we have learnt. Andy Stimer has also sold material to Christian colleges and institutions… The list can go over and over, and comprises the Larsons, who are still donating Torah scrolls to Christian colleges in the US, and have been in business with Scott Carroll.
My question at this point is: are these manuscripts going to be investigated, and eventually repatriated too, by their current owners? Or will the owners be spared from academic attention just because they are not as public and politically connoted as the Green? Finally, what about P.Sapph.Obbink? I received confirmation that the Green Sappho fragments are among the items that will be repatriated to Egypt. Have the current owner and all those who have dealt with this papyrus, including Christie’s and the editor, anything to say about past tales of provenance in the light of these developments?