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Why Hobby Lobby Amassing World’s Largest Private Collections Of Biblical Antiquities Is Troubling

January 9, 2016

Without doubt the most interesting read today.  Here is a snippet.

Almost from the beginning, the Greens made it a priority to acquire ancient biblical manuscripts: fragments of papyrus and parchment, in Greek or Syriac or Coptic, that constitute the oldest surviving evidence of the transmission—the copying and recopying and translating—of the Bible. Most of their other artifacts—biblically inspired artwork, ritual items of Judaism and Christianity, even Elvis Presley’s personal Bible—testify to the Bible’s use and influence and popularity. But the Greens recognized that ancient biblical manuscripts do more than that. These manuscripts provide the best evidence we have for the early wording of the Bible, and the family now owns more than 1,000 of them.

The sudden appearance in private collections of significant numbers of previously unknown artifacts raises red flags for those who follow the antiquities trade. Over the past 25 years, there has been deep concern regarding the flow of illegally acquired antiquities out of the Middle East. The always-strong market for biblical or other religious items means that the looting of archaeological sites is a constant threat, which has typically been controlled by powerful central governments. But in the wake of the Gulf War and the series of destabilizing crises that followed in the region, government controls have become insufficient. We now have what Edouard Planche, a United Nations specialist on this topic, describes as “massive looting of cultural property in the region.” And that leads to questionable acquisitions.

Some scholars, awakening to the scope of the Green Collection in recent years, have pressed for information about the origins and the purchase history of certain items. But the Greens have privacy agreements with sellers and brokers that make the purchase history of many items in their collection unclear to outsiders. This is legal, and not uncommon; most private collectors keep the details of their purchases secret. The practice exists partly to protect sellers who might have personal reasons for concealing their identities, such as financial hardship. But it also protects the unscrupulous.

Consider the case of one of the Greens’ biblical manuscripts: a Coptic fragment of the New Testament’s Book of Galatians, which in 2014 was proudly displayed at the Vatican in an exhibit of Green Collection items. While touring the exhibit, Roberta Mazza, a papyrologist from Manchester University, recognized the fragment as the same papyrus that had been offered for sale on eBay in 2012. Scholars had found that offering suspicious: The seller claimed the piece had come out of Egypt, which, if true, could have made selling it a violation of Egypt’s strict cultural-heritage laws. When Mazza—and others, including us—asked representatives of the Green family about the provenance of the piece, she was told that they had bought the manuscript in 2013 from a “trusted dealer” who had provided them with a clean provenance, tracing the fragment back to a collection housed at the University of Mississippi in the 1950s. However, even the director of the Green Collection, David Trobisch, said he and a colleague had been unable to locate photographs of the fragment in the university’s records; we have yet to find any reference to it in an auction catalogue; and nobody has been able to account for its appearance on eBay.

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