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Hobby Lobby Agrees To Renounce Smuggled Iraqi Artifacts


A strange story broke late yesterday. The owners of Hobby Lobby, a national chain of arts and crafts stores, agreed to pay a $3 million federal fine and forfeit thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts. American prosecutors say the antiquities were smuggled out of the Middle East and intentionally mislabeled when they were imported to the U.S.

To find out why the owners of Hobby Lobby are interested in antiquities from Iraq, we reached Candida Moss. She's writing a book about the Hobby Lobby owners, the Green family from Oklahoma City. And I asked her to tell me about them

CANDIDA MOSS: The Green family is a devout Christian family. And we all first heard about this with a very famous Supreme Court lawsuit, which they won. And they are devoted Christians. David Green, the founder of Hobby Lobby, came from a very religious family. And they actually donate 50 percent of their profits to charitable organizations with Christian, evangelical missions. So it's not really a surprise that they would be interested in Christian-related artifacts in general.

MCEVERS: And they're most-involved project is something that's about to come online in Washington, D.C. It's the Museum of the Bible. Tell us about that.

MOSS: That's right. The Museum of the Bible is opening in November. And this is really the brainchild of the Green family. When they started collecting artifacts, they did so with the idea that these artifacts would be housed in this museum. And it's this billion-dollar museum that they have primarily funded themselves. And Steve Green, who is the president of Hobby Lobby, devotes about half of his time to Museum of the Bible.

MCEVERS: You reported that from 2010 to 2016, the Green family collected about 40,000 biblical artifacts. What are some of those artifacts in the collection?

MOSS: Well, those artifacts really run the gamut from ancient cuneiform tablets - which is what was seized by the federal government - to scraps of papyri that have early versions of the New Testament on them to a lot of Colonial-era Bibles and American-Christianity-related objects. The rest of the museum is the story of the Bible. And that has a very Protestant and also American center to it.

MCEVERS: And before it was known that federal authorities were investigating the process of acquiring these artifacts, you interviewed Steve Green. He's president of Hobby Lobby. What did he say about the acquisition of these artifacts?

MOSS: Well, we asked him, is it possible that you have illicit antiquities in your collection. And what he said to us was that yes, it was possible. He of course didn't concede that it had already happened. He talked about it as if it was sort of the cost of doing business.

MCEVERS: One thing that you've written and that we know about the acquisition of antiquities like this is once it's known that there's a buyer out there that's willing to buy pieces that don't necessarily have the proper paperwork, then that's going to create a market for such pieces - right? - which in the Middle East can have dire consequences, right?

MOSS: That's exactly right. The black market for antiquities exists so long as there are people willing to buy things from it. So when you have a collector or an institution that is willing to purchase an object that doesn't have proper paperwork or we don't know where it's from - we call that unprovenanced - they are propping up and perpetuating the black market. And that market is something that terrorist organizations profit from. So this is a really big deal. What might look like a customs violation is, in Iraq or Syria, a question of life or death.

MCEVERS: Do you have a sense whether or not this settlement is the end of the story for the Green family, or will investigations continue?

MOSS: Well, I don't know for sure. What I do know as a scholar is that I have seen other antiquities connected with the Green family and also with Museum of the Bible that give me pause, that raise questions for me about where they obtained these artifacts and whether they were legally brought into the country. The problem is that Museum of the Bible has been so opaque about their collection that it's impossible for scholars to get any answers about where these things came from.

MCEVERS: Candida Moss is a professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. Her book is called "Bible Nation: The United States Of Hobby Lobby." It's out in October. Thank you for talking to us.

MOSS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.