Hobby Lobby president in hot water over Israel antiquities sales

Papyrus fragments seized in raid (Photo courtesy Israeli Police)

Israeli police, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and American law enforcement agencies arrested five residents of East Jerusalem for violations relating to antiquities sales, tax evasion, money laundering and underhanded, shady sales of archaeological artifacts to Steve Green, owner and president of the well-known U.S. arts and crafts chain, Hobby Lobby.

In an early-morning raid on homes and antiquities stores in the Jerusalem suburb, security forces seized cash, artifacts and other valuable items that implicate the suspects in a smuggling scandal of titanic proportions.

In addition to tax evasion to the amount of $22 million, investigators found that between 2010 and 2014, the antiquities dealers sold artifacts to Hobby Lobby’s president, Steve Green, for his personal collection through a money laundering system involving forged documents and fraudulent invoices and receipts, all used in an attempt to avoid detection of the sales of looted antiquities.

Police and tax authority experts explained that not only were the purchases illegal because the goods were plundered, the East Jerusalem antiquities dealers also supplied fabricated invoices on which the Hobby Lobby president would then collect large-scale tax breaks, enabling him to pay the dealers from the dishonest earnings.

Female bust dating back to the Etruscan civilization (Photo courtesy Israeli Police)
Female bust dating back to the Etruscan civilization (Photo courtesy Israeli Police)

The local suspects — Arab citizens of Israel, some who identify as Palestinian — were in possession of artifacts thousands of years old including a plaster painting fresco from Pompeii, papyrus fragments from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and a female bust dating back to the Etruscan civilization. There were other ancient parchments with Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin script, as well as ancient weapons, pottery, and bronze, silver and gold coins. None had been declared to the IAA, which is a breach of the law.

The deputy director of the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities theft, Eitan Klein, explained that Israel stands alone in the Middle East as a country that exports antiquities legally, as long as the artifacts are not rare.

Israeli law seeks to protect its ancient relics so all artifacts found must be declared and submitted to the IAA within 50 days. The antiquities law has been under revision since 1978 and since 2015, there is a modernized cataloguing system in place. Dealers have to correctly label their artifacts and enter them into an online database with a name, photograph, date and description.

Fines and prison sentences are the consequences for not adhering to this law. The punishment is harsher if the items are sold before being declared. It is estimated that over 40,000 antiquities and artifacts are exported from Israel annually with almost all of them undocumented as per the law.

Because Israel is legally allowed to sell artifacts, Israel’s name is used on bills of sale in other Middle Eastern countries in an attempt to hide the illegal activity.

The Hobby Lobby case has brought the loopholes in the Israeli law to light and demonstrates how it encourages looting, smuggling and illegal trade in antiquities because most artifacts sold by Israeli antiquities dealers are, in fact, looted.

The Jerusalem suspects’ families have dominated the market for a few generations and have a monopoly on the sales of antiquities to high-end collectors like the Green family. The complications are therefore caused by legal dealers operating illegally.

The IAA is taking the stance that antiquities sales should be forbidden in Israel and there are exploratory talks with the Justice Ministry to attempt to amend the existing law. There have been two failed attempts to investigate legal options in the Knesset so far.

The home and business raids, confiscations and arrests of last week could have a far-reaching impact for those who deal in Holy Land artifacts. This latest sting operation comes on the heels of the Israel Antiquities Authority clamping down on traders and the legislation that controls the sale and traffic of ancient relics. But entering private houses and stores in this way raises the bar. For the licensed antiquities dealers, it paints a clear picture that they are not above the law and cannot manipulate it for their own use.

For those buyers implicated in America, it too sends a message that lawmakers and prosecutors are not oblivious to the illicit exchanges that have been happening in recent years. As it stands, the Hobby Lobby owners already had to pay $3 million and give up thousands of Iraqi artifacts when it was discovered this month that the goods were smuggled out of the Middle East and intentionally mislabeled and falsely invoiced when imported to the U.S.

Hobby Lobby issued a statement on their website claiming that they were not aware that they had purchased looted items or that there was any illegal activity occurring.

The Green family are not ashamed to declare their religious beliefs publicly. They are Christians and among the top collectors of biblical antiquities in the world. From 2009, Mr. Green started to build his artifact collection, buying a large portion from the United Arab Emirates, claiming he was unaware that the antiquities were looted and that the purchases were illegal.

On the Hobby Lobby “Our Story” category on their website, the first point of commitment reads: Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.

Slated to be opening their Museum of the Bible after the summer, they will be putting a substantial number of their personal relics on display there.