The craft chain Hobby Lobby is suing an Oxford University classics professor over ancient religious artifacts it wanted for its Museum of the Bible, in Washington, D.C., that turned out to be stolen.
“We look forward to finding out more about the origin of the biblical fragments sold by Dr. Obbink,” Hobby Lobby’s lawyer, Michael McCullough, told Artnet News in an email.
The $7 million lawsuit, first reported by Courthouse News, alleges that Dirk Obbink stole 32 items from the Egyptian Exploration Society at the University of Oxford’s Sackler Library and sold them to Hobby Lobby, the nationwide arts and crafts chain owned by an evangelical Christian family.
As the company worked to rapidly assemble a trove of biblical artifacts for its planned museum, it made seven purchases from Obbink between February 2010 and February 2013.
In December 2017, Obbink told the company that he had “mistakenly” sold artifacts from his employer’s holdings in one of the transactions, for a total of $760,000. When Obbink failed to pay Hobby Lobby back—he made just one $10,000 payment, according to the lawsuit—a Museum of the Bible representative met with the Egyptian Exploration Society in 2019. It was then, the suit claims, that the museum realized everything he had sold was actually stolen.
“Obbink represented to Hobby Lobby that he was selling papyri that came from private collectors,” the complaint states. “Obbink’s representations about the previous private ownership of the Fragments and Seller’s Representations and Warranties were fraudulently made.”
After learning that the bible fragments belonged to the university, the museum returned the artifacts. The Egyptian Exploration Society’s Oxyrhynchus collection, excavated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from an ancient trash pile in Egypt, contains many fragments from early biblical manuscripts.
Obbink was arrested in March 2020 for the alleged theft of some 120 pieces of papyrus from Oxford. He was unable to be reached for comment, but has denied wrongdoing in the past.
Remarkably, Obbink retained his job as a lecturer in papyrology and Greek literature in the university’s classics until February 2021, according to Hobby Lobby’s complaint.
This, meanwhile, is far from the only problematic acquisition Hobby Lobby has made.
In 2017, U.S. government attorneys filed a civil action against Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc, outlining a years-long, willful pattern of illicitly smuggling Iraqi artifacts into the U.S. despite numerous warnings, interceptions, and large-scale purchases that were “fraught with red flags,” according to the government.
Thousands of smuggled objects were eventually returned to Iraq and Hobby Lobby paid a $3 million fine.
Last spring, Hobby Lobby filed suit against Christie’s over an ancient Mesopotamian artifact known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, purchased for $1.7 million in a private sale, which the government claimed was imported illegally from Iraq sometime in the 2000s.