On 30 July 2014, Christie’s auction house in London brokered the private sale of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to Hobby Lobby for $1,674,000. Nothing was known about this sale until the US Attorney’s 2020 complaint revealed all. Well, to more accurate, the complaint revealed quite a lot. Crucially, it didn’t disclose the name of the US ‘antiquities dealer’ who imported the piece into the USA in 2003, nor of the ‘auction house’ that sold it to Hobby Lobby. It took the Hobby Lobby complaint to identify Christie’s as the ‘auction house’. The identity of the ‘antiquities dealer’ remains a mystery.
While the Christie’s folk in London were busy hoovering up $1,674,000 from Hobby Lobby, they also sold 287 lots through their regular (and public) April and October antiquities auctions, for a total sales revenue of approximately $8,759,876. The contribution of the Gilgamesh sale to annual profit must have been significant. And we only know about the Gilgamesh Tablet because of the US Attorney’s complaint. Perhaps there were more private sales we know nothing about, and perhaps Christie’s annual revenue was many times higher than what can be calculated from publicly-available auction results. This is a problem because many estimates of the overall value of the antiquities market start from the published results of the major auction houses, which, if the Gilgamesh Tablet is anything to go by, might be serious under-estimates.
But Christie’s wasn’t selling everything secretly back in 2014. In July’s Exceptional Sale, with great fanfare, it knocked down a limestone statue of Sekhemka dating to the Egyptian Old Kingdom for $27,001,163, which was more than double the top end of the pre-sale estimate. So, Christie’s isn’t shy about selling high-end antiquities at public auction when it wants to. If the Sekhemka statue is anything to go by, public auctions are a good way of driving up price. Maybe the vendor of the Gilgamesh Dream tablet should feel aggrieved that Christie’s didn’t go public with his antiquity. But then maybe it had good reason not to. The Sekhemka statue had what in the antiquities world is regarded as a good provenance. The second Marquess of Northampton originally acquired the statue in Egypt in 1849-50 and one of his descendants had gifted it to Northampton Museum by 1880. The US dealer bought the Gilgamesh Tablet in a shady transaction in a London apartment in 2003. Perhaps if the Gilgamesh Tablet’s provenance had matched that of the Sekhemka statue it too would have been sold openly at public auction. Unfortunately, it didn’t and it wasn’t.
But in 2014 that’s not all that was going on at Christie’s in London. Lot 173 in its April sale’s catalogue listed a Greek core-formed glass oinochoe with a provenance ‘Anonymous sale; Sotheby’s, London, 11 July 1988, lot 198’. Antiquities sleuth Christos Tsirogiannis recognised it among the Medici polaroids, and thus in all probability looted and smuggled out of Italy. Christie’s withdrew the oinochoe from sale and a spokesperson stated that:
We take illicit trade extremely seriously and work with all the international agencies to ensure that we sell only works of art which are legal to sell. … This is a rare incident where additional information regarding provenance, previously not accessible to our researchers, has come to light. Therefore we have withdrawn the work.
Hmmm. So how was Christie’s working with international agencies about the legitimacy of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet? Nothing on record that I can see. And when additional information about the provenance of the Gilgamesh Tablet did become available, in the form of the US antiquities dealer saying it would not stand up to scrutiny, did Christie’s withdraw the piece? Not a bit of it. The US Attorney alleges that Christie’s told the dealer it would sell the piece through private sale rather than by public auction.
It is hard to know what is more unreliable about Christie’s, its provenance research or its statements about provenance research. And lest we forget, this was the company representing the antiquities trade at a UNESCO-sponsored meeting in 2013. Does Christie’s really represent the trade? Let us hope not.
I have previously written about how in September 2019 US law enforcement agents seized the so-called Gilgamesh Dream Tablet from the possession of the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, though at the time I didn’t say much about the tablet itself. On 18 May 2020 the US Attorney’s Office opened civil proceedings to forfeit the tablet for return to Iraq and on the same day Hobby Lobby sued Christie’s auction house to recover the tablet’s purchase price together with associated interest, fees and costs. The court documents associated with these two cases have much to say about the movement of the Dream Tablet after its purchase in London in 2003, though sadly, nothing much about how it reached London in the first place.
The US attorney’s complaint records that in or before 2001, an unnamed US dealer visited London to view a group of cuneiform tablets in the possession of Jordanian dealer Ghassan Rihani. In spring 2003, the US dealer returned to London in the company of a ‘cuneiform expert’ and paid a Rihani family member $50,350 for a group of cuneiform tablets, which included what would come to be known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet. Once the tablets were in the USA, the cuneiform expert recognised the tablet for what it was, and in March 2005 shipped it to Princeton New Jersey for study and publication by Andrew George, who was at the time visiting professor there.
In February 2007, the US dealer sold the Gilgamesh Tablet accompanied by a preliminary translation prepared by the cuneiform expert to two unnamed buyers for $50,000. When requested, the US dealer supplied as provenance a letter stating falsely that the tablet had been purchased in 1981 as part of lot 1503 at a Butterfield & Butterfield auction in San Francisco. The catalogue described the lot as comprising a ‘box of miscellaneous bronze fragments’ – there was no mention of a cuneiform tablet. The letter further stated that the tablet had been deaccessioned from a small museum.
George’s translation was published in 2007, stating that the owner of the tablet, presumably the US dealer, wished to remain anonymous. George also noted that the tablet had been offered for sale by bookseller Michael Sharpe. Sharpe’s catalogue priced the tablet at $450,000, observing that it had been ‘professionally conserved according to established archival standards’. It noted that the text was to be published by Andrew George. It also offered some preliminary textual analysis by Renee Kovacs and finished by stating that Kovacs had supplied an authentication and ‘clear provenance’. The mention of Kovacs has caused speculation that she was the ‘cuneiform expert’ mentioned in the DA’s complaint.
By late 2013, the Gilgamesh Tablet was in the possession of Tel Aviv resident Joseph David Hackmey, who approached the London office of Christie’s to discuss selling it. He had purchased the tablet from a presently unknown person who had in turn bought it from Sharpe.
The US attorney alleges that in December 2013 Christie’s contacted the US dealer who had purchased the tablet from the Rihanis asking about provenance, but he replied by warning that the Butterfield’s provenance would not hold up to scrutiny in a public auction. Christie’s decided in consequence to opt for a private rather than public sale. (Christie’s denies these allegations). Christie’s then contacted Hobby Lobby about a possible purchase, and in March 2014 a representative of Hobby Lobby viewed the tablet in London. Christie’s provided Hobby Lobby with a specially-prepared illustrated sale catalogue, which included the following provenance information:
Butterfield and Butterfield, San Francisco, 20 August, 1981, lot 1503.
with Michael Sharpe Rare and Antiquarian Books, Pasadena, California.
A.R. George, “The civilizing of Ea-Enkidu: an unusual tablet of the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic”, Revue d’assyriologie et d’archeologie orientale, vol. 101, 2007, pp. 59–80.
The catalogue also included a translation of the tablet’s text and discussed George’s published findings.
By 15 July 2014, Christie’s had shipped the tablet to New York. Around 23 July 2104, Hobby Lobby asked Christie’s to amend the supplied invoice to include the tablet’s approximate date of production and Iraq as its country of origin. Christie’s responded accordingly. Christie’s also supplied copies of the Butterfield’s and Michael Sharpe catalogues and on 24 July e-mailed Hobby Lobby the revised invoice, stating that:
Here is the revised invoice for the Gilgamesh tablet, stating its place of creation and date.
Regarding earlier provenance:
We can safely say it left Iraq before 1981 as that is the date it was sold in a Butterfield’s auction in San Francisco. The person who bought it in the Butterfields sale told us it was part of lot 1503 and that it was heavily encrusted with salts and unreadable. [He or She] also mentioned that at the time, it was said to have been de-accessioned from a small museum, and so in all likelihood it was in the US well before 1981. Unfortunately Butterfields no longer have their consignor records so we could not corroborate this further. It was subsequently with Michael Sharp[e].
Receiving this communication, Hobby Lobby agreed to purchase the tablet and on 30 July paid Christie’s $1,674,000. In September 2014, Christie’s flew the tablet from New York to Oklahoma City for delivery to Hobby Lobby. After purchase, Hobby Lobby transferred the Gilgamesh Tablet to the Museum of the Bible for display at the museum’s opening in November 2017.
In September 2019, US law enforcement agents seized the so-called Gilgamesh Dream Tablet from the possession of the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC. The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet is a cuneiform tablet whose text records part of the Epic of Gilgamesh. On 18 May 2020, the US Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of New York filed a civil action to forfeit the tablet, alleging it had originated in Iraq and entered the USA in contravention of US law. The forfeiture complaint makes for interesting reading. It claims that in March or April 2003, after first viewing the material prior to 2001, an unnamed US “Antiquities Dealer” bought a group of cuneiform tablets from the Jordanian dealer Ghassan Rihani in London. The “Antiquities Dealer” was accompanied by what the complaint terms a “Cuneiform Expert” (since suggested to be independent scholar Renee Kovacs). The Cuneiform Expert recognised that the tablets did not bear ordinary administrative texts but were instead “potentially of a literary nature”. The Antiquities Dealer paid $50,350 for the tablets, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet among them, and arranged shipment to the USA.
Once in the USA, the Cuneiform Expert arranged for Andrew George to study the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet in 2005. His study was published in 2007 (George 2007). In his publication, George stated that the tablet was published with “the permission of the owner, who wishes to remain anonymous” (George 2007: 59). The owner was presumably the Antiquities Dealer. Importantly, George also noted that:
The tablet was reported to be part of a group of unpublished tablets that included omen and liturgical compositions, some mentioning Pešgaldaramaš (peš-gal-dàra-meš) and Ayadaragalamma (a-a-dàra-galam-ma), kings of the First Sealand Dynasty, and to share with them aspects of physical appearance and ductus. I was able to confirm this report from photographs of the tablets in question. In particular, the present piece closely resembles a tablet of lung omens dated to Pešgaldaramaš. Close resemblance is not an infallible criterion for attributing provenance, but it is enough to permit a provisional hypothesis that the tablet published here derives from the same source as the Sealand tablets (George 2007: 63).
So, someone, presumably the Cuneiform Expert, had reported to George that the Gilgamesh tablet had been (or was still) part of a group including omen and liturgical tablets dating to the First Sealand Dynasty and supplied photographs of them. George then commented upon the presence in the group of a lung omens tablet dated to Pešgaldarameš.
Tablets attributable to the First Sealand Dynasty were unknown before 1999 when Stephanie Dalley started studying 474 administrative tablets in the Schøyen Collection, subsequently published in 2009 (Dalley 2009). Kovacs was associated with the Schøyen Collection until 2005, when she handed over responsibility for publishing the collection’s cuneiform holdings to George. George had first met Schøyen in 2001 (George 2009: xi). So, presumably, both Kovacs and George would have been aware of the Sealand tablets in the Schøyen Collection – George definitely was (George 2007: 63). By 2005, if Kovacs was the Cuneiform Expert, she would have been able to recognize the Sealand kings from their names and advise George accordingly, which is what he indicated in his 2007 paper.
In 2013, George went on to publish 10 omen tablets dating to the First Sealand Dynasty from an anonymous private collection (George 2013: tablet nos 22-29, 31-32). In his introduction, he stated that he had studied the tablets sometime between the years 2005 and 2012 and that:
Images of most of the tablets in the anonymous collection were made at the Rosen Seminar, Cornell University, and are published here by generous leave of David I. Owen, Curator of the Tablet Collections (George 2013: xi).
The texts have been made available on the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) database.
The entry for George’s tablet no. 28 (CDLI P431306) is particularly interesting. It describes the text as:
Lung omens, middle lobe; 1st Sealand period script, dated by colophon to Pešgaldarameš.
So, another Sealand lung omens text dated to the reign of Pešgaldarameš. A startling coincidence, especially remembering that no First Sealand Dynasty texts at all were known before the late 1990s. The CDLI lists 77 Old Babylonian omen texts, but none in private collections and none dating to the First Sealand Dynasty except those published by George.
What does it mean? There are two possible explanations. The first is that in 2003 the US Antiquities Dealer bought a group of First Sealand Dynasty tablets including the Gilgamesh Dream tablet, some omen tablets, and particularly a lung omens tablet. He sold the omen tablets and they were lost from view. Meanwhile, an unknown private collector had acquired a different group of First Sealand Dynasty omen tablets, including another lung omens, which George was subsequently able to study and publish. Stranger things have happened, but the second and more parsimonious explanation is that the tablets bought by the Antiquities Dealer and the tablets studied by George were in fact the same ones. They were bought by the Antiquities Dealer in 2003, sold to a private collector, and sometime later studied and published by George. (In his 2007 publication, George does not mention the Pešgaldarameš colophon on the lung omens tablet, but then perhaps it hadn’t been visible on the photographs supplied to him).
But there is more. When George published the tablets in 2013 he stated that they were with an anonymous private collector. Today, on the CDLI database, they are listed as the property of the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. Has the private collector sold or donated them to Cornell? Remembering that George acknowledged publishing the tablets with the permission of David Owen, who is Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Cornell, it seems a likely eventuality
To some extent, this is all speculation. I cannot prove that the tablets sold by Rihani to the Dealer in 2003 are the ones published by George in 2013 or that they are now in the possession of Cornell. I don’t know for sure. Cornell might though.
Dalley, Stephanie. 2009. Babylonian Tablets from the First Sealand Dynasty in the Schøyen Collection. Bethesda: CDL.
George, Andrew. 2007. The civilizing of Ea-Enkidu: An unusual tablet of the Babylonian Gilgameš epic, Revue d’Assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale 101: 59-80.
George, Andrew. 2009. Babylonian Literary Texts in the Schøyen Collection. Bethesda: CDL. George, Andrew. 2013. Babylonian Divinatory Texts Chiefly in the Schøyen Collection. Bethesda: CDL.
The forthcoming February TimeLine auction offers 14 cuneiform-inscribed objects. Only five have a provenance putting them out of Iraq before August 1990, the date of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 661, which placed trade sanctions on any goods exported from Iraq including cultural objects such as cuneiform tablets. The provenances of the remainder are chronologically indeterminate. UNSCR 661 was reaffirmed for cultural objects in May 2003 by UNSCR 1483, which in June 2003 was implemented in the United Kingdom as the Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003. Article 8(2) of the Iraq (UN Sanctions) Order requires that:
Any person who holds or controls any item of illegally removed Iraqi cultural property must cause the transfer of that item to a constable.
Article 8(4) defines ‘illegally removed Iraqi cultural property’ as:
Iraqi cultural property and any other item of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance illegally removed from any location in Iraq since 6th August 1990.
Thus, the date threshold in the UK for discriminating between Iraqi cultural objects legally and illegally on the market remains 6 August 1990. Any object moved out of Iraq after that date must be surrendered to an appropriate law enforcement agency. What about the TimeLine objects of indeterminate provenance date? Unless the company has more information about provenance which it has decided not to make public, it cannot be said with any certainty from what has been made public when the objects in question were moved out of Iraq. The uncertainty doesn’t seem to be deterring customers though. At time of writing, eight of the indeterminate objects had between them received 36 bids. The deterrent effect of the Sanctions Order is hardly appreciable.
The most interesting object in the sale is lot 0235, described as a “Western Asiatic Babylonian Sin-Iddinam Cuneiform Barrel”. Not an Iraqi Babylonian Sin-Iddinam Cuneiform Barrel, which would be a more accurate description, but a “Western Asiatic Babylonian Sin-Iddinam Cuneiform Barrel”. Anyhow, that is not really the point. The point is the provenance:
Ex central London gallery; acquired August 1999 from a UK dealer; acquired by them from an Oxford academic, from a UK collection formed before 1992; this lot has been checked against the Interpol Database of stolen works of art and is accompanied by AIAD certificate number no. 10324-166483.
So, if the provenance is correct, the barrel is first known to have been in the UK by 1999 after acquisition by a UK dealer sometime before then. In other words, the barrel is said to have been in the UK by 1999 at the latest and who knows when at the earliest. There is nothing to establish that the barrel was in the UK before the 1990 date required by the Iraq (UN Sanctions) Order.
The TimeLine object description doesn’t include a translation of the barrel’s inscription. This is strange, because normally the inscription on an object such as this one that has been in circulation for 20 years or more will have been translated. Perhaps it has, and just not published by TimeLine, though the company normally does include translations when they are available (see for example lot 0238 in the same sale). If in fact the inscription records Sin-iddinam dredging the Tigris, which seems likely, the barrel will be one of many that have appeared on the market or in private collections since 1990. Before that date, only three were known. In 2011, Andrew George listed 21 recently-appeared examples, suggesting a probable find spot of Larsa, Adab or Zabalam (George 2011: 99). The most likely explanation for the proliferation of these barrels is that they were looted and trafficked from Iraq during the 1990s, making it all the more important for TimeLine to secure a provenance dating back to before 1990.
But what about “acquired from an Oxford academic”? Who was the Oxford academic? I can tell you now it wasn’t me. There is always Dirk Obbink, of course, who arrived at Oxford in 1995. According to the allegations swirling about (Higgins 2020; Sabar 2020), by 2010 he was selling papyri to the Hobby Lobby corporation, including some said to have been stolen from the Egypt Exploration Society. After 2010, he was also active in two antiquities dealerships: Oxford Ancient and Castle Folio. So, if the provenance is to believed, the barrel was acquired from an Oxford academic by 1999 at the latest, at which time Obbink was in post but a few years before the first evidence of his involvement with antiquities trading. Was he already dabbling in the antiquities market in the late 1990s, and would Obbink, who is a papyrologist, have been interested in a cuneiform barrel? Perhaps not. Perhaps Obbink wasn’t the only mucky-fingered academic active in Oxford at the time. And remember, ‘Oxford academic’ doesn’t necessarily mean a University of Oxford academic. I know many academics living in Oxford who are not employed by the University of Oxford. Perhaps it was one of them.
George, Andrew (ed.), 2011. Cuneiform Royal Inscriptions and Related Texts in the Schøyen Collection (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 17). Bethesda: CDL.
I have just noticed that in June 2019 Cornell University’s Jonathan and Jeannette Rosen Cuneiform Tablet Collection (CUNES Collection) was closed permanently. At the time of its closure, the collection was said to consist of approximately 10,000 cuneiform-inscribed objects. The announcement stated that “in the 20 years the cuneiform tablet collection was at Cornell, it was studied by dozens of scholars and has led to over 3 dozen books and articles, with more in press”. It didn’t say why the CUNES Collection was being closed.
The CUNES Collection was established in the early 2000s (or, if the announcement is accurate, in 1999) by a donation of possibly 1,500 cuneiform objects made by the collector Jonathan Rosen, with further donations in view (D’Arcy 2003). Many had been in the possession of Rosen since at least 1997 (Mayr 2007: ix; Owen 2007: vii), and Cornell’s acceptance of the tablets was dependent upon Rosen’s assurance of legal acquisition (Gottlieb and Meier 2003). Cornell used the donation to create the Jonathan and Jeannette Rosen Ancient Near Eastern Studies Seminar in the Department of Near Eastern Studies under the curatorship of David I. Owen, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. Its mission was to house the tablets and facilitate their study. Rosen financed the creation of research and technical support positions (Owen 2007: viii). The CUNES Collection continued to grow in size after its establishment, as shown in the table below from its website statements. By 2013, it was reported to comprise approximately 10,000 objects (Felch 2013), so it must have reached its 2019 size sometime between 2011 and 2013.
Number of objects
The CUNES Collection has been entered into the database of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI). The CDLI database records 10,435 CUNES cuneiform objects, the overwhelming majority comprising clay tablets. Just under half that number (4,973) have been published. Of the remainder, 670 are marked as “unpublished assigned”, meaning that their study and publication is planned or ongoing, and 4,792 are marked as “unpublished unassigned”, meaning that there are no immediate plans for their publication.
The CDLI database provides “provenience” information for 4,061 objects, though the term “provenience” is used in relation to the name of an ancient settlement, not always its modern location. Many of the ancient settlements are known only from references in the cuneiform texts themselves and their actual locations remain a mystery. As this next table shows, 15 settlements are named as provenience. Most of them are believed to be situated within the boundaries of Iraq. One obvious exception is the Syrian site of Ebla.
Number of objects
Adab (modern Bismaya)
Du-Enlila (location unknown)
Dūr-Abī-ēšuḫ (location unknown)
Ebla (modern Tell Mardikh)
Ešnunna (modern Tell Asmar)
Garšana (location unknown)
Girsu (modern Tello)
Irisaĝrig (location unknown)
Isin (modern Bahriyat)
KI.AN (location unknown)
Larsa (modern Tell as-Senkereh)
Nippur (modern Nuffar)
Puzriš-Dagan (modern Drehem)
Šuruppak (modern Fara)
Umma (modern Tell Jokha)
There is no record of how the objects reached Rosen or when they left Iraq. Assyriologists working on CUNES objects have occasionally claimed that they “derive from clandestine collections”, were “illicitly excavated”, or “come from illicit excavations”. I could give references but I am trying to spare scholarly blushes. David Owen is usually more circumspect, suggesting for example that the tablets have an unclear or suspect pedigree (Owen 2013a: 336). Sometimes he is less guarded, writing that the tablets “were evidently the product of clandestine excavations in Iraq sometime during the last [i.e. twentieth] century” (Owen and Mayr 2007: 1). Other knowledgeable Assyriologists have expressed their opinions that many of the CUNES objects were “looted after 1991” or “discovered through illicit excavations”. I cannot verify any of these allegations as I am not privy to any kind of provenance documentation. Other than the fact that the tablets were acquired from Jonathan Rosen, Cornell has consistently refused to release any information about their ownership histories. This active censorship of important evidence relating to the provenance and ultimately the legitimacy of the CUNES objects is surprising and regrettable in an academic context.
In 2001, US Customs in Newark intercepted and confiscated a shipment containing 302 cuneiform tablets en route to the Sumer Gallery of New York from Bin Jassim Transglobal of Dubai (Studevent-Hickman 2018). In 2010 the tablets were returned to the possession of Iraq. After study and publication (with the permission of the Director General of Iraqi Museums), 145 of the tablets were shown to be part of an Ur III (2100-2000 BC) archive belonging to a man named Aradmu, discovered at a presently unknown site somewhere in the vicinity of Nippur. These 145 tablets confiscated by US Customs comprise only one part of a larger archive, which includes a further 224 tablets in the CUNES Collection (Studevent-Hickman 2018: 4). Of the 197 CUNES Nippur objects registered on the CDLI database, only eight have been published, and a further 16 are marked “unpublished unassigned”, mainly dating to the Middle Babylonian (1400-1100 BC) period. The remaining 173 objects, all dating to the Ur III period, are marked “unpublished assigned”. Presumably they constitute the matching part of the Aradmu archive confiscated by US Customs in 2001.
The gradual increase in size of the CUNES Collection from the date of its establishment through to 2013 is evidence that Rosen continued to donate material over a prolonged period of 14 years. Perhaps he was making intermittent donations for his own financial reasons, or perhaps he was continuing to acquire material on the market and passing it on to Cornell. Behind the numbers, the evidence suggests that Rosen was indeed continuing to be active on the market. By 2013, the CUNES Collection had acquired at least 89 tablets from the site of Irisaĝrig (Owen 2013b: 3), and in 2020 the CDLI listed at least 92 Irisaĝrig tablets in its possession. Jordanian customs confiscated 167 Irisaĝrig tablets in 2003, but tablets from Irisaĝrig did not start appearing on the international market until 2004 (Viano 2019: 49; Molina 2013: 72). Thus, it seems likely that Rosen and then Cornell could only have acquired Irisaĝrig tablets sometime after 2003, at least four years after the establishment of the CUNES Collection. Owen himself has confirmed this fact, writing in 2013 that the Irisaĝrig tablets he was publishing had only appeared over the preceding eight years (Owen 2013a: 28).
Rosen’s initial donation to Cornell was said to be associated with a significant tax break (D’Arcy 2003). Customs documents obtained by Benjamin Studevent-Hickman under the Freedom of Information Act dating to 2004 but reporting an investigation opened in 2001 recorded an import of 1,679 tablets valued in total at less than $50,000, which secured a $900,000 tax deduction when they were donated to Cornell (Studevent-Hickman 2018: 212-213). The name of the donor was redacted but subsequently revealed to be Rosen (Felch 2013). The investigation concluded that any allegations of wrongful import were unsubstantiated. Based on the evidence of the customs documents, a rough calculation suggests that Rosen purchased each tablet for $30 and donated it to Cornell for an appraised value of $536. Multiplying up, he could have bought the entire CUNES collection of 10,435 objects for about $313,000 and donated them to Cornell for a tax deduction worth $5.6 million. Writing about the Green family’s Hobby Lobby tax deduction schemes, Candida Moss and Joel Baden (2017: 24) state that “the magic ratio for the Greens was 1:3: for a given investment to be financially viable, they had to be able to write it off at three times the amount that they purchased it for”. If the figures suggested for his donations to Cornell are anywhere near correct, Rosen was working to a ratio of 1:18. Some of his profit was ploughed back into Cornell for research support, though presumably that too would be tax deductible.
In November 2013, Rosen’s attorney was reported as saying that Rosen had always intended that the tablets should reside permanently in a public institution for scholarly research (Felch 2013). But it seems that Cornell was planning on returning the CUNES objects to Iraq (Felch 2013). At about the same time, David Owen wrote in apparent contradiction of Rosen’s attorney that the plan had always been for the tablets to be returned (he used the word donated) to Iraq once they had been conserved and published (Owen 2013: 352). Not surprising really. Once Rosen had extracted what money he could from the tax system and Owen and his colleagues had extracted the historical information of the texts, why would Cornell want to pay in perpetuity for the curation and conservation of the tablets? Better to give them back to Iraq and let the Iraqi taxpayer pay. But where is the justice in that? The return of the tablets alone, shorn as they are of their monetary and informational values, cannot compensate Iraq for the losses caused by their removal (Brodie 2020). Surely the beneficiaries should be prepared to share some of their profits with Iraq, which is after all the ultimate loser in this dubious business. If Cornell really is planning to return the tablets, at the very least it should make a financial contribution towards the long-term costs of storage once the tablets are back in Iraq. But what would be an appropriate sum of money?
Negotiations are currently under way between Hobby Lobby and Iraq over the return of 6,500 cuneiform objects (MOTB 2020; Brodie 2020). In a welcome precedent, part of the plan is for Hobby Lobby to provide financial support for the ongoing study and conservation of cultural objects, rumoured to be in the region of $15 million (Moss 2020). How exactly that money might be spent is yet to be determined. My own opinion is that it should be used to establish a trust fund for the future financial support of Iraqi cuneiform scholarship. But the point is that for 6,500 tablets, Hobby Lobby has judged appropriate recompense for losses suffered by Iraq to be $15 million, or about $2,300 for each tablet. Applying the same valuation to the 10,435 CUNES tablets, it would imply that Cornell might choose to pay Iraq $24 million. That is a lot of money. Perhaps Rosen might want to help out.
Brodie, Neil. 2020. Restorative justice? Questions arising out of the Hobby Lobby return of cuneiform tablets to Iraq, Revista Memória em Rede 12: 87-109.
D’Arcy, David. 2003. Collector gets tax break for donating cylinder seals to university, Art Newspaper, no. 139, September: 5.
Felch, Jason. 2013. Cornell to return 10,000 ancient tablets to Iraq, Los Angeles Times, 3 November.
Gottlieb, Martin and Barry Meier. 2003. Ancient art at Met raises old ethical questions, New York Times, 2 August.
Mayr, Rudolf. 2007. Acknowledgements, in David I. Owen and Rudolf H. Mayr, The Garšana Archives, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology. Volume 3), ix-x. Bethesda: CDL Press.
Molina, Manuel. 2013. On the location of Irisaĝrig, in Steven Garfinkle and Manuel Molina(eds), From the 21st Century BC to the 21st Century AD, 59-88. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
Moss, Candida. 2020. Is Iraq getting screwed in a looted treasures deal with Hobby Lobby? Daily Beast, 27 August
Moss, Candida and Joel Baden. 2017. Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
MOTB. 2020. Statement on past acquisitions, Museum of the Bible, press release, 26 March.
Owen, David. 2007. Acknowledgments, in D.I. Owen and R.H. Mayr, The Garšana Archives, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology. Volume 3), vii-ix. Bethesda: CDL Press.
Owen, David. 2013a. Cuneiform Texts Primarily from Iri-Saĝrig/Āl-Šarrākī and the History of the Ur III Period. Volume 1: Commentary and Indexes, (NISABA 15). Bethesda: CDL Press.
Owen, David. 2013b. Cuneiform Texts Primarily from Iri-Saĝrig/Āl-Šarrākī and the History of the Ur III Period. Volume 2: Catalogues and Texts, (NISABA 15). Bethesda: CDL Press.
Owen, David I. and Rudolf H. Mayr. 2007. The Garšana Archives, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology. Volume 3). Bethesda: CDL Press.
Studevent-Hickman, Benjamin. 2018. Sumerian Texts from Ancient Iraq: From Ur III to 9/11. Atlanta: Lockwood Press.
Viano, Maurizio. 2019. On the location of Irisaĝrig once again, Journal of Cuneiform Studies 71, 35-52
TimeLine Auctions has been doing a brisk trade in Iraqi cuneiform tablets this year. In its February sale, it offered and sold 14 cuneiform-inscribed objects for a total of £38,088 at an average price of £2,721. In its June sale, it offered 20 objects, selling 18 for a total of £36,810 at an average price of £2,045. A further 10 objects are offered in its forthcoming September sale. The tablets generally are of singular interest and look to be derived from one or more private collections. Provenance descriptions are vague as usual, usually anonymous, though often providing a date range to indicate the approximate timing of an object’s arrival in a private collection outside Iraq. The dating breakdown for 43 objects is as follows:
Number of objects
Late 1980s–early 1990s
Provenances can be invented and fabricated, but taking these TimeLine provenance dates at face value, only two objects can be placed outside Iraq before 6 August 1990, the date of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 661. UNSCR 661 placed a trade embargo upon Iraqi goods, including cultural objects, and the embargo on cultural objects is still in force. It was reaffirmed in May 2003 by UNSCR 1483. Article 7 of UNSCR 1483 specifically states that the trade in Iraqi cultural objects would be prohibited when ‘reasonable suspicion exists that they have been illegally removed’ from Iraq since the adoption of UNSCR 661. On 14 June 2003, UNSCR 1483 was implemented in the United Kingdom as the Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003. Article 8(2) of the Iraq (UN Sanctions) Order requires that:
Any person who holds or controls any item of illegally removed Iraqi cultural property must cause the transfer of that item to a constable.
Article 8(4) defines ‘illegally removed Iraqi cultural property’ as:
Iraqi cultural property and any other item of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance illegally removed from any location in Iraq since 6th August 1990.
Thus the date threshold in the UK for discriminating between Iraqi cultural objects legally and illegally on the market remains 6 August 1990. Any objects moved out of Iraq after that date must be surrendered to an appropriate law enforcement agency.
The TimeLine tablets that cannot definitively be placed outside Iraq before 6 August 1990 (all but two) were quite obviously not surrendered to law enforcement, presumably because it was impossible to prove that they actually did move out of Iraq after that date (which isn’t to say that they didn’t). Thus unless TimeLine has documentation with more precise dating information that it has decided not to share, the provenance dates provided for most objects straddle the 6 August 1990 threshold and are useless for determining the legitimacy of a piece according to UK law. Perhaps the objects concerned did all leave Iraq before 6 August 1990 – there is no way of knowing.
Having said that, three objects do look particularly suspect. The first is lot 259 sold for £16,000 in June 2020 with a provenance dated to the late 1980s-early 1990s. It is a rare Jemdet Nasr pictographic tablet that according to its provenance was published in 2016 by Salvatore F. Monaco as no. 131 in Archaic Cuneiform Tablets From Private Collections. Monaco commented that the texts published therein had been taken from photographs of tablets sold on the Internet that:
all come from Illicit excavations, which, although carried out by looters since the middle of the nineteenth century, had recently attained, as a consequence of the political situation, an unprecedented level of growth (Monaco 2016: 1).
The second is lot 242 sold for £2,800 in June 2020 with a provenance dated to the late 1980s-early 1990s. It is a New Babylonian foundation brick from Larsa carrying an inscription of Nebuchadnezzar. Nearly a decade ago now, I drew attention to similar bricks appearing on the market, showing how they had been cut down from their original size, presumably to facilitate transport (Brodie 2011: 125-126). Since then, I have been sporadically monitoring the market and I have now logged more than 30 examples of similar cut-down bricks. Although some have unconfirmed provenance dates stretching back to the 1960s, none was documented publicly before 2003 and the suspicion persists that these bricks were all looted from Larsa in the early 2000s.
Finally, there is lot 175 in the forthcoming September 2020 sale, which is a large Ur III administrative tablet attributed to Adad-tillati of the site of Garšana. There is no date included in the provenance description. Garšana is notorious as a site looted sometime during the 1990s and the source of a large archive of Adad-tillati tablets, most of which are in the possession of Cornell University (Owen and Mayr 2007; Molina 2020: 325-327).
The sale of these three objects calls into question TimeLine’s due diligence. If I can discover suspicious uncertainties about their provenance, anyone can. Does TimeLine simply take the consignor’s word at face value, or does it conduct its own provenance research or validation? Apparently, it leaves responsibility (and any culpability) with the (anonymous) consignor. In its extremely small print terms and conditions, TimeLine has this to say:
TimeLine do not make or give any guarantee, warranty or representation or undertake any duty of care in relation to the description, illustrations or photographs of any Lot, including condition, quality, provenance, authenticity, background, style, period, age, origin, value and estimated selling price. TimeLine undertakes no obligation to examine, investigate or carry out any tests either in sufficient depth or at all to establish the accuracy or otherwise of any description or opinions given by TimeLine whether in the catalogue or elsewhere.
No guarantee or duty of care regarding provenance. Caveat emptor. The small print continues:
in submitting any Lot for sale, the Seller warrants and represents to TimeLine the matters set out in the Property Acceptance/Receipt and Seller’s statement of provenance.
That is the summary of TimeLine’s due diligence: requesting the consignor to sign off on provenance. TimeLine is protecting itself but not the buyer.
Contrast TimeLine’s policy of absent due diligence to the more proactive one advocated by the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) in its code of conduct:
Members undertake to carry out Due Diligence, as set out under this Code, to ensure, as far as they are able, that objects in which they trade were not stolen from excavations, architectural monuments, public institutions or private property and are lawfully on the market for sale.
Members will make all reasonable enquiries to ascertain earlier ownership history of any object they are considering purchasing, mindful that the illicit removal of archaeological objects from their original context is damaging to our knowledge and understanding of the past.
The ADA subscribes to the tenets of the Hague Convention and will pay particular attention to items that may have originated from conflict zones.
In these instances further documentation should be sought from the seller demonstrating they have been in circulation outside the conflict zone prior to conflict.
The ADA is also governed by the following: Objects originating from Syria are subject to restrictions as required by (EU) Council Regulation No. 1332/2013 of 13 December 2013 amending (EU) Council Regulation No. 36/2012 of 18 January 2012 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Syria. The Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003 prohibits the importation or exportation of any cultural property illegally removed from Iraq since 6 August 1990.
Thus for objects from Iraq, the ADA requires its members to seek ‘further documentation’ supporting an object’s legitimacy, not simply to secure a warranty. TimeLine is not a member of the ADA and so is not in contravention of the ADA’s code. TimeLine is a member of the Association of International Dealers (AIAD), which states in its own more limited code of conduct:
4. PROVENANCE. The Member agrees to maintain full and accurate records of relevant sales and purchases. Provenance of any item offered for sale is to be established to the extent that this is reasonably achievable, and the description thereof is to be as full and accurate as possible.
8. The Member agrees not knowingly to deal in any cultural objects that have left Iraq after 6/8/90, in compliance with The Iraq (U.N. Sanctions) Order 2003 (S.I. 2003/1519).
According to its small print terms and conditions, TimeLine interprets ‘reasonably achievable’ as meaning nothing at all. And if it isn’t actively looking for evidence of illegal trading it will not find it and cannot knowingly deal in cultural objects that have left Iraq since 6 August 1990, even if they have. This looks a lot like wilful avoidance of disagreeable and commercially damaging evidence of wrongdoing. It casts doubt upon the integrity of TimeLine, and because it is in full accord with the AIAD code of conduct, upon the AIAD itself.
All lots with an upper estimate value of £1,000 and above, and all Western Asiatic lots are searched against the Art Loss Register database.
So, all these cuneiform tablets (Western Asiatic lots) will have been searched against the ALR database. This is necessary but not sufficient provenance research. ALR certificates state that they do not provide a clean bill of health for antiquities, merely that searched antiquities have not been reported stolen. For looted antiquities, clandestinely excavated, that can never be the case. For cuneiform tablets of the type being discussed here, a search is practically worthless. it obviously failed to uncover anything untoward about the three suspect objects I have highlighted. So the prominent placement of the ALR logo, while technically and legally correct, might give the impression to a naïve customer that the provenance of an object being offered for sale has been well researched, which is not in fact the case. The logo provides the appearance but not the substance of appropriate due diligence. It does more to protect TimeLine’s reputation than it does to ensure its commercial probity. It remains the case that the ALR needs to reconsider its association with a company openly failing to conduct its own provenance research and placing itself outside generally accepted standards of professional practice as advertised by the ADA.
If any or all of the cuneiform tablets offered by TimeLine were taken from Iraq after 6 August 1990, which seems possible if not likely, it demonstrates how after a period of time spent languishing in anonymous private collections they can be sold openly without fear of any police or legal action. The objects are in effect ‘gray’, as in Mackenzie and Yates’ second sense of the term. Three are very dark gray indeed – almost black.
Brodie, Neil, 2011. Academic involvement in the market in Iraqi antiquities, in Crime in the Art and Antiquities World: Illegal Trafficking in Cultural Property, edited by Stefano Manacorda and Duncan Chappell. New York: Springer, 117-133.
Molina, Manuel, 2020. The looting of Ur III tablets after the Gulf Wars, in Dealing with Antiquity: Past, Present & Future, edited by Walter Sommerfeld. Münster: Ugarit, 323-352.
Monaco Salvatore F., 2016. Archaic Cuneiform Tablets From Private Collections, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 31). Bethesda: CDL.
Owen, David I. and Rudolf H. Mayr, 2007. The Garšana Archives, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 3). Bethesda: CDL.
There is a lot of public money being spent these days on capacity building projects designed to help protect cultural heritage in the Middle East. I am not too convinced personally that professional training of this type translates well into cultural heritage protection, but at least some people in the area are benefiting from opportunities that were not previously available, so I can’t complain too much. What I do want to complain about is the opposite of capacity building, what I propose to call ‘capacity degrading’. What is capacity degrading? I intend it to mean reducing a national fund of professional expertise or competence in such a way as to diminish the public good – the opposite of capacity building in fact.
Let us look at Hobby Lobby again. I came across a comment published in 2014 by someone in a position to know that the Hobby Lobby collection contains an ‘enormous collection’ of cuneiform tablets, an observation that chimes well with Hobby Lobby’s own claim to possess ‘One of the largest collections of cuneiform tablets in North America’. So even after the US Customs seizures and returns Hobby Lobby will still retain a large holding of cuneiform tablets that are destined to be studied and published by members of the Green Scholars Initiative. The Green Scholars Initiative comprises ‘Scholars from 60 participating colleges, universities and seminaries around the globe’, but there is no evidence that any of them are Iraqi scholars from Iraqi universities. Similarly, we can look at the Cuneiform Library at Cornell University that holds approximately 10,000 cuneiform tablets formerly in the possession of Jonathan and Jeanette Rosen. This material is being studied and published with commendable alacrity, but again without the visible participation of any Iraqi scholars or universities.
No satisfactory account has ever been offered as to the source of all these tablets. They are widely believed to have been moved illegally out of Iraq in the years following 1990, and are now unavailable to Iraqi scholarship. Furthermore, they are being used to further the careers in Europe and North America of the next generation of cuneiform specialists, none of whom are Iraqi. So Iraq has suffered a double loss, first of the tablets themselves, and then of the intellectual or cultural capital that the tablets engender. Hopefully the next generation of Iraqi specialists is being trained elsewhere. I don’t know. Otherwise, going forward, Iraqi universities might struggle to re-establish themselves as international centres of excellence in the field of cuneiform studies, which is after all the study of Iraq’s history. There will be a long-term loss to the cultural and intellectual life of Iraq, a diminishment of the same public good that capacity building projects are intended to enhance. Thus while projects such as the British Museum’s Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme, run in collaboration with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, are busy building capacity, other institutions are just as busily degrading it. Governments and their taxpayers might be excused for asking why their capacity building efforts are being undermined in this way.
Social and mainstream media are alight with speculation and anger after the release last week of an agreement between the US District Court Eastern District of New York and Hobby Lobby in answer to a complaint filed against Hobby Lobby by the Court. In short, the Court alleged that Hobby Lobby had acquired 3,450 archaeological artifacts probably from Iraq that had violated US customs regulations upon entry into the US. In the agreement, Hobby Lobby undertook to pay a $3 million forfeiture, relinquish claims to and possession of 3,599 artifacts, and implement a new antiquities policy to govern its collections. As always, Rick St. Hilaire provides a succinct summary of the case. Hobby Lobby is a US retail chain owned by the Green family. In 2009, the family established the Green Collection of objects related to biblical history and has funded the foundation and construction of the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC which will open later this year. Joel Baden and Candida Moss published a good overview in the January/February 2016 issue of the Atlantic.
Many commentators have complained that what looks to have been a large smuggling bust by US Customs was followed up with a civil complaint and fine but no criminal charges. The complaint is interesting in itself as it details the complex and evasive manoeuvres necessary to smuggle Iraqi artifacts into the US, and the roles played by a large and diverse cast of actors. Over this and the next post, I will describe the main substance of the complaint and agreement and consider some of their implications.
According to the complaint, on 15 July 2010 the Hobby Lobby President and an individual identified as a Hobby Lobby ‘Consultant’ inspected 5,548 artifacts for prospective purchase at an undisclosed location in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The artifacts comprised cuneiform tablets, clay bullae and cylinder seals most likely from Iraq. Also present at the meeting were two Israeli dealers (ID1 and ID2) and a UAE dealer (UAED). In August 2010 the Hobby Lobby Consultant met again with ID1 and ID2, this time in Israel, and on 23 August reported back to the President and the President’s ‘Executive Assistant’. He had been told the artifacts were the property of a third Israeli dealer (ID3) and were part of ID3’s family collection. The collection had been stored in Washington DC before being moved to the UAE for the July inspection. The Consultant advised the President that the asking price was $2,091,000 but that the material would most likely have an appraised value of $11,820,000. On 30 August 2010, ID1 supplied written confirmation of provenance from ID3 for 5,313 of the artifacts. It states that ID3’s father had legally acquired them in the 1960s from local markets and that the collection had been moved to the US for safe storage in the 1970s. (The alleged US custodian subsequently denied ever having possessed the material).
While these negotiations were proceeding, on 9 August 2010, at the invitation of Hobby Lobby ‘In-house Counsel’, an invited legal ‘Expert’ made a presentation on relevant aspects of cultural property law to the President, In-house Counsel and Consultant. This presentation was followed up on 19 October 2010 when at the In-house Counsel’s request the outside Expert provided a memorandum detailing the risks associated with acquiring Iraqi cultural property and advising rigorous due diligence. This memorandum was received by the In-house Counsel but not shared with the President, Consultant or any other responsible officer.
On 8 December 2010 the President and ID2 signed a purchase agreement whereby Hobby Lobby agreed to pay $1,600,000 for the artifacts on offer. The associated invoice named ID3 as the seller and stated (falsely) that the artifacts originated in Israel. The President authorised wire transfers of the purchase money to seven personal bank accounts associated with five different people. The payees included ID1, ID2, UAED and two other individuals, but not ID3. Two days after the wire transfers, on 10 December, ID2 asked the President to amend the purchase agreement by replacing ID2 with ID3 as seller. The President complied on 15 December.
The first shipments
UAED starting shipping material through international post in November 2010. None of the shipping labels listed the origin or value of package contents. The shipments were as follows:
Number of objects
23 November 2010
13 or 23
19 December 2010
19 December 2010
19 December 2010
20 December 2010
20 December 2010
20 December 2010
Shipments were processed through JFK in New York. Each package was addressed to the President and/or the ‘Executive Assistant’ at Hobby Lobby or one of its affiliates, Mardel, Inc or Crafts, Etc!. The different addresses were used at the request of UAED. The complaint states that such practice is normal for smuggling cultural property so as not to attract the attention of customs agents.
The seized shipments
On 19 January 2011 US Customs and Border Protection seized five FedEx packages despatched by UAED that had been detained at Memphis, Tennessee. Together they contained 223 cuneiform tablets and 300 clay bullae. Three more FedEx packages had previously passed through Memphis and been received by Hobby Lobby. The seized packages were all described as ‘hand made clay tiles’ with Turkey listed as country of origin:
Actual purchase price
3 January 2011
50 cuneiform tablets
4 January 2011
300 clay bullae
4 January 2011
54 cuneiform tablets
5 January 2011
60 cuneiform tablets
5 January 2011
50 cuneiform tablets
The forfeiture complaint alleges the shipper knowingly falsified customs declarations as to value, description and country of origin.
The forfeiture agreement
On 16 May 2011 Hobby Lobby petitioned for the return of the seized material, submitting in support the provenance statement from ID3 claiming ownership of 5,513 artifacts and a further provenance statement from UAED (dated 1 May 2011) claiming ownership of 527 artifacts – the artifacts that had been seized. On 7 September 2011 Hobby Lobby further petitioned that the separate wire transfers were made to different people so that the original owners were paid directly (in apparent contradiction of the ownership claim made in the ID3 provenance statement).
In September 2011, months after the January seizures, Hobby Lobby received 1,000 clay bullae shipped by ID1 in Israel using international express post. The shipping label accurately described their contents but falsely stated country of origin to be Israel. (If these bullae were amongst those inspected in the UAE in July 2010, they must subsequently have been shipped back to Israel).
On the 5 July 2017 the US District Court Eastern District of New York filed the forfeiture complaint against ‘Approximately four hundred fifty (450) ancient cuneiform tablets; and approximately three thousand (3,000) ancient clay bullae’. The following day (6 July), the court filed the settlement agreement. Rick St. Hilaire has both documents on his blog. The main talking points of the settlement agreement are that:
Hobby Lobby agrees forfeiture of 3,000 bullae and 450 cuneiform tablets, together with a further 144 cylinder seals;
Hobby Lobby agrees forfeiture of $3 million;
Hobby Lobby agrees to implement an internal antiquities policy to govern its collection and future acquisitions of cultural property in compliance with either the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological material and Ancient Art (2013) or its Protocols for Safe Havens for Works of Cultural significance from Countries in Crisis. The policy also provides for training of responsible personnel (including a qualified customs broker) in customs regulations and procedures and the legal and ethical requirements of acquiring cultural property.
Many commentators are angry that no criminal charges have yet been brought against any of the actors involved in the Hobby Lobby case. But it seems a fair question to ask ‘what was the crime?’. The assumption is that the material in question was moved out of Iraq illegally, an act that in the US would most likely constitute theft. The situation in Israel or the UAE, which are other possible jurisdictions, is not clear. (Not clear to me at least). In any event, there is no evidence contained in the complaint to prove illegal export after 1936, the year Iraq took all undiscovered artifacts into state ownership.
The acquisition might also be in contravention of United Nations Security Council Resolution 661, adopted on 6 August 1990, in force in the US since then and implemented more specifically for cultural property on 30 April 2008 as the Import Restrictions Imposed on Archaeological and Ethnological Material of Iraq. Under these trade controls, only objects that can be documented as having left Iraq prior to 6 August 1990 can be legally imported. Unless proven false, the statement of provenance supplied by ID3 acts to supply such documentation.
The role of ID3 in the transaction is interesting. This person supplied the document claiming ownership of 5,313 artifacts that had been in the family collection since the 1960s. If the artifacts are ever shown to have been stolen from Iraq, ID3 would be in the position of having admitted possession of stolen property and supplying a false statement in defence of that possession. Yet ID3 was not a direct recipient of any of the money wire-transferred by Hobby Lobby. Who is ID3? An identifiable person? Is whoever it is a convenient front for other dealers, paid by them to face prosecution if evidence of criminal wrongdoing ever does come to light? But what if ID3 never was in possession of stolen property? What is the offence then? Has ID3 now disappeared, leaving a phoney paper trail in his (or her) wake?
Hobby Lobby wire-transferred money to ID1, ID2, UAED and two other unnamed individuals. Assuming for the moment that the purchased material was stolen and trafficked from Iraq sometime during the 1990s or 2000s, which seems most likely, these five people must be the principal actors in what was an organised criminal conspiracy, moving stolen property through a complicated operation of smoke and mirrors, with at least one paid scapegoat, warehousing facilities, access to material moving out of Iraq, and thus presumably from other countries too.
The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has established that during the years 2002-2012 artifacts from throughout the Middle East were being smuggled through the UAE via London or another European country to Israel, where they could be sold legally as non-Israeli cultural property and receive a valid Israeli export licence. The IAA successfully lobbied for a change in Israeli customs law enacted in 2012 that now requires all imported cultural objects to be accompanied by legitimate export documentation from the appropriate country of origin. The IAA believes this new law has ended the trade through the UAE to Israel. The conspiracy documented here between two Israeli dealers, a UAE dealer, and two other unnamed individuals looks to have been part of this larger operation, with the material shipped directly to the US instead of through London to Israel. The IAA’s knowledge of this operation suggests it would have relevant information about the various actors, but not that any offence would have been committed inside Israel itself. Perhaps the relevant jurisdiction for a criminal prosecution would be the UAE, provided the present whereabouts of the potential offenders are known, which again is not certain. Perhaps a joint investigation between Israel, Iraq, the UAE and the US would result in some convictions, but such collaboration seems highly unlikely in the present political circumstances. In other words, the likely perpetrators of any criminal acts involved in acquiring and selling Iraqi artifacts to Hobby Lobby seem safely immune from any law enforcement response.
Individual innocence but collective guilt?
What about Hobby Lobby? If the acquired artifacts could be shown to have been stolen from Iraq (which again I emphasise has not yet happened), would the President or any other officer or employee of Hobby Lobby be guilty of receiving stolen property? From what is known, the answer is likely no. As a hypothetical, two things look to insulate the President from any knowledge or understanding that the acquired material was stolen. First, there is the provenance document from ID3, which documents the material outside of Iraq since the 1960s or earlier and also demonstrates at least a minimum exercise of due diligence on the part of Hobby Lobby. Second, there was the unexplained and perhaps even derelict decision of the In-house Counsel not to communicate to the President the warnings of the outside legal Expert. Perhaps the President should have been more active in investigating provenance himself. The judge in the Frederick Schultz case ruled that conscious avoidance of knowledge is no defence, but that ruling was made with regard to Schultz, who was an experienced and knowledgeable antiquities dealer. In 2010 the Hobby Lobby President was anything but an experienced antiquities dealer, and it would be easier to construe any inaction on his part as arising out of a naïve reliance upon the expertise of those around him rather than as conscious avoidance of knowledge.
What about those around him? The failure of In-house Counsel to communicate the warnings of the outside Expert remains inexplicable and not much more can be said about it, although he or she never took possession of any material. The role of the Consultant is more interesting though. The Consultant was being paid by Hobby Lobby for his or her expertise, and Hobby Lobby might legitimately expect that expertise to include knowledge of the legal requirements of acquiring Iraqi cultural property and the necessary due diligence when making such an acquisition. The Consultant of course was not acquiring the material for himself, simply offering what turned out to be bad advice, bad advice that ultimately cost Hobby Lobby $3 million. It will be interesting to see whether Hobby Lobby tries through civil action to recover some of that money from the Consultant. But the emerging picture of the Hobby Lobby acquisition is one of individual decisions building towards a collective or institutional decision to acquire what still might prove to be stolen material. It has all the hallmarks of a sophisticated white-collar operation aimed at separating dishonest action from intent, but might instead just be the work of a bunch of bumblers. In this case, it does look to have been the work of a bunch of bumblers – innocent bumblers. Going forward, the agreement quite rightly stipulates the need for a training-backed acquisitions policy. One not so obvious consequence of this stipulation is that the bumblers defence will no longer apply.
Should we be thinking about tax?
Rick St. Hilaire emphasises that the $3 million forfeiture is exactly what it says it is – a forfeiture and not a fine. Forfeitable proceeds generated by the customs violations. Rick cannot identify the source of those proceeds, but talk of proceeds does inevitably turn the mind to thoughts of tax. Commenting on the agreement, a spokesperson for the Museum of the Bible denied the museum had anything to do with the case, thereby drawing attention to what might be a significant material separation between the Green Collection and the Museum of the Bible. The Green Collection was established in 2009 and by 2010 was said to be using Hobby Lobby money for acquisitions, a fact confirmed in the July complaint being discussed here. Hobby Lobby is a for-profit corporation. The Museum of the Bible was established as a non-profit in 2010. It claims on its website to hold thousands of objects under agreement with the Green Collection, though does not ay on what terms. So, the question almost asks itself: what exactly is the nature of the agreement under which the non-profit museum holds material from the for-profit corporation. Could there possibly be a tax consideration in there for Hobby Lobby, and is that what is reflected in the $3 million forfeiture? Rick is certainly thinking that way.
A final thought
Finally, it is worth reflecting on Hobby Lobby’s commitment to implementing an antiquities policy in accordance with the AAMD’s Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art. Guideline III(G) requires that a museum should:
promptly publish acquisitions of archaeological materials and ancient art, in electronic form, including an image of the Work (or representative images in the case of groups of objects) and its provenance, thus making this information readily available to all interested parties.
Guideline III(H) requires for objects acquired without a documented pre-1970 provenance that a museum must:
post on the AAMD object registry an image of the Work (or representative images in the case of groups of objects) and its provenance as well as an explanation of why the acquisition of the Work is consistent with Section F above.
The Green Collection used to claim to possess ‘One of the largest collections of cuneiform tablets in North America’, ‘An array of biblical, classical, and documentary texts on papyrus including several previously unpublished New Testament fragments’, and ‘The second-largest private collection of Dead Sea Scroll fragments, all of which are unpublished’. That is a lot of material with potentially dubious provenances. Will the AAMD registry be up to the task, or will Hobby Lobby be forced to construct its own registry? We must wait and see.