As the world’s foremost collector of rare biblical artifacts, Steven Green may have made a deal with the devil - helping to preserve Iraq’s disappearing Christian heritage by allegedly buying black market items plundered by the Islamic State.
Green, whose family-owned Hobby Lobby company clashed bitterly with the Obama administration over federal health care laws that required it to cover reproductive services, is being investigated by Customs & Border Protection reportedly for attempting to smuggle as many as 300 age-old cuneiform tablets from Iraq into the U.S. via Israel, labeling them "tiles." It was not clear if the probe centers on Green, the company, or both, but the shipment was reportedly addressed to Hobby Lobby headquarters in Oklahoma City.
The tablets, which The Daily Beast reported are thousands of years old and inscribed with text used in ancient Assyria and Babylonia, were seized by Customs agents in Memphis, Tenn., in 2011, but were on their way into Green’s collection of the “rarest and most significant biblical texts and artifacts ever assembled” including “cuneiform tablets dating from the time of Abraham, Dead Sea Scroll fragments, biblical papyri and manuscripts, Torah scrolls, and rare printed Bibles.”
"We understand that Hobby Lobby is cooperating with the investigation related to certain biblical artifacts.”
- Steven Bickley, Museum of the Bible
Some 40,000 historical Christian artifacts and objects are being prepped for display in Green’s $400 million, 430,000-square-foot, 8-story “Museum of the Bible,” set to open in late 2017 just three blocks from the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
"We understand that Hobby Lobby is cooperating with the investigation related to certain biblical artifacts,” said Museum of the Bible Vice President Steven Bickley in a statement to FoxNews.com. “The Museum of the Bible is a separate not-for-profit entity made possible by the generous charitable contributions of the Green family and others."
Little is known publicly about this case, and U.S. Customs did not comment on FoxNews.com’s inquiry. But one U.S. archaeologist who has worked with the Greens said the family is very meticulous and ethical about acquisitions.
"In my opinion the Greens would not have knowingly purchased antiquities from an unknown or suspected source," said the archaeologist, a prominent professor at a respected university who asked not to be identified. "However, the authorities are extremely sensitive about any antiquities coming into the market at this time and are critical of almost any trade or sale between the Middle East and other countries, especially with regard to well-funded private collectors such as the Greens. Therefore, they would be a prime target of investigation."
Others called Hobby Lobby’s reported claim that the tablets were hand-crafted “tiles” worth just $300 a piece “ludicrous.”
The tablets could be worth anywhere from $2,000 to $30,000 each, according to Amr Al-Azm, an associate professor Middle East History and Anthropology in the Department of Social Sciences at Shawnee State University.
And calling the tablets “tiles” is comparable to labeling ancient books as tiles, because they are both square shaped, said Eric Meyers, an archaeologist and director of the graduate program in religion at Duke University. He estimated that ISIS reaps up to $100 million a year by selling plundered artifacts on the black market.
Under Iraqi law, cultural heritage is the property of the state, with antiquities recognized as "national treasures” and anyone who removes them from the country is a thief. This can in turn trigger a legal claim in the United States, as well as the United Kingdom, that would allow Iraq to recover them. And it could likewise expose any sellers, dealers, or purchasers to criminal penalties.
American law also criminalizes the receipt, possession, and transport of stolen property. Penalties for violating the National Stolen Property Act can be up to 10 years in prison and fines.
In August, the FBI issued an alert that Islamic State’s looted antiquities were being sold in the American market, and warned collectors and dealers who purchase these objects may be funding terror activities and would be subject to sanctions and prosecution under federal law.
If the smuggling allegations are true, the Greens could argue they saved important historical and cultural religious artifacts from sure destruction at the hands of terrorists in an unstable, war-torn country, Al-Azm said.
However, both Al-Azm and Meyers said buying artifacts from terrorists is both unethical and illegal. Besides funding the terror operations, dealing with the looters also encourages continued pillaging and destruction of sacred sites.
As the Islamic State wages waves of terror in Iraq and Syria, how to best handle the organized and systematic pillaging and destruction of irreplaceable historical objects and artifacts and religious sites is a hot topic among academics, archeologists, bureaucrats and historians.
The Islamic State has become so well organized in its looting of antiquities, the terror group has its own black market network that has become one of its leading sources of revenue.
The Islamic State demands a 20 percent cut of any looted objects sold by locals, regulates access to historical sites, in part by issuing permits and licenses and in addition to performing their own looting, also hires contractors to raid sites, Al-Azm said.
The Islamic State formed the its own Archaeological Administration in the city of Manbij to organize the sale and transfer of artifacts, which it distributes through a highly organized network of approved dealers, Al-Azm said.
“This evidence indicates that the control and sale of looted antiquities is extremely lucrative, well worth the time and financial investment by ISIS,” Al-Azm said. “ISIS is clearly involved and profiting at every level from the illicit trade of antiquities—from their initial extraction from the ground to their final sale and exit from ISIS-controlled territory.”
Over the past few months, pillaging and destruction by the Islamic State has only become “darker and more sinister”, Al-Azm said.
“In what can only be described as cultural atrocities, ISIS very publicly set out to destroy the contents of the Mosul Museum and the archaeological sites of Nineveh and Hatra most likely extensively looting them as well,” Al-Azm said. “These atrocities shocked the world, allowing ISIS to demonstrate its ability to act with impunity and illustrating the impotence of the international community to prevent the atrocities.”
While looting is an extremely old phenomenon, “as old as the pyramids,” Al-Azm pointed out, and has continued over the centuries largely in countries involved in war, Meyers said items stolen in Iraq have flooded the market since the first Gulf War, turning up largely in the hands of dealers throughout the middle east and Europe.
Many other irreplaceable items have been destroyed and thrown away, which is tragic, said Meyers who is involved with American Schools of Oriental Research, which works on behalf of U.S. Department of State to document, protect, and preserve the cultural heritage of war-torn Syria and northern Iraq.
Sept. 30, The State Department announced a $5 million reward for anyone who could provide information that disrupts the Islamic State’s plundering activities.
“ISIL’s damage and looting of historic sites in Syria and Iraq have not only destroyed irreplaceable evidence of ancient life and society but have also helped fund its reign of terror inside those countries,” the State Department announced from the New York Metropolitan Museum. “ISIL’s damage and looting of historic sites in Syria and Iraq have not only destroyed irreplaceable evidence of ancient life and society but have also helped fund its reign of terror inside those countries.”
The investigation has reportedly extended over four years, and in the end, Green and his $3.7-billion company could face civil fines or criminal charges. The Greens took on the Obama administration previously in the U.S. Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. In a June, 2014 decision, the high court allowed the company an exemption to the Obamacare healthcare mandate on religious grounds from providing certain kinds of contraception.
Malia Zimmerman is an award-winning investigative reporter focusing on crime, homeland security, illegal immigration crime, terrorism and political corruption. Follow her on twitter at @MaliaMZimmerman