The enormous collection of Bible-related artifacts assembled by Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, for his planned Museum of the Bible, is now beginning to get the public attention it deserves.
An article this week in The Daily Beast tells the disturbing story of 200 to 300 Green collection cuneiform tablets that were seized by U.S. Customs agents in Memphis, Tenn., in 2011 as they were in transit from an Israeli antiquities dealer to the Green complex in Oklahoma City. Federal law prohibits the plunder of antiquities from conflict zones, as well as the ruins of important historical sites. The tablets remain impounded and an investigation is said to be ongoing.
The issues for the Greens, are twofold: Did the paperwork submitted on behalf of the Green Collection listing “hand-crafted clay tiles” properly describe the objects in question; and were these cuneiform tablets illegally excavated in and/or exported from Iraq?
The article quotes Steve Green as saying, it’s “possible” that some of the artifacts were not properly bought. And this goes to the heart of the issue: The Green Collection includes some 40,000 works acquired for tens of millions of dollars — all in just a few years, beginning in late 2009.
In 2013, I toured the Green Collection storage facilities on the Hobby Lobby business campus in Oklahoma City as a candidate for a job they did not offer me.
Over lunch with Green and Cary Summers, president of the Museum of the Bible, I learned of their vision for a museum dedicated to the Bible south of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., now scheduled to open in 2017. (The museum is an independent nonprofit financed largely by the Greens.)
From the beginning, the Greens’ intent was to anchor their museum’s narrative with historical objects. Their ambitions seemed to me limitless, along with their resources; and clearly, they were in a hurry and learning as they went along.
Forty thousand works in about 40 months; that rate and scale are unprecedented in the history of American collecting. And given their emphasis on Bible lands, including Iraq and Syria, it is hardly surprising that provenance problems are now beginning to emerge.
Henry Walters, founder of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where I was director for 18 years, engaged in an almost Green-like spree in 1902. He bought more than 1,700 works of art (the Massarenti Collection) from an Italian priest after surveying the material for less than a week.
Only years later, with the guidance of the famous art dealer and connoisseur Bernard Berenson, did Walters discover that his newly acquired Titians and Raphaels and his supposed Michelangelo self-portrait were all fakes. But among the fakes were many treasures, including the finest group of Imperial Roman sarcophagi in the world.
There is a clear lesson here. It is inevitable that the Green Collection will be discovered to contain some unpleasant surprises, including looted and illegally exported antiquities, fakes, and many genuine and legally acquired works that they will discover to be of little value.
But in my view, the real question — the one that will reveal Steve Green’s character as a collector in service of the public good — is what next?
The collection entails a set of obligations for the Museum of the Bible that, if addressed properly and in a timely fashion, will put it in line with professional museum norms. All museums depend on academics and must nourish them in return. The works in the Green Collection should be researched by qualified scholars and museum professionals, thoroughly inventoried and photographed.
Those photographs, along with as much of each object’s dealership history as the Greens possess, should be posted online, not only for academics, but as a means for governments or individuals from whom some of them may have been looted or stolen to identify them and make appropriate property claims.
The collection in its entirety must, of course, be properly conserved and safely preserved — including those works the staff does not plan to exhibit, both for scholars, and in anticipation of possible repatriation claims.
This process, done right, will entail significant expense, but just a tiny fraction of what has already been invested. And it will go a long way toward repairing the Greens’ reputation as responsible stewards. As the Walters example suggests, there is a place in the profession for ex post facto due diligence on high-speed collecting: if you can’t get it right at first, make sure you do it right later. Full transparency is also the ticket price for membership in the museum and academic worlds to which the Greens aspire.
I urge Steve Green to announce that this approach is part of his strategic agenda, that it has his full support, and that its urgency is no less than that of his new museum. Should these efforts reveal specific evidence of illegally excavated and/or exported works from, for example, Iraq, I would urge Green to initiate an open, good-faith dialogue with officials in the country of origin and with the U.S. State Department, with the aim of repatriation.
What’s done is done. Now is the time to look toward the future, and to act.
(Gary Vikan is the former director of the Walters Art Museum; he was a Clinton appointee to the President’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee.)
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