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Oxford professor is accused of selling ancient texts to Hobby Lobby
A Hobby Lobby store in Laurel, Md., March 22, 2014. An investigation found that Bible fragments in a museum started by the owners of the arts-and-crafts chain had been illegally taken from Oxford University. Drew Angerer/The New York Times.

by Anna Schaverien

LONDON (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- A trans-Atlantic investigation conducted by a Washington museum and a London-based archaeological group has accused a prominent Oxford University professor of stealing and selling fragments of ancient texts to Hobby Lobby, the arts-and-crafts chain.

The fragments come from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, a prized collection of more than half a million pieces of papyrus and parchment dating from the third century B.C. to the seventh century A.D. discovered in Egypt by two archaeologists in the late 19th century. The collection is held at Oxford University and overseen by the Egypt Exploration Society of London.

Thirteen fragments from the collection were found in the Museum of the Bible, a Washington institution founded by Hobby Lobby’s evangelical Christian owners, the Green family. The Egypt Exploration Society began an investigation in June after a director of the Bible museum released a redacted copy of a 2013 contract between the professor, Dirk Obbink, and Hobby Lobby stores for the sale of six items, including four thought to be from the Oxyrhynchus collection.

The three-month investigation accused Obbink, a member of Oxford University’s classics department, of taking a clutch of ancient fragments of the Bible without authorization and secretly selling them to Hobby Lobby in transactions from 2010 to 2013. In a statement released Tuesday, the Egypt Exploration Society said that Obbink had sold 11 of the fragments that subsequently ended up at the Museum of the Bible.

Two other items at the Museum of the Bible that were found to be from the Oxyrhynchus collection were sold to Hobby Lobby by an antiquities dealer in Israel, a spokeswoman for the museum said Wednesday. “The exact circumstances of how those items moved from Oxford to Israel are unknown to us,” the spokeswoman, Heather Cirmo, said.

According to the Egypt Exploration Society, the catalog cards and photographs for most of the 13 fragments are missing, but the group said in the statement that it had “backup records which enable us to identify missing unpublished texts.”

Obbink, an American, has a Ph.D. from Stanford University and was one of the recipients of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2001. He has not so far responded to the claims and did not immediately respond to an interview request Wednesday.

Last year, Obbink told The Daily Beast that it was “not true” that he had tried to sell a fragment of the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, dating back to the second or early third century, to the Green family.

Steps were taken in June to prevent Obbink from gaining access to the Oxyrhynchus collection after his contract with Hobby Lobby came to light.

But Stephen Rouse, an Oxford spokesman, said Wednesday that the professor was still employed by the university.

Rouse said in a statement that the university was working with the Egypt Exploration Society and was also conducting its own internal investigation.

Although the Museum of the Bible maintains that the items were acquired by Hobby Lobby “in good faith,” the institution said it was making arrangements to return the artifacts.

The museum’s chief curator, Jeffrey Kloha, said in a statement to The New York Times on Wednesday that the institution was collaborating with the Egypt Exploration Society and had shared all relevant documentation.

The museum would “continue to assist them in recovering other items that may have been removed without authorization from their holdings,” the statement added.

The museum, which opened in 2017 and cost nearly $500 million, has encountered problems with objects in its care before.

Last year, it removed five Dead Sea Scroll fragments from an exhibit after testing raised suspicions about their authenticity.

Hobby Lobby also ran into trouble in 2010 when it bought a collection of 5,500 ancient clay tablets from Iraq for $1.6 million from an unnamed dealer. Federal prosecutors in the United States filed a complaint claiming the purchase was completed despite being “fraught with red flags” and said that the tablets had been smuggled into the United States from Iraq. The arts-and-crafts chain forfeited the items and agreed to pay a $3 million fine.

Museums in general have faced increased scrutiny over the origins of their prized antiquities. In August, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and officials of the Indian government confirmed that they were discussing whether a number of items the museum began acquiring three decades ago were the product of looting.

And the debate over whether items of Africa’s cultural heritage are better off in Europe or Africa has continued for years.

The Egypt Exploration Society said it would investigate whether any more of the Oxyrhynchus texts had been illicitly removed.

But with the trove numbering more than 500,000 fragments, the group admitted that systematic checking “will be a long process.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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