Were artifacts forfeited by Hobby Lobby headed to Museum of the Bible? It's complicated (maybe)

Big fine. Bad publicity. That pretty much describes Hobby Lobby's week.

"I'm sure the media just salivate over stories like this," complained a Facebook user who commented on a link posted by a friend of mine. 

Maybe so. But in this case, can anyone really deny that this is news? The basics from the Wall Street Journal:

In 2010, the president of Hobby Lobby spent $1.6 million on thousands of ancient artifacts that he hoped would help build a collection of antiquities related to the Bible.
There was one problem: The items appeared to have been stolen from Iraq, federal authorities alleged, then smuggled into the U.S. from the United Arab Emirates and Israel, bearing labels identifying them as “ceramic tiles” and “Tiles (Sample).”
The Oklahoma City-based arts-and-crafts retailer settled the claims with the government on Wednesday, according to a civil complaint and settlement filed by the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney’s office. Hobby Lobby will surrender the artifacts, pay a $3 million fine and adopt new procedures for buying cultural property.
In a statement posted on its website, the privately held company said its lack of familiarity with the “complexities of the acquisitions process” led to some “regrettable mistakes,” including relying on dealers and shippers who, “in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items.”
The aim of the company, which is owned by an evangelical Christian family, was to develop “a collection of historically and religiously important books and artifacts about the Bible,” to preserve and share with the public, the statement said.

Overall, the WSJ story was pretty tame compared to some other major news organizations' reports. 

Religion News Service (a national wire service for which I occasionally freelance) quoted experts who said Hobby Lobby "must have known it was illegally importing artifacts":

(RNS) Hobby Lobby’s claim that it did not know it was buying ill-gotten artifacts is disingenuous, say those who work in the field and study the ancient Near East.
“Ridiculous,” said Jerome Eisenberg, who has specialized in ancient art for more than 60 years and founded New York’s Royal-Athena Galleries.
“Fatuous,” said Matthew Canepa, a professor of art and archaeology of the ancient Near East at the University of Minnesota.
“No dealer in his right mind would have been involved in this,” added Eisenberg.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post declared that the "$3 million smuggling case casts a cloud over the Museum of the Bible":

A federal court settlement that requires Hobby Lobby Stores to pay a $3 million fine for illegally importing thousands of ancient Iraqi artifactsis casting a cloud over the much-anticipated Museum of the Bible associated with the store’s owners just as the museum prepares to open near the Mall.
Hobby Lobby President Steve Green also chairs the board of the Museum of the Bible, and the Green family is the museum’s major funder. In a civil complaint filed Wednesday, federal prosecutors said that the craft store chain that Green leads had smuggled more than 3,000 items into the United States including clay tablets and seals –precisely the sort of artifacts that would be slated for the museum’s collection, which contains many items donated by the Green family.
Though the items seized by the U.S. government were shipped to Hobby Lobby, not the museum, scholars say the federal case is a blot on the $500 million museum, which is set to open in November two blocks from Mall over the Federal Center Metro Station in Southwest Washington.

Reuters reported as fact that the artifacts had been bought for the Museum of the Bible:

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) — Arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby has agreed to forfeit thousands of illegally smuggled ancient Middle Eastern artifacts obtained from antiquities dealers for a Bible museum headed by its president, the company and U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

But is there really a direct line — one that can be proven — between the artifacts in questions and the Museum of the Bible? Is the Reuters story accurate when quoting the company as saying the artifacts were for the Museum of the Bible? (Hobby Lobby's full statement can be read here.)

A response that Hobby Lobby gave to Baptist Press attempted to distance the artifacts from the Museum of the Bible:

None of the forfeited artifacts were included in the massive Green Collection at the Museum of the Bible scheduled to open in November in Washington, D.C., the museum told Baptist Press today (July 6).
"The Museum of the Bible was not a party to either the investigation or the settlement. None of the artifacts identified in the settlement are part of the Museum's collection, nor have they ever been," the museum said in an emailed statement. "We remain on track to open in November and look forward to sharing our exhibits and displays with the public."
The museum adheres to the current Association of Art Museum Directors' standards on the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art, as well as guidelines set forth by the American Alliance of Museums, according to the email.

Vox reported that the items were "likely intended" for the museum. Note: There's a big difference between "probably" and "definitely."

Why quibble over such a detail?

Because facts matter in journalism. It's important for news organizations to be precise and report only what they know -- and can verify -- in relation to Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible.

Two other questions for journalists: Does anyone know what happens to artifacts stolen by ISIS if people, perhaps representing museums, do not buy them? Is ISIS known for doing positive things with these kinds of priceless materials?

Updated: An interesting opinion piece from The Federalist suggests, "It’s Time To Let Collectors Like Hobby Lobby Import Artifacts To The West."

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