The Iraqi government is negotiating with the Museum of the Bible for the return of thousands of Iraqi antiquities that were brought into the United States by the Green family—antiquities whose provenance is shaky at best. In 2017, the United States government brought a civil action against the Green’s company, Hobby Lobby, accusing the Greens of using Hobby Lobby as a cover to smuggle thousands of illegally looted artifacts into the country under the guise of art supplies. Under a settlement agreement with the US government, the Greens agreed to return 5,500 artifacts to Iraq and pay a $3 million fine. Many in the cultural heritage preservation world felt this was a slap on the wrist.
In March of this year, Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and founder of the Museum of the Bible, announced that the Museum would be returning another 4,000 artifacts from the Museum whose provenance was unknown. This is part of a larger settlement negotiation with the Iraqi government. Although the settlement isn’t final, pieces of it have been leaked to the public, including a $15 million payment by the Museum in return for the Iraqi government dropping all of its lawsuits against the Museum. The Museum is also apparently in negotiations with the Iraqi and Egyptian governments for the return of another 11,500 artifacts with unclear provenance.
But a recent article in the Daily Beast calls out the one-sided nature of this particular deal—if the leaked provisions are accurate. Of particular concern is that legally, if the items were looted, the Museum has to return them. Several of the items that the Museum claims it is “voluntarily” returning were seized last year by the US government. In return, Iraq has agreed to give up all of its legal claims against the Museum and individual donors, likely members of the Green family, and to loan items back to the Museum. The broad sweep of the release of claims is also disturbing as it could be interpreted to mean that the Iraqi government could never bring a claim against a donor at any time or for any reason—even reasons unrelated to the Museum or the artifacts in question. The agreement has not been signed, so there is an opportunity for the Iraqi government to push back against the apparent one-sidedness of the deal. To sign this agreement would set a terrible precedent for countries attempted to get looted artifacts from the Museum.