Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based chain of craft stores, has sued a former Oxford University professor, claiming that it paid him over $7m for ancient papyrus fragments that he had stolen from archives housed at the university.
Following all but one of the seven purchases between 2010 and 2013, the lawsuit says, Hobby Lobby had imported the fragments. All were intended for display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, founded in 2017 by the billionaire Green family, who espouse evangelical Christianity.
The suit argues that the former professor, Dirk Obbink, who was dismissed as a lecturer in papyrology and Greek literature in the classic faculty at Oxford in February, falsely claimed that he owned the fragments and lied about their provenance. The papyri, most of which involve biblical texts, are owned by the non-profit Egypt Exploration Society (EES) and had been housed at the Sackler Library at the university. All were part of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Collection, which consists of fragments discovered in the late 19th to early 20th century in Egypt.
Obbink had served as a general editor of the society’s collection. He was arrested in March 2020 after the filing of a formal complaint by the society the previous year involving dozens of stolen objects. The Museum of the Bible has already returned the papyrus fragments to the society.
(According to the suit, the seventh agreed purchase, involving four papyrus fragments from New Testament gospels, were reserved by Obbink for “further study” and were never delivered, although Hobby Lobby had paid $760,000 for them. The professor told the company in 2017 that he had “mistakenly” sold them and that they actually belonged to the EES, the lawsuit says.)
The suit was first reported last week by Courthouse News.
The former lecturer has previously characterised the accusations as “a malicious attempt to harm my reputation and career” but could not be reached for comment.
The Washington museum has been long been in the cross hairs for its acquisitions process: in 2018, for example, it returned thousands of ancient clay tablets, seals and other archaeological objects that had been smuggled into the US to the Iraqi government after paying a $3m fine arising from a related lawsuit. In 2020 researchers hired by the museum determined that all 16 supposed Dead Sea Scroll fragments that it owned were modern forgeries, and this year the institution returned more than 5,000 artefacts to Egypt that were found to have been illegally purchased.