ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Since it opened around three years ago, the Museum of the Bible here in Washington, D.C., has faced several scandals over the way it obtained antiquities. Some were looted, even fake. The museum says it has corrected the problems, but it's been a complicated task. NPR's Jane Arraf reports the museum now plans to send some artifacts back to Iraq that it didn't even know it had.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: The Museum of the Bible was founded by billionaire Steve Green, an evangelical Christian whose family owns the Hobby Lobby craft store chain. He wanted to show the book's history and, impact but he didn't know much about antiquities or the illegal market for them or show much concern. Three years ago, the U.S. government fined Hobby Lobby $3 million for lack of due diligence. The company returned to Iraq thousands of clay tablets and other items that had been shipped to Hobby Lobby from other countries, some marked ceramic tile samples. Now the museum's chief curator, Jeff Kloha, tells us they're packing up more pieces to return to Iraq because they can't tell whether they were looted.
JEFF KLOHA: All we have is paperwork and very vague paperwork so I don't know if these were purchases site unseen or if they were viewed before they were purchased.
ARRAF: Kloha's referring to what the museum now realizes are more than 8,000 clay tablets and other artifacts it acquired from dealers in the U.S., the U.K. and Israel but are believed to have come from Iraq. The museum announced in March it would return thousands of artifacts to Iraq and Egypt because it couldn't prove they were traded legally. And then it found while packing up the Iraqi items that its documentation was so bad it had 2,000 more items than it thought. The objects are mostly clay impressions of seals and some incantation bowls meant to ward off demons, nothing showstopping but they're thousands of years old from the world's first-known civilizations. Asked whether some of the items might have been looted from The Iraq Museum in 2003, Kloha says...
KLOHA: We have no way to verify that. There's obviously multiple sources for items from Iraq over the past 30 years. So we have no way of knowing where these came from.
ARRAF: Those are just the small pieces. A U.S. court in March ordered Hobby Lobby to return to Iraq a 3,500-year-old clay tablet inscribed with part of a creation epoch. Hobby Lobby is suing Christie's auction house over that one. Christie's says it didn't know the documents it relied on were forged. Kloha joined the museum in 2017 after the acquisitions were made, but he's been left as one of the people trying to explain them.
KLOHA: It seems to have been just one or two individuals who were, you know, acting as agents and purchasing things for, you know, what was at that point just the idea of a museum. I mean, you can't really say there was a museum even at that point, so there wasn't a policy in place.
ARRAF: That's despite Hobby Lobby asking for expert advice in 2010 on the legality of importing antiquities. The expert was Patty Gerstenblith, the director of DePaul University's Center for Art, Museum & Cultural Heritage Law in Chicago. She warned Hobby Lobby that importing anything of Iraqi origin would be a considerable risk since up to half a million artifacts have been looted from there since the 1990s.
PATTY GERSTENBLITH: There's a lot I didn't know until I read the forfeiture complaints, including the fact that the report I wrote was never circulated within the company.
ARRAF: Hisham Daoud, an adviser to the Iraqi prime minister, tells us Iraq is the victim in all this as antiquities continue to be looted from the country. He says some of the pieces acquired by Hobby Lobby might have originally been stolen from The Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 2003 when looters overran it during the U.S. invasion.
HISHAM DAOUD: (Through interpreter) It's very possible. We know that a huge amount of theft happened from 2003. That doesn't mean there was no looting before that. But after 2003, there was much, much more.
ARRAF: The Museum of the Bible has faced scandals on even more prominent acquisitions, including one still unfolding. One of the museum's prized holdings is an ancient Jewish prayer book used by what was then a thriving Jewish community in Afghanistan. Hobby Lobby believed the prayer book had been in the U.K. since the 1950s, which would have made it legal to purchase, but a museum investigation has confirmed that it was in Afghanistan in 1998.
KLOHA: So, you know, we're still working on the best resolution for that item.
ARRAF: Does it seem as if it's something that you will have to relinquish?
KLOHA: Well, there's a pretty strong legal case for holding on to it.
ARRAF: Kloha won't go into details, but the Taliban, which controls parts of Afghanistan, has been accused of looting antiquities. The museum has become a popular tourist attraction in D.C. But as Kloha admits, its reputation has suffered hugely among scholars and other museums.
KLOHA: It's unfortunately shadowed the museum project since before opening. And, yeah, it's been a challenge. This has been a challenge in the academic community and in obtaining loans from other museums.
ARRAF: In the settlement with the U.S. government, Hobby Lobby agreed the museum would tighten its acquisition policies and do proper due diligence. It's been going through its entire 40,000-piece collection with almost half of it now determined to either be potentially looted or fake. The museum now focuses on acquisitions, which can be relatively easily documented, like early writings on American religious thought. Green has said he trusted the wrong people and unwittingly dealt with unscrupulous dealers. He describes those as missteps that he's corrected. But scholars say the years of illegal purchases have helped fuel the trade for looted antiquities. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Amman, Jordan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.