Hobby Lobby sues Oxford professor for $7M over stolen Bible fragments

museum of bible
Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., 2017. |

Hobby Lobby Stores has filed a $7 million lawsuit in the United States against a former professor from the U.K.’s Oxford University who was arrested last year after being accused of stealing ancient Bible fragments from the university and selling them to the U.S. arts and crafts retail chain.

In the lawsuit filed in New York, Hobby Lobby says Dirk Obbink, a 64-year-old professor of papyrology at Oxford, sold fragments of papyrus and ancient objects worth $7,095,100 in seven private sales between 2010 and 2013, The Sunday Times reported.

The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., which was founded in 2017 by the Green family, evangelical Christians who own Hobby Lobby, temporarily displayed the fragments, which belonged to the Oxyrhynchus collection in the Sackler Library.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri is a group of manuscripts that were discovered during the late 19th and early 20th centuries at a spot where ancient inhabitants of the city of Oxyrhynchus dumped their garbage of over 1,000 years. The collection includes more than 500,000 fragments of literary and documentary texts — written in Greek, ancient Egyptian, Coptic, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and other languages — dating from the third century BC to the seventh century.

“Some of the fragments were stolen by Obbink from the Egyptian Exploration Society, the custodian of the largest collection of ancient papyri in the world,” Hobby Lobby claims in the lawsuit.

The EES, a British nonprofit excavation organization that works in Egypt and Sudan which owns the collection, issued a statement in October 2019 accusing Obbink of selling fragments of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, after which the university suspended the professor.

The EES said 11 of the 13 missing fragments were sold “without authorization” to Hobby Lobby and they ended up in a collection belonging to the Museum of the Bible. The stolen fragments included extracts from Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Romans and I Corinthians, according to The Times.

Obbink was arrested last March and was later released under investigation.

Obbink had denied the accusations.

“The allegations made against me that I have stolen, removed or sold items owned by the Egypt Exploration Society collection at the University of Oxford are entirely false,” he told The Guardian earlier. “I would never betray the trust of my colleagues and the values which I have sought to protect and uphold throughout my academic career in the way that has been alleged. I am aware that there are documents being used against me which I believe have been fabricated in a malicious attempt to harm my reputation and career.”

Obbink is listed in court papers as owning a property beside Christ Church, the Times reported, adding that the college’s accounts for last year show that he owes $614,573 (£434,000) under a joint-equity ownership agreement.

The MOTB returned the 13 fragments to the EES.

“The Board of Trustees of the MOTB has accepted the EES claim to ownership of the thirteen pieces identified to date, and is arranging to return them to the EES. The EES is grateful to the MOTB for its co-operation, and has agreed that the research on these texts by scholars under the auspices of the MOTB will receive appropriate recognition when the texts are published in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series,” the EES said in its statement at the time.

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