Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma City–based craft store chain, has sued former Oxford University professor Dirk Obbink, who it is accusing of trying to sell the company ancient papyrus fragments that belonged to the Oxford-affiliated Egypt Exploration Society (EES). In the lawsuit filed on Wednesday in New York’s Eastern District Court, Hobby Lobby said it was seeking more than $7 million—the amount it allegedly paid Obbink for the fragments and other antiquities between 2010 and 2013. The lawsuit was first reported by Courthouse News.
In late 2019, British authorities were made aware of claims that Obbink had stolen the fragments while he was working with EES, an archaeological organization that oversees a large collection of ancient objects at Oxford. That same year, Obbink was suspended from his post as a classics professor at the university. As of this year, he no longer has ties to the department.
In 2020, British police arrested Obbink on the suspicion that he had taken the fragments from Oxford University’s campus with the intention of selling them to the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., which was founded by Hobby Lobby president Steve Green.
According to Hobby Lobby’s lawsuit, Obbink had “fraudulently” told the company that the fragments came from a private collector. The artifacts that Obbink allegedly sold to Hobby Lobby include four papyrus fragments of New Testament Gospels. EES director Carl Graves previously told the Guardian that the fragments are a “testament to Egypt’s early Christian heritage and are early evidence of biblical scripture. We don’t value them monetarily but they are priceless and irreplaceable.”
Obbink later claimed, according to the suit, that he informed Hobby Lobby that he had “mistakenly” conducted the transaction, given that EES was the owner of these objects. The suit did not list the total amount of stolen objects Hobby Lobby had purchased from Obbink between 2010 and 2013, and it did not specify whether it had ever received the artifacts.
When Hobby Lobby tried to recover the $760,000 it paid for the New Testament fragments, Obbink allegedly wired $10,000 but did not submit other repayments. According to the suit, the Museum of the Bible approached EES in 2019 about the other fragments it had purchased through Obbink and later determined that these, too, had been “stolen.”
“The fact that some unknown number of the Fragments were stolen renders all the Fragments unsalable and worthless to Hobby Lobby, which stands to lose both the Fragments and the entire value of the Purchase Price it paid to Obbink,” the suit reads.
Beyond an address in Oxford, England, the documents filed with the lawsuit did not contain contact information for Obbink and did not list an attorney for him. In prior statements, Obbink has denied any wrongdoing, saying that he “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.”
Previously, the Museum of the Bible has been accused of failing to properly research the objects it acquired. In 2020, a National Geographic investigation revealed that 16 Dead Sea Scrolls fragments owned by the museum were forgeries. Two other instances have centered around the means by which the museum bought objects in its holdings. In 2017, the museum was fined $3 million for illegally importing Iraqi artifacts, and earlier this year, the museum returned more than 5,000 artifacts to Egypt that were found to have been illegally bought. Green, the museum’s founder, admitted in a 2020 Wall Street Journal interview that criticisms of the museum’s collecting practices were “justified.”