Hobby Lobby sued an Oxford professor for $7 million after he allegedly sold them ancient biblical manuscript fragments that he stole from the university.
The retail company alleges that Dirk Obbink, a 64-year-old former professor of papyrology at Oxford University, sold them troves of ancient papyrus and artifacts worth more than $7 million between 2010 and 2013, according to The Christian Post.
What Obbink sold to them, however, was allegedly taken from the Oxyrhynchus collection in the Sackler Library. The professor was suspended amid such allegations and was arrested in March 2020 before being released pending further investigation.
“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 claimed in the lawsuit.
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri is a trove of ancient manuscripts that was found at Oxyrhynchus, an archaeological site that lies approximately 100 miles south-southwest of Cairo, Egypt. The group of documents — which contains 500,000 fragments of writings in Greek, ancient Egyptian, Coptic, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, and other languages — was found near where the inhabitants of Oxyrhynchus dumped their garbage for more than 1,000 years. Some of them are as old as the third century BC.
Hobby Lobby exhibited the manuscripts at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., which was founded by the Green family in 2017, who also own Hobby Lobby. The museum has since decided to return 13 fragments to the Egyptian Exploration Society (EES), which is a British nonprofit that alleges Obbink stole and sold them “without authorization.”
“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 a statement.
“The MOTB has informed the EES that 11 of these pieces came into its care after being sold to Hobby Lobby Stores by Professor Obbink, most of them in two batches in 2010,” they added.
Obbink denies the charge, however. “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 said. “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.”