Utah State University Expert Stresses Origins Of Special Collections From Hobby Lobby Purchase

May 7, 2018

Utah State University's special collections uses artifacts as teaching tools.

Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts store, bought more than 5,000 ancient artifacts for $1.6 million. The artifacts were imported against federal law. Hobby Lobby has returned the artifacts to Iraq and paid a fine of $3 million. One expert has advice for collectors on how to stay inside the law.

“That’s been an issue with archives and rare books for a long time,” said Daniel Davis, the special collections coordinator at Merrill Cazier Library at Utah State University. “There are some dealers who are very, very conscientious about not getting materials which have been looted. But that’s not all dealers.”

Hobby Lobby worked with dealers from The United Arab Emirates and Israel. The artifacts were shipped in a series of packages, some of which were eventually intercepted by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Hobby Lobby president Steve Green said in a statement that the company “should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”

“Yeah I would say that definitely that he might not have known,” Davis said. “But it’s also incumbent upon him to talk to the dealer and to try and get a good provenance for the materials. In this case, the materials that we have, we have a very specific provenance of where these came from, who they’ve been sold to since 1895.”

What does provenance mean?

“Provenance is the history, it’s a French term, history of custodianship,” Davis said. “It’s sort of who owned this stuff, where did it come from, and who bought it. The chain of ownership.”

Davis said collectors need to demand a purchase history of the items. He says looting ancient artifacts is a problem, especially in the Middle East. Groups like ISIS have been known to steal artifacts and then sell them to make a profit. The artifacts at Utah State have a clear origin to avoid any problems.

“We purchased these maybe 8-9 years ago,” Davis said. “The former dean, Rick Clements, was a nationally known historian on the history of the book. He said, ‘We need something like this to teach the history of book and the history of writing.’ So we bought them not necessarily in order to create a collection of these, but to use these as a teaching tool.”