Missing Papyri Professor Must Return $7 Million to Hobby Lobby
Dirk Obbink didn’t answer the door of his Oxford, England, houseboat docked in the Thames. He dodged the private investigators trying to serve him a legal summons in August and September and failed to answer the official letter notifying him that he was required to respond to allegations he had defrauded Hobby Lobby by selling the craft store $7 million worth of ancient papyri that he didn’t actually own.
A clerk of the United States federal court has certified a default judgment against the famed papyrologist, noting in late November that “defendant Dirk D. Obbink has not filed any answer or otherwise moved with respect to the complaint herein.”
The former Oxford University professor and visiting scholar at Baylor University, once heralded for his amazing discoveries of ancient texts, including early copies of the Gospels and unknown poems of Sappho, now owes Hobby Lobby a full refund.
The resolution of the civil lawsuit leaves a lot of questions unanswered, though. Chief among them: Where are the other 81 ancient fragments that went missing from the Egyptian Exploration Society (EES) library at Oxford at the same time that Obbink, then head of the library’s papyri digitization project, took 32 fragments and sold them to Hobby Lobby?
“I think many of us hoped that a trial might bring to light further information on the whereabouts of the roughly 80 Oxyrhynchus papyri that still seem to be missing,” wrote history of religions scholar Brent Nongbri on his blog.
According to the lawsuit, Obbink worked as a private antiquities dealer in addition to his academic work. He sold Hobby Lobby four lots of papyri between 2010 and 2013, as the Oklahoma-based company invested in an expansive collection that it would use to launch the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, in 2017. The fragments were discovered in a rubbish heap near a vanished city in Egypt in the early 20th century.
A sales record shows that Obbink claimed four of them were first-century copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—which would have made them the oldest known pieces of the New Testament.
In 2017, Obbink contacted Hobby Lobby to say he had made a mistake and mixed up the EES fragments with his fragments he was selling as part of his antiquities business. He promised to pay the money back but asked for patience, as he had already spent it.
At the same time, Obbink told EES he had showed the New Testament fragments to some visitors associated with Hobby Lobby and owner Steve Green’s “Green Collection,” but claimed he never told them it was for sale.
“Professor Obbink insists that he never said the papyrus was for sale, and that while he did receive some payments from the Green Collection for advice on other matters, he did not accept any payment for or towards purchase of this text,” an official statement said. “The EES has never sought to sell this or any other papyrus.”
Hobby Lobby then sent a copy of its purchase agreement to EES, and the library launched a systematic check of its collection of more than 500,000 artifacts. More than 120 were missing, and someone had tampered with the card catalogues and photographic records to hide the fact they were gone.
Seven were recovered from an evangelical collector in California. More than 80 appear to still be missing.
According to the director of the EES, the items may have been sold for millions, but they are actually priceless.
Obbink, for his part, spoke of the fragments in the EES collection in rhapsodic terms.
“For me personally,” he once told a British audience, “working on these texts … was like being shipwrecked on a desert island with Marilyn Monroe.”
Obbink was arrested in 2020 and then sued in 2021. Shortly after that, court records show, he moved to a houseboat named the James Brindley and started hiding from the private investigators attempting to serve him summons.
A neighbor signed an affidavit that she saw Obbink on the boat a little before 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 11, and the summons had been removed from the houseboat door.
“The main cabin door was open,” the affidavit says. “Mr. Obbink would have had to remove the envelop to open the door.”
The British woman helpfully photographed Obbink for the investigators, who presented it to the US federal court as evidence and asked for a default judgment.
Obbink is also facing criminal charges in England. The investigation is ongoing.