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Craft Shop Family Buys Up Ancient Bibles for Museum

By Joachim Koch. Jun 12, 2010. 4:36 AM.

Topics: Rare Books, Book Collecting, History, Book News

At least one example of the printed word is in great demand even in the digital age: ancient Bibles.

With a goal of establishing a national Bible museum of great depth and size, the evangelical Christian family behind the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores has been spending heavily to amass a collection that has set dealers buzzing in the staid world of rare books.

Specialists estimate the family has bought illuminated, or decorated, manuscripts, Torahs, papyri and other works worth $20 million to $40 million from auction houses, dealers, private collectors and institutions, some of which may be selling because of financial pressure.

The man leading the effort is Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, a private company based here that is a favorite of scrapbook makers, do-it-yourselfers and home decorators. The company, founded by his father, David, in 1972, now numbers 439 stores and has generated a family fortune that Forbes magazine estimates at $2.5 billion.

With money to spare, the younger Mr. Green, 46, has found a passion to complement his vocation, and is working with specialists in deal-making and history who, using company money on behalf of the family, began buying with a flourish about six months ago.

“They have caught everyone’s attention because no one in recent memory has spent so much so quickly on Bibles,” said Dr. Eric White, curator of special collections at the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

The collection now includes more than 30,000 items, according to Mr. Green and his team. Some of those were shown to The New York Times at Hobby Lobby offices in Oklahoma City, including a New Testament papyrus from the second century A.D., a lavishly illustrated and illuminated Martin Luther New Testament and a Spanish Inquisition Torah.

“The goal is to create a museum around the story of the Bible,” Mr. Green explained. “No book has been persecuted as much or loved as much. Its incredible story needs to be told.”

Mr. Green is Pentecostal, but other family members worship in churches of other denominations, including Baptist and Assemblies of God. The family gives to a variety of Christian causes, Oral Roberts University and evangelical ministries among them, and adheres to Christian principles, closing its stores on Sundays, playing Christian music in them and operating Mardel, a separate chain of religious bookstores.

With sales last year of just over $2 billion the company has no long-term debt, Mr. Green said over a lunch of sandwiches that began with a prayer at the company’s nondescript, sprawling corporate headquarters. Despite the recession, profits rose in 2009, he said, perhaps because people spent more time at home.

For the Green family, the time seems ideal for buying religious works.

As Sam Fogg, a London dealer of rare manuscripts, put it, “Between 1988 and 1993, the Bible market rocketed,” and then it languished even as the broader art market rose.

In addition, “Libraries are rethinking their mission in the age of digitization,” said David N. Redden, executive vice president at Sotheby's Books Department. “They are wondering what their holdings should be: whether they are about collecting rare books or disseminating information. If the latter, do they need rare books? In some ways, it is not a bad time to be buying.”

The Green collection aims to be one of a kind. Other Bible collections in the United States, including one at the American Bible Society in Manhattan, generally intend to inspire readership, said Dr. Scott Carroll, who began advising Mr. Green about six months ago. “Our goal is to inspire people with the story of the Bible and its history.”

Dr. Carroll, a former professor in ancient studies specializing in Biblical manuscripts, recently resigned from Cornerstone University, a nondenominational Christ-based liberal arts school in Grand Rapids, Mich., to become executive director of the museum and an adviser to Mr. Green. In the 1990s, Dr. Carroll helped another collector, Robert Van Kampen, build the private Van Kampen Collection of Bibles and related material in Orlando, Fla., and helped oversee its academic objectives, including archaeological digs.

Some who are knowledgeable about the rare book market suggest that the group’s buying has pushed up prices. The buying has also spawned some skepticism about the overall quality of purchases made in such rapid-fire style. Among the 30 objects that the Green group offered for examination recently were a silver amulet from the first or second century inscribed with a passage from Deuteronomy, also known as the Shema; the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, a manuscript originated from the Monastery of Mt. St. Catherine that was home to the earliest near-complete copy of the Bible, and the first volume of a Complutensian Polyglot Bible that was used for the comparative study of the text of Scripture. It contains the first printing of the Septuagint, or Old Testament Scriptures in Greek.

“Compared to objects in the fine art market, they are not hugely expensive, but in the rare book field, they are big time, and these people appear to be spending a lot of money,” said Stephen Massey, an appraiser experienced in ancient religious objects. Though Mr. Massey had not seen the collection, he reviewed a list of the objects that were displayed.

Westminster College at Cambridge put the Codex Climaci Rescriptus up for auction at Sotheby’s last year. “It is not widely used at the school, and the money will help open up the resources of the school to a broader constituency,” said Susan Durber, the principal of Westminster.

The estimated auction price was $1 million. When the manuscript did not sell, the Green group bought it directly from Sotheby’s, for an unspecified price.

The group also bought a Martin Luther New Testament with 44 lushly hand-painted and illuminated woodcuts, suggesting that the edition was made for royal use, perhaps for Luther’s protector, Frederick the Wise.

The book was sold by Jorn Gunther, a dealer who had listed the edition at $400,000 in his catalog. “Book dealers are bibliophiles, but these men are coming at it with a strong belief that the Bible is the word of God and they want to show that,” said Mr. Gunther of Stalden, Switzerland. “It is like a doctor buying medical books.”

Collecting work from the Old Testament and the New Testament has taken the buyers into Judaica. “We have over 1,000 Torahs,” said John Shipman, a venture capitalist who is the third member of the Green buying team. Mr. Shipman, whose father was an ordained minister as are his brother and brother-in-law, said he met Mr. Green, through Mart Green, his brother, about seven years ago, when Mart, the founder and chief executive of EthnoGraphic Media, was producing “End of the Spear,” a film about missionaries killed in Ecuador.

“John talked about collecting Bibles,” Steven Green said. “My brother had talked about a Bible museum. That was how it started.” Mr. Shipman brought in Dr. Carroll at the end of last year. “He has the academic knowledge, and I negotiate the purchases,” Mr. Shipman said. He added that several other families were also collecting with the goal of giving to the museum.

Because the Bible museum has not completed the paperwork to become a not-for-profit organization, the salaries of Mr. Shipman and Dr. Carroll are not yet public, and Mr. Green declined to reveal them. The plans for the museum are quite ambitious. Dr. Carroll said the three were looking for 300,000 square feet of space and hoped to attract more than a million visitors a year.

Dallas is the first choice to house the collection, Mr. Green said, because of the large number of people of faith in the area. He also said that the many seminaries and universities in Dallas would welcome such a museum and it would benefit from their resources.

An offer on a former Macy’s store in a mall was rejected, but Mr. Green is continuing to look for a large property while temporarily storing his trove of treasures at the company’s warehouses.

Source:  The New York Times.

Joachim Koch
Book buyer. Bookseller. Factotum Generalis. Believes in not attempting to be the smartest person in room and enjoys growing success.


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