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One of the cuneiform tablets involved in the United States' complaint against Hobby Lobby for the smuggling of thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts. (Photo: Courtesy of the Department of Justice)

Arts-and-crafts retailer Hobby Lobby agreed to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit thousands of artifacts to the U.S. government, after packages containing the artifacts were discovered to be mislabeled, misidentifying the items and misrepresenting the items’ values and places of origin.

Boxes containing ancient cuneiform tablets, clay bullae, clay seals and stone cylinder seals from Iraq, ranging in value from $280.40 and $1,000 each, according to a civil complaint filed by the acting U.S. attorney of the Eastern District of New York on Wednesday, bore labels identifying the contents as “tiles,” with places of origin listed as Turkey and Israel. Additionally, invoices accompanying the packages falsely listed the values of the items as being between $1 and $5 each, which allowed them to bypass the formal entry process of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The import of cultural property from Iraq to the United States has been banned since 2004, and Iraq has strict laws about the ownership of Iraqi artifacts that are considered to be antiquities (200 or more years old), according to the complaint. An analysis of the cuneiform tablets purchased by and shipped to Hobby Lobby in 2010 and 2011 confirmed the items were originally from the region of modern-day Iraq, not Turkey or Israel as stated on their labels. (Cuneiform is an ancient Mesopotamian form of writing in which impressions are made onto clay to form characters.)

Another cuneiform tablet involved in the United States' complaint against Hobby Lobby for the smuggling of thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts. (Photo: Courtesy of the Department of Justice)

The complaint further states Hobby Lobby legal counsel received a memorandum from a cultural property law expert acquired by the company, in which the expert warned against the import of cultural items—including cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals—that may have been looted from Iraqi archeological sites. About two months later, Hobby Lobby purchased the 5,548 artifacts, which Hobby Lobby President Steve Green and a consultant had seen for sale in the United Arab Emirates earlier that year, for $1.6 million.  

The invoice attached to the purchase agreement, signed by Hobby Lobby through Green, lists one seller, a dealer referred to in the complaint as “Israeli Dealer #3.” However, the $1.6 million payment was ultimately wired to seven different personal bank accounts, says the complaint. The packages were also shipped to three different locations—Hobby Lobby headquarters and the offices of two Hobby Lobby affiliates, Mardel, Inc. and Crafts, Etc!, all in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

“The use of multiple shipping addresses for a single recipient is consistent with methods used by cultural property smugglers to avoid scrutiny by Customs,” states the complaint.

A Department of Justice press release further states that the acquisition of the artifacts by Hobby Lobby was “fraught with red flags.”

Two clay bullae involved in the United States' complaint against Hobby Lobby for the smuggling of thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts. Clay bullae are balls of clay imprinted with seals. (Photo: Courtesy of the Department of Justice)

While several shipments of the artifacts were received by Hobby Lobby, five packages were intercepted by Customs, leading to the discovery of the misleading labels and smuggled items. Before coming to a settlement with the government, Hobby Lobby originally petitioned to have the packages seized by Customs returned to them, but the information and explanations provided by the company in their petition were “inconsistent,” the complaint states.

The devout Christian owners of Hobby Lobby, which is known for its role in a 2014 case in which the Supreme Court ruled the company could deny its employees birth control coverage on religious grounds, have been collecting religious artifacts since 2009, according to the Associated Press. They are also in the process of building an $800 million Bible museum, which is planned to open in Washington.

In addition to paying the fine and forfeiting the artifacts they received, Hobby Lobby agreed to change its practices in the acquisition of cultural property and to provide quarterly reports on those acquisitions to the U.S. government for 18 months.

Hobby Lobby said in a statement that the improper acquisition of the artifacts was the result the company being “new to the world of acquiring these items,” that they were unaware the items originated from Iraq and that they made “regrettable mistakes” when they “imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items.”

“We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” Green said in the statement. “Hobby Lobby has cooperated with the government throughout its investigation, and with the announcement of today’s settlement agreement, is pleased the matter has been resolved.”

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