Hobby Lobby to forfeit 5,500 ancient artifacts smuggled out of Iraq

Hobby Lobby To Forfeit 5,500 Ancient Artifacts Smuggled Out Of Iraq

Arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby has agreed to forfeit thousands of ancient artifacts smuggled out of Iraq and imported to the U.S., camouflaged as tiles and tile samples, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Prosecutors said Hobby Lobby started to collect historically-significant manuscripts, antiquities and cultural materials in 2009. At one point in 2010, the company sent its president and a consultant to the United Arab Emirates to inspect cuneiform tablets up for sale.

Cuneiform is one of the earliest systems of writing, an ancient technique that was used in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago by writers who used reeds to write on clay tablets.

Hobby Lobby officials said in a statement Wednesday that the company collected historical Bibles and artifacts of religious significance to provide scholars and students with the opportunity to study them. Hobby Lobby's owners are evangelical Christians and the company has numerous times over the years made efforts to promote the religion, according to The New York Times.

“The company was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process,” company officials said. “This resulted in some regrettable mistakes.”

The U.S. Department of Justice released images on Wednesday, July 5, 2017, of artifacts that authorities said were smuggled out of Iraq and bought by Hobby Lobby in 2010.

Credit: United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York

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Credit: United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York

A cultural property law expert warned the company in October 2010 that if it purchased items that appeared to be from Iraq, as the artifacts did, it ran the risk of buying items looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.

Still, the company in December 2010 purchased more than 5,500 ancient artifacts, including cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay bullae -- stamped clay balls once used to keep records -- and cylinder seals from a dealer in the United Arab Emirates for $1.6 million, according to prosecutors.

The artifacts were shipped to corporate addresses in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in packages that marked them as ceramic tiles or clay tile samples, according to authorities. Officials became suspicious after 10 such packages were delivered and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents intercepted five shipments that falsely claimed to have come from Turkey, authorities said.

Hobby Lobby agreed on Wednesday to forfeit the antiquities it purchased and pay a $3 million fine.

“We have accepted responsibility and learned a great deal,” Hobby Lobby president Steve Green said. “Our entire team is committed to the highest standards for investigating and acquiring these items. Our passion for the Bible continues, and we will do all that we can to support the efforts to conserve items that will help illuminate and enhance our understanding of this great book.”