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Hobby Lobby Must Return 5,000 Ancient Artifacts Smuggled from Iraq

Hobby Lobby must give back more than 5,000 ancient artifacts that is smuggled from Iraq and pay a $3 million settlement after the U.S. Justice Department sued the company for importing looted antiquities.

The company smuggled thousands of cuneiform tablets to the U.S. through the United Arab Emirates and Israel with packaging labels falsely described as tile "samples," according to press release from the Justice Department. Disregarding warnings, Hobby Lobby knowingly purchased the looted artifacts for $1.6 million in a 2010 acquisition.

The Justice Department filed a civil complaint against Hobby Lobby on July 5 to forfeit all the cuneiform tablets and clay bullae. Smuggling these ancient clay artifacts violated federal law. Packages containing the artifacts were shipped to Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a religion-based company notorious for denying women insurance coverage for contraceptives.

The shipping labels on these packages falsely described cuneiform tablets as tile “samples.”

$3 Million Settlement

Hobby Lobby will forfeit 144 cylinder seals and pay a $3 million settlement. It must now hire qualified legitimate customs counsel and brokers, and submit quarterly reports to the government on any cultural property acquisitions for the next 18 months.

The complaint and settlement were announced by Bridget M. Rohde, Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and Angel M. Melendez, Special Agent-in-Charge, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), New York.

“The protection of cultural heritage is a mission that HSI and its partner U.S. Customs and Border Protection take very seriously as we recognize that while some may put a price on these artifacts, the people of Iraq consider them priceless,” stated Special Agent-in-Charge Melendez.

Hobby Lobby began to assemble a collection of historically significant manuscripts, antiquities, and other cultural materials. Its president and a consultant traveled to the UAE in July 2010 to inspect a large number of cuneiform tablets and other antiquities being offered for sale. Cuneiform is an ancient system of writing on clay tablets that was used in ancient Mesopotamia thousands of years ago.

Ignoring Warnings

In October 2010, an expert on cultural property law retained by Hobby Lobby:

  • Warned the company that the acquisition of cultural property likely from Iraq, including cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals, carries a risk that such objects may have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.
  • Advised Hobby Lobby to review its collection of antiquities for any objects of Iraqi origin and to verify that their country of origin was properly declared at the time of importation into the United States.
  • Warned Hobby Lobby that an improper declaration of country of origin for cultural property could lead to seizure and forfeiture of the artifacts by U.S. Customs.

Ignoring these warnings, Hobby Lobby purchased more than 5,500 artifacts in December 2010, including cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay bullae and cylinder seals, for $1.6 million.

The sleazy acquisition of the Artifacts was fraught with red flags. For example:

  • Hobby Lobby received conflicting information where the Artifacts had been stored prior to the inspection in the UAE.
  • When the Artifacts were presented for inspection to Hobby Lobby’s president and consultant in July 2010, they were displayed informally.
  • Hobby Lobby representatives had not met or communicated with the dealer who purportedly owned the Artifacts, nor did they pay him for the Artifacts.
  • Following instructions from another dealer, Hobby Lobby wired payment for the Artifacts to seven personal bank accounts held in the names of other individuals.

Hobby Lobby Smuggling

With Hobby Lobby’s consent, a UAE-based dealer shipped packages containing the Artifacts to three different corporate addresses in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Between one and three shipments arrived at a time, without the required customs entry documentation being filed with U.S. Customs, and bore shipping labels that falsely and misleadingly described their contents as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample).”

After approximately 10 packages shipped in this manner were received by Hobby Lobby and its affiliates, U.S. Customs intercepted five shipments. All of the intercepted packages bore shipping labels that falsely declared that the Artifacts’ country of origin was Turkey. No further shipments were received until September 2011, when a package containing approximately 1,000 clay bullae from the same purchase was received by Hobby Lobby. It was shipped by an Israeli dealer and accompanied by a false declaration stating that the bullae’s country of origin was Israel.

In executing the stipulation of settlement, Hobby Lobby has accepted responsibility for its past conduct and agreed to take steps to remedy the deficiencies that resulted in its unlawful importation of the Artifacts.

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