Hobby Lobby Pays $3 Million Settlement For Smuggling Ancient Clay Artifacts From Iraq

Hobby Lobby, the $4 billion arts-and-crafts retail chain, has agreed to pay a $3 million in forfeiture money for buying ancient clay artifacts that were smuggled into the United States. The U.S. Attorney's office says a property law expert hired by Hobby Lobby recommended they make sure none of the antiquities were of Iraqi origin, but the company agreed to purchase 5,500 artifacts anyway.

"American collectors and importers must ensure compliance with laws and regulations that require truthful declarations to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, so that Customs officers are able to scrutinize cultural property crossing our borders and prevent the inappropriate entry of such property,” stated Acting U.S. Attorney Rohde. "If they do not, and shippers use false declarations to try to clandestinely enter property into the United States, this Office and our law enforcement partners will discover the deceit and seize the property."

The illegal antiquities trade is one way that ISIS raises money.

Hobby Lobby will also forfeit 144 cylinder seals. The Washington Post explains, "Cuneiform is an ancient writing system that involved carving inscriptions into clay or stone. Cylinder seals were used to roll impressions into clay. Clay bullae are balls of clay with seals imprinted on the surface, used to show a document’s authenticity."

The importation of Iraqi cultural property has been banned since 1990, and Iraq's Antiquities Law of 1936 states that "all antiquities found in Iraq, whether movable or immovable, on or under the ground, are considered property of the state," according to the feds. Nevertheless, the U.S. Attorney's office says, "[I]n or around 2009, Hobby Lobby began to assemble a collection of historically significant manuscripts, antiquities and other cultural materials. In connection with this effort, Hobby Lobby’s 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."

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. The expert also 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. The expert warned Hobby Lobby that an improper declaration of country of origin for cultural property could lead to seizure and forfeiture of the artifacts by CBP.

Notwithstanding these warnings, in December 2010, Hobby Lobby executed an agreement to purchase over 5,500 Artifacts, comprised of cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay bullae and cylinder seals, for $1.6 million. The 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. Further, when the Artifacts were presented for inspection to Hobby Lobby’s president and consultant in July 2010, they were displayed informally. In addition, Hobby Lobby epresentatives had not met or communicated with the dealer who purportedly owned the Artifacts, nor did they pay him for the Artifacts. Rather, following instructions from another dealer, Hobby Lobby wired payment for the Artifacts to seven personal bank accounts held in the names of other individuals.

The dealer in the UAE then shipped packages to various Hobby Lobby offices in Oklahoma City, with shipping labels that said "ceramic tiles" or "clay tiles (samples)" and claimed they originated in Turkey, per the complaint. Then, in 2011, 1,000 clay bullae were allegedly shipped to Hobby Lobby from an Israeli dealer who claimed they were from Israel.

"We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled," Hobby Lobby President Steve Green said in a statement. "At no time did Hobby Lobby ever purchase items from dealers in Iraq or from anyone who indicated that they acquired items from that country. Hobby Lobby condemns such conduct and has always acted with the intent to protect ancient items of cultural and historical importance... We have accepted responsibility and learned a great deal."

Reuters notes that Green is "the chairman and founder of the Museum of the Bible, which is under construction in Washington, D.C." Hobby Lobby also became part of the national conversation when it refused to offer employees certain contraceptive methods, a battle that ended with the Supreme Court ruling in the Christian-owned business's favor.

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