Hobby Lobby to Return Thousands of Illegally Obtained Iraqi Artifacts

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The arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby has agreed to return some 4,000 artifacts that were illegally purchased to the government of Iraq, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced today. The Oklahoma-based company purchased more than 5,500 artifacts and then smuggled them into the U.S. in violation of federal law.

The pieces were purchased from dealers in the United Arab Emirates and from Israel in 2010. The purchases were made even after an expert warned the company of the transactions’ potential illegality.

According the Justice Department, an expert on cultural property hired by Hobby Lobby warned the company that acquiring artifacts from Iraq carries with it the risk that some of the objects may be stolen or looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.

The expert also advised the firm to review its existing collections for items of Iraqi origin in order to make sure their appropriate country of origin was declared at the time they were imported to the U.S. Improper declaration of origin countries for cultural property could lead to seizure and forfeiture by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, they said.

According to the DOJ, Emirati-based dealers shipped artifacts and falsely identified the packages’ contents as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample).” They also declared their country of origin as Turkey. Packages from Israel came with false documents listing Israel as the country of origin.

The government eventually settled with Hobby Lobby with conditions that called for the forfeiture of all the artifacts received and a $3 million fine. The company also agreed to notify the government if it received any additional pieces. It reportedly did not receive all of the 5,500 pieces that it bought.

“The protection of cultural heritage is a mission that [Homeland Security Investigations] and its partner U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) 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 Angel Melendez.

“We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” said Hobby Lobby President Steve Green in a statement about the matter last year. “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.”

“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,” he added.

The Museum of the Bible, which is tied to Hobby Lobby, opened in Washington, D.C. last November. It reportedly received $201 million in artifacts from Hobby Lobby. The artifacts the company purchased mostly consist of cuneiform tablets, clay bullae and cylinder seals.

An official from the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C. welcomed the news of the returned artifacts. “These pieces are very important to us and they should be returned home… To Iraq, to the rightful owner of these pieces,” they told NPR.

The official said the artifact will most likely be displayed at Iraq’s National Museum.

Photo by DangApricot via Wikimedia Commons

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