The Justice Department filed a civil complaint Wednesday against Hobby Lobby alleging the retail chain smuggled in scores of ancient artifacts from Iraq, with cuneiform tablets labeled as tile samples to clear customs inspectors.
Under a settlement with the U.S. government, Hobby Lobby will have to forfeit thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae as well as 144 cylinder seals the company was collecting for a Bible museum, and pay a $3 million fine. For 18 months, the company will also have to submit compliance reports to the government on any cultural property acquisitions.
“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,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Bridget Rohde said in a statement. “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.”
Angel M. Melendez, special agent-in-charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Homeland Security Investigations in New York, noted that “while some may put a price on these artifacts, the people of Iraq consider them priceless.”
According to the complaint, Hobby Lobby acquired about 450 ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and about 3,000 clay bullae, balls imprinted with seals. In 2011, Customs and Border Protection seized five FedEx shipments of the artifacts headed from the United Arab Emirates to Oklahoma City, where they were eventually delivered.
Under Iraq’s Antiquities Law, all artifacts at least 200 years old are property of the state and private persons can possess them only with government approval.
The complaint says Hobby Lobby began “to assemble a collection of historically important manuscripts, antiquities and other cultural materials” in 2009, and in July 2010 the president of the company and a consultant, along with UAE and Israeli artifact dealers, viewed a collection for sale in the UAE. “The contemplated sale included 5,548 distinct artifacts: 1,500 cuneiform tablets, 500 cuneiform bricks, 3,000 clay bullae, 35 clay envelope seals, 13 extra-large cuneiform tablets and 500 stone cylinder seals. During the July 2010 Inspection, the artifacts were displayed informally – spread on the floor, arranged in layers on a coffee table, and packed loosely in cardboard boxes, in many instances with little or no protective material between them,” the filing states. “Following the inspection, the Israeli dealers proposed a sale of a larger group of cultural objects that included approximately 5,548 individual pieces of cuneiform tablets, clay bullae, and cylinder seals.”
As the company considered the purchase, an expert warned Hobby Lobby in an October 2010 memo: “I would regard the acquisition of any artifact likely from Iraq (which could be described as Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Akkadian, Sumerian, Babylonian, Parthian, Sassanian and possibly other historic or cultural terms) as carrying considerable risk. An estimated 200-500,000 objects have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq since the early 1990s; particularly popular on the market and likely to have been looted are cylinder seals, cuneiform tablets.” The company was also advised of Iraqi law and associated penalties.
Two months later, Hobby Lobby agreed to purchase the collection for $1.6 million, with an invoice falsely stating the origin of the artifacts was Israel. The company spread the shipments between Hobby Lobby and two affiliates, Mardel, Inc. and Crafts, Etc!
“The use of multiple shipping addresses for a single recipient is consistent with methods used by cultural property smugglers to avoid scrutiny by Customs,” the complaint adds. “No formal entries were made for these shipments, even though formal entries were required because the value of the contents of each package exceeded $2,000.” The first package said it contained “hand made clay tiles (sample)” made in Turkey and valued at $250.00.
“We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” Hobby Lobby president Steve Green said in a statement issued by the company Wednesday. “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.”
The company statement added that they weren’t told the artifacts were from Iraq, and they “did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process.”
“We have accepted responsibility and learned a great deal,” said Green.
Some lawmakers took shots at the retailer after the news broke. “Extraordinary. Hobby Lobby’s president illegally smuggled 144 artifacts into the U.S. and yet no hint of criminal prosecution,” tweeted Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas). “The UAE and Israeli ‘dealers’ who helped Hobby Lobby smuggle stolen artifacts into US should be banned from doing business w US for 10 yrs.”
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) tweeted, “The hobby lobby revelations are further proof karma is real and God has a sense of humor.”