Hobby Lobby fined $3 million over smuggled Iraqi artefacts

Prosecutors said acquisition of the artefacts 'was fraught with red flags' and that packages bore shipping labels that described their contents as 'ceramic tiles' when they were in fact tablets and bricks written in cuneiform, one of the earliest systems of writing

File photo of customers walking into a Hobby Lobby store in Oklahoma City. The company has agreed to pay a $3 million federal fine and forfeit thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts smuggled from the Middle East that the government alleges were intentionally mislabelled. Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo
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OKLAHOMA CITY // Arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby has agreed to forfeit thousands of illegally smuggled ancient Middle Eastern artefacts obtained from antiquities dealers for a Bible museum headed by its president, the company and US officials said on Wednesday.

The forfeiture will include some 5,500 artefacts purchased by Hobby Lobby that originated from the region of modern-day Iraq and were shipped under false labels, as well as an additional $3 million (Dh11m) to settle the civil charges, the Department of Justice said.

"The protection of cultural heritage is a mission that [Homeland Security Investigations] and its partner US Customs and Border Protection take very seriously as we recognsze that while some may put a price on these artefacts, the people of Iraq consider them priceless,” Angel Melendez, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in New York, said.

Privately-held Hobby Lobby said that it was new to the world of antiquities when it began acquiring historical items for its Museum of the Bible in 2009 and made mistakes in relying on dealers and shippers who "did not understand the correct way to document and ship" them.
The artefacts being forfeited include cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay bullae and cylinder seals. Cuneiform is an ancient system of writing on clay tablets, and bullae is an ancient form of inscribed identification.

Prosecutors said Hobby Lobby has agreed to adopt internal policies for importing cultural property and training its personnel.

The company's president Steve Green said they cooperated with the government and "should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled".

"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," Mr Green said. "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,” he added, saying that the company has now "implemented acquisition policies and procedures based on the industry's highest standards".

Federal prosecutors say that when Hobby Lobby, which is based in Oklahoma City, began assembling its collection it was warned by an expert on cultural property law to be cautious in acquiring artefacts from Iraq, which in some cases have been looted from archaeological sites.

Despite that warning and other red flags the company in December 2010 purchased thousands of items from a middle-man, without meeting the purported owner, according to prosecutors.

A UAE-based dealer shipped packages containing the artefacts to three different corporate addresses in Oklahoma City. Five shipments that were intercepted by federal customs officials bore shipping labels that falsely declared that the artefacts' country of origin was Turkey.

In September 2011, a package containing about 1,000 clay bullae was received by Hobby Lobby from an Israeli dealer and accompanied by a false declaration stating that its country of origin was Israel.