Hobby Lobby bought smuggled artifacts, now they're headed back to Iraq

Matt Saintsing
May 02, 2018 - 3:43 pm

Photo Courtesy of DOJ

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Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma-based retailer known for never shying away from controversy, will have to return thousands of stolen artifacts to Iraq, the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced Wednesday.

Hobby Lobby purchased nearly 5,500 relics from Emirati dealers in Israel in 2010, the Justice Department announced last July, then proceeded to smuggle them into the United States—a violation of federal law.

The company bought the pieces months after they were advised to be more cautious.

Photo Courtesy of DOJ

Among the objects are cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals, which a cultural property law expert told Hobby Lobby could have been stolen from archeological sites. Hobby Lobby was also advised to investigate whether they could have Iraqi origin.

Despite that warning, however, the retail chain bought tablets, bricks, clay bullae and cylinder seals for $1.6 million.

The Department of Justice said in a statement the “acquisition of the Artifacts was fraught with red flags.” Instead of meeting with the owner and dealer of the articles, Hobby Lobby employees wired payments to seven different bank accounts held in other names.

It remains unclear whether they knew the antiquities were smuggled, but last year, after the Justice Department filed a complaint, Hobby Lobby paid a $3 million fine and agreed to surrender them.

Even though they paid for 5,500 pieces, they didn’t receive all of them. Stipulations in the settlement say the company said going forward they would notify the government if it finds out where the other objects are. They also agreed to return any other pieces they receive.  

"We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled," said Hobby Lobby President, Steve Green.

Photo Courtesy of DOJ

The Museum of the Bible, which has ties to Hobby Lobby, opened in Washington, D.C. last year. Once a refrigerated warehouse, the more than 400,000 square-foot space received just above $200,000 million in artifacts from the company. The museum also rents storage space in Oklahoma from them.

As it turns out, some of the tablets hail from the ancient Sumerian city of Irisagrig, according to ICE, and are “mostly legal and administrative documents, but also include an important collection of Early Dynastic incantations and a bilingual religious text from the Neo-Babylonian period.”

Some of the tables date back to 2100 BC, while others are thought to be about 500 years older. Cuneiform is an antiquated system of writing on clay tablets, the practice was popular in Mesopotamia.

The Department of Justice said Hobby Lobby had pledged to set up policies on the purchase of “cultural property,” to provide the training required and hire qualified people to handle the pieces. They also agreed to submit quarterly reports to the government on any artifacts they buy for eighteen months.