Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts company Hobby Lobby has agreed to return more than 5,500 ancient Iraqi artifacts and pay $3 million to the United States Department of Justice.
The department filed a civil complaint against Hobby Lobby on Wednesday, saying the company violated U.S. and Iraqi law by paying $1.6 million for clay antiquities that may have been stolen from Iraqi archaeological sites.
The antiquities include 3,000 clay bullae, 1,513 cuneiform tablets, 500 cuneiform bricks, 500 stone cylinder seals and 35 clay envelope seals. Bullae are round pieces of clay inscribed with seals. Cuneiform is an ancient style of writing often pressed into tablets.
The Department of Justice complaint alleges the president of Hobby Lobby, Steve Green, met with Israeli antiquities dealers in the United Arab Emirates in July 2010 to inspect the artifacts. According to the complaint, Green signed an agreement to purchase the artifacts for $1.6 million.
Between Dec. 26, 2010 and Jan. 5, 2011, an antiquities dealer from the United Arab Emirates shipped eight packages containing the artifacts to various Hobby Lobby corporate addresses in Oklahoma City. Three of those packages were delivered, and five were detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in Memphis, who discovered that the packages had been mislabeled.
The five detained packages were each declared as being valued at $300 or less, and labeled as handmade clay tiles from Turkey. In fact, each package was valued at thousands of dollars each, and contained between 30 and 300 ancient clay artifacts.
According to the Department of Justice complaint, delivering packages to multiple addresses is a tactic often used by smugglers of cultural property.
Under Iraqi law, any antiquities found in the country are considered the property of the state, and generally cannot be owned by private individuals. Under U.S. law, it is also forbidden to possess Iraqi cultural objects that were potentially removed from Iraqi cultural institutions.
“While some may put a price on these artifacts, the people of Iraq consider them priceless,” said Special Agent-in-Charge Angel Melendez in a Department of Justice press release.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection also requires buyers of foreign goods valued at over $2,000 to file a formal declaration including the goods’ value, description and origin before bringing them into the country.
In a statement released on Wednesday, Hobby Lobby described the purchases as “regrettable mistakes” and said it will begin to follow acquisition procedures that have been approved by the Association of Art Museum Directors.
“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,” the statement reads. The company claimed to be collecting Biblical artifacts to preserve them for museum exhibitions and study by future generations.
Hobby Lobby president Steve Green said the company has learned from its actions. “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” he said in the statement.
Hobby Lobby also agreed to submit quarterly reports on any acquisitions of cultural property for the next 18 months. The company did not respond to a request for additional comment.
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