Hobby Lobby agrees to forfeit smuggled artifacts, pay $3 million fine - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Hobby Lobby agrees to forfeit smuggled artifacts, pay $3 million fine

One of the cuneiform tablets from Iraq that Hobby Lobby bought for its collection of religious artifacts but now will forfeit. (U.S. Attorney’s Eastern District)

WASHINGTON – Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. has agreed to turn over thousands of clay artifacts from Iraq that were smuggled into the United States, to settle federal charges, and will pay a $3 million fine, prosecutors said.

Packages containing thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae artifacts were shipped to the Oklahoma City-based arts-and-crafts retailer and two of its corporate affiliates, according to a statement released Wednesday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York. Cuneiform is an ancient system of writing on clay tablets that was used in ancient Mesopotamia.

The shipping labels on the packages falsely described the artifacts as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample).” The artifacts were smuggled into the United States through the United Arab Emirates and Israel, and falsely claimed to be from Turkey or Israel, federal prosecutors said.

Hobby Lobby agreed “to adopt internal policies and procedures governing its importation and purchase of cultural property, provide appropriate training to its personnel, hire qualified outside customs counsel and customs brokers, and submit quarterly reports to the government on any cultural property acquisitions for the next 18 months,” according to prosecutors.

Hobby Lobby began collecting historical Bibles and other artifacts in 2009, the company said in a statement released Wednesday.

“The Company was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process. This resulted in some regrettable mistakes, ” the statement said.

In October 2010, an expert on cultural property law whom Hobby Lobby had retained warned the company that cultural objects from Iraq might have come from archaeological sites, prosecutors said. The expert advised Hobby Lobby to verify that its antiquities had been properly declared with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. The expert warned that improper declarations could lead to seizures and forfeitures.

A clay bulla, a type of seal used for legal documents, that Hobby Lobby acquired but will now forfeit. (U.S. Attorney’s Office)

Despite the expert’s warnings and various other red flags, in December 2010, Hobby Lobby contracted to buy more than 5,500 Iraqi artifacts – including cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay bullae (seals) and cylinder seals – for $1.6 million, according to prosecutors.

As part of the settlement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit all of those artifacts that were shipped to the U.S.

“The protection of cultural heritage is a mission that HIS (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,” said HIS Special Agent-in-Charge Angel Melendez in New York.

Hobby Lobby President Steve Green said in the company’s statement: “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled. 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.”

This article is republished with permission from Talk Media News.

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Regina Holmes has more than two decades of experience as a journalist –editing and reporting for news dailies including the Miami Herald, Newsday and the Baltimore Examiner. Contact the author.