Hobby Lobby Purchased Thousands of Ancient Artifacts Smuggled Out of Iraq

The craft-supply giant, which will open its Museum of the Bible in D.C. this fall, will pay a $3 million settlement.

One of the cuneiform tablets seized by the U.S. government from Hobby Lobby (Department of Justice)

Hobby Lobby purchased thousands of ancient artifacts smuggled out of modern-day Iraq via the United Arab Emirates and Israel in 2010 and 2011, attorneys for the Eastern District of New York announced on Wednesday. As part of a settlement, the American craft-supply mega-chain will pay $3 million and the U.S. government will seize the illicit artifacts. Technically, the defendants in the civil-forfeiture action are the objects themselves, yielding an incredible case name: The United States of America v. Approximately Four Hundred Fifty (450) Ancient Cuneiform Tablets; and Approximately Three Thousand (3,000) Ancient-Clay Bullae.

Under any circumstances, this case would be wild: It involves thousands of ancient artifacts that seem to have been stolen from Iraq, where the pillaging of antiquities has been rampant. The longstanding trade in antiquities of dubious provenance has become an especially sensitive topic in recent years, and a target of increased law-enforcement scrutiny: ISIS has made some untold millions—or billions—by selling ancient goods. While nothing in the case indicates that these objects were associated with any terrorist group, the very nature of smuggled goods means their provenance is muddy.

But the case really matters because of who’s involved. The members of the Green family, which owns the Hobby Lobby chain, are committed evangelical Christians who are probably most famous for their participation in a 2014 Supreme Court case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which helped dismantle certain birth-control-coverage requirements of the Affordable Care Act. The Greens are big collectors of ancient antiquities; they’re also the primary visionaries and contributors behind the Museum of the Bible opening in Washington, D.C., this fall. Steve Green is the chairman of the board. The family’s famous name, now tied to a story of dealer intrigue and black markets, is likely to bring even further scrutiny and attention as they prepare to open their museum.

Law-enforcement officials report that in 2010, Hobby Lobby’s president, Steve Green, visited the United Arab Emirates with an antiquities consultant to inspect more than 5,548 artifacts. The objects—which were precious and collectively worth millions of dollars—“were displayed informally,” the complaint stated, “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.” They included cuneiform tablets, which display writing used in ancient Mesopotamia, and clay bullae, or balls of clay printed with ancient seals.

Two Israeli dealers and one dealer from the UAE were present; the objects allegedly belonged to the family of a third Israeli dealer. One of the Israeli dealers sent Hobby Lobby a statement of provenance, claiming that the objects were legally acquired through purchases made in the 1960s. It also named a custodian who purportedly, in the 1970s, took care of the objects while they were being stored in the United States.

But that person never actually stored anything for the third Israeli dealer, the complaint alleges, and Hobby Lobby never contacted the custodian. The company went forward with the sale, even though it had retained an antiquities expert who cautioned against the purchase. “I would regard the acquisition of any artifact likely from Iraq … as carrying considerable risk,” that expert wrote in a memorandum shared with the company’s in-house counsel, according to the complaint. “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.” Cultural objects looted from Iraq since 1990 are protected by special import restrictions that carry criminal penalties and large fines, the expert added.

Hobby Lobby “was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process.”

Hobby Lobby wired $1.6 million to seven different bank accounts associated with five different people to pay for the items. The artifacts were shipped to the United States in multiple packages falsely labeled “Tiles (Sample).” They were also sent to multiple locations. As the complaint notes, “The use of multiple shipping addresses for a single recipient is consistent with methods used by cultural property smugglers to avoid scrutiny by Customs.” On customs forms, the UAE dealer supplied false invoices that substantially undervalued the pieces, presumably as a way to avoid customs inspection.

In January 2011, Customs and Border Protection seized five packages falsely labeled as originating in Turkey. Following its investigation, CPB has seized roughly 3,450 objects—the 450 ancient cuneiform tablets and 3,000 ancient clay bullae for which the case is named. As part of a settlement to the government’s civil action against Hobby Lobby, the company has “accepted responsibility for its past conduct” and agreed to revise its internal procedures and train its employees, along with submitting quarterly reports on further acquisitions over the next 18 months.

That period of time will be crucial as the museum prepares for its opening. “We don’t have any concerns about our collection,” said Steven Bickley, the vice president of marketing, administration, and finance. “The artifacts that were referred to were never in our collection.” He added that the museum wasn’t part of the investigation or the settlement.

For its part, the Green family has framed this as a lesson learned. In 2010, Hobby Lobby “was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process,” read a statement on the company’s website. “This resulted in some regrettable mistakes. The company imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items.”

Green says he takes responsibility for what happened. “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” he said in a statement on Hobby Lobby’s website. “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.”