Justice Department wins concession from crafts store that wants to build Museum of the Bible.
Hobby Lobby, the chain of craft stores whose president is planning to build a Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., has agreed to give up thousands of Middle Eastern archeological artifacts that the U.S. government says were smuggled out of Iraq and into the United States illegally.
“The United States filed a civil complaint to forfeit thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae,” said the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York on Wednesday. “As alleged in the complaint, these ancient clay artifacts originated in the area of modern-day Iraq and were smuggled into the United States through the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, contrary to federal law. Packages containing the artifacts were shipped to Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a nationwide arts-and-crafts retailer based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and two of Hobby Lobby’s corporate affiliates. The shipping labels on these packages falsely described cuneiform tablets as tile ‘samples.'”
“The protection of cultural heritage is a mission that [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,” stated Special Agent-in-Charge Melendez.
According to the complaint and a separate document — a stipulated statement of facts — in or around 2009, Hobby Lobby began to assemble a collection of historically significant manuscripts, antiquities and other cultural materials to include in its planned Museum of the Bible. In connection with this effort, Hobby Lobby’s president, Steve Green, and a consultant traveled to the United Arab Emirates in July 2010 to inspect a large number of cuneiform tablets and other antiquities being offered for sale.
Cuneiform is an ancient system of writing on clay tablets that was used in ancient Mesopotamia thousands of years ago.
In October 2010, an expert on cultural property law retained by Hobby Lobby warned the company that the acquisition of cultural property likely from Iraq, including cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals, carries a risk that such objects may have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq, the U.S. attorney said. The expert also advised Hobby Lobby to review its collection of antiquities for any objects of Iraqi origin and to verify that their country of origin was properly declared at the time of importation into the United States. The expert warned Hobby Lobby that an improper declaration of country of origin for cultural property could lead to seizure and forfeiture of the artifacts by CBP.
Hobby Lobby went ahead executed an agreement to purchase over 5,500 artifacts anyway, including cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay bullae and cylinder seals, for $1.6 million. The attorney’s office said the acquisition was “fraught with red flags.” Hobby Lobby representatives had not met or communicated with the dealer who purportedly owned the artifacts, nor did they pay him for the pieces. Rather, following instructions from another dealer, Hobby Lobby wired payment to seven personal bank accounts held in the names of other individuals. The complaint continued:
With Hobby Lobby’s consent, a UAE-based dealer shipped packages containing the Artifacts to three different corporate addresses in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Between one and three shipments arrived at a time, without the required customs entry documentation being filed with CBP, and bore shipping labels that falsely and misleadingly described their contents as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample).”
After about 10 packages were shipped in this manner Customs and Border Protection intercepted five shipments. All of the intercepted packages bore shipping labels that falsely declared that the artifacts’ country of origin was Turkey. In September 2011, a package containing about 1,000 clay bullae from the same purchase was received by Hobby Lobby. It was shipped by an Israeli dealer and accompanied by a false declaration stating that the bullae’s country of origin was Israel.
In a statement issued by Hobby Lobby, company president Steve Green said: “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”
The statement said that the goal of amassing a collection of historically and religiously important books and artifacts about the Bible was to “preserve these items for future generations, to provide broad access to scholars and students alike to study them, and to share the collection with the world in public institutions and museums.
“The Company was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process,” the statement said. “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…. Hobby Lobby has implemented acquisition policies and procedures based on the industry’s highest standards established by the Association of Art Museum Directors.”