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Hobby Lobby agreed to a settlement to relinquish thousands of Iraqi artifacts that were illegally smuggled into the U.S. in 2011. Photo provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

3,800 artifacts once bought by Hobby Lobby were just returned to Iraq

Thousands of ancient clay and stone artifacts that were smuggled into the U.S. and shipped to Hobby Lobby stores will be returned to Iraq, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced today.

The artifacts, including cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals and clay bullae, were falsely labeled on the shipping labels as tile “samples,” ICE said in a statement last year, announcing a formal civil complaint against the arts-and-crafts retailer.

Soon after, Hobby Lobby agreed to pay a $3 million fine and surrender its cache of artifacts that the company had acquired in 2010 through dealers based in the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

At the time, Hobby Lobby president Steve Green said in a statement that the company “should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” signaling that it was inexperience that led to the smuggling. The Justice Department, however, said the acquisitions were “fraught with red flags.”

How did a chain selling arts and crafts supplies get in trouble for smuggling artifacts? Here’s a breakdown:

What did Hobby Lobby do?

Hobby Lobby purchased more than 5,500 artifacts for $1.6 million dollars and imported these historical antiquities against federal law. According to the civil complaint, restrictions have been placed on importing Iraqi cultural property since 1990.

One of the ancient tablets illegally smuggled to Hobby Lobby stores. Photo provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

One of the ancient tablets illegally smuggled to Hobby Lobby stores. Photo provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

A dealer from the United Arab Emirates then shipped the artifacts in a series of packages, some of which were eventually intercepted by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. According to DOJ, the packages were set to arrive in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where Hobby Lobby’s headquarters is located.

Every shipment found by the CPB lacked the correct customs documentation and had shipping labels that “falsely and misleadingly” identified the contents as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles,” the DOJ said. The labels also said the artifacts hailed from Turkey, a country that doesn’t have the same importing requirements as Iraq.

Other items were shipped from Israel and falsely declared to be from the same country.

It’s unclear if Hobby Lobby knew the items were illegally smuggled.

“The Hobby Lobby case proves again what experts have long warned: There is a major market in the United States for looted antiquities from the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.” said Tess Davis, executive Director of The Antiquities Coalition. “The looting and trafficking of these objects is funding crime, conflict and terror throughout the region and increasingly the world,” she said.

What are the artifacts?

ICE said in a statement that the objects include many ancient tablets with origins in the ancient Sumerian city of Irisagrig.

The tablets date between 2100 to 1600 BC 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.” Cuneiform was an ancient form of writing on these Mesopotamian tablets. Bullae are clay seals that can fit in the palm of your hand.

One of the artifacts seized from Hobby Lobby. Photo provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

One of the artifacts seized from Hobby Lobby. Photo provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

ICE said 3,800 artifacts in total were turned over today to the Embassy of Iraq in Washington, D.C. NPR reported that an embassy official said the items would likely end up in Iraq’s National Museum.

What were the red flags?

The DOJ stated plainly that the company moved forward with the $1.6 million purchase of the artifacts, despite an expert’s warning that the items could have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.

In 2010, Hobby Lobby retained an “expert on cultural property law” who urged the company to verify the origins of the items they were seeking to buy, DOJ said. Otherwise, they were open to seizure by the CPB.

Other red flags cited by DOJ: Hobby Lobby did not personally meet or communicate directly with the owner of the artifacts. Instead, as advised, the company wired payments to seven personal bank accounts connected to five different individuals.

Why is Hobby Lobby interested in these artifacts?

Hobby Lobby has said it began in 2009 to collect historical artifacts — items that specifically spoke to the Evangelical Christian company’s mission. Hobby Lobby president David Green is said to have collected as many as 40,000 biblical artifacts and texts in a few years’ time. Green also funded the Museum of the Bible, a 430,000-square-foot building and tribute to the Christian text, last year in Washington, D.C.

When Hobby Lobby agreed to relinquish the illegally smuggled artifacts last year, the company said in a statement that it was “new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process.”

The statement also said 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 did not immediately respond to the NewsHour’s request on how the company has changed its process in importing these historical artifacts.

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