Hobby Lobby agrees to pay $3 million over smuggled ancient Iraqi artifacts

A cuneiform tablet.
Department of Justice

Hobby Lobby, a chain of retail arts and crafts stores, has agreed to pay $3 million and forfeit ancient artifacts that were smuggled into the United States, the Department of Justice said Wednesday.

“We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” a statement from Hobby Lobby president Steve Green said. “We have accepted responsibility and learned a great deal.”

Around 2009, Hobby Lobby allegedly began collecting “historically significant manuscripts, antiquities and other cultural materials.” Green and a consultant reportedly went to the United Arab Emirates to inspect several cuneiform tablets – clay tablets that were used for writing in Mesopotamia, thousands of years ago – and other antiques that were up for sale.

According to the Justice Department’s statement, Hobby Lobby had been warned of the “conflicting information where the Artifacts had been stored,” raising the possibility they may have been looted by other parties from archaeological sites. In 2010, Hobby Lobby purchased over 5,500 artifacts for $1.6 million.

Representatives between the parties did not meet or communicate with the dealer – instead, Hobby Lobby reportedly wired funds to seven personal bank accounts “held in the names of other individuals.”

A dealer from UAE then shipped the artifacts to three corporate addresses in Oklahoma, where the contents were falsely labeled as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample).” The US Customs and Border Protection, who intercepted several shipments, also discovered several shipments had falsely declared its country of origin as Turkey and Israel.

“In executing the stipulation of settlement, Hobby Lobby has accepted responsibility for its past conduct and agreed to take steps to remedy the deficiencies that resulted in its unlawful importation of the Artifacts,” the Justice Department said.

“The protection of cultural heritage is a mission that [Homeland Security Investigations] and its partner US Customs and Border Protection take very seriously as we recognize that while some may put a price on these artifacts, the people of Iraq consider them priceless,” Special Agent-in-Charge Angel Melendez said.