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Smuggled Iraqi Artifacts Forfeited by Hobby Lobby

Hobby Lobby has agreed to forfeit 5,500 artifacts that the company illegally imported in the U.S. from Iraq. Labeling the packages that made their way from Israel and the United Arab Emirates to retail outlets owned by Hobby Lobby as tile samples, Hobby Lobby was hoping to avoid the artifacts from being revealed.  Thanks to a civil complaint, federal prosecutors were able to identify the packages for what they really were: ancient clay cuneiform tablets.

Hobby Lobby is a retail outlet that sells arts and crafts supplies run by Christian evangelical owners who have long maintained an interest in the biblical Middle East. The company, or rather the owners, began to assemble a collection of cultural artifacts from the Fertile Crescent in 2009. Hobby Lobby sent its president and an antiquities consultant to the United Arab Emirates to inspect a large number of cuneiform tablets. These tablets are traditional clay slabs originating in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago, often depicted with wedge-shaped writing.

Despite being given plenty of warning that the artifacts might have been looted from historical sites in Iraq by an expert on cultural property law and that failing to determine their heritage could break the law, Hobby Lobby struck a deal and purchased more than 5,500 tablets. Hobby Lobby ended up paying $1.6 million in December 2010 to an unnamed dealer.

According to prosecutors, Hobby Lobby reported that the transaction in 2010 was fraught with red flags. The company received conflicting information about the origin of the pieces, and its representatives never met or spoke with the dealer who supposedly owned them. Instead, working with a second dealer, Hobby Lobby wired payments to seven separate personal bank accounts. Upon completing this task, the first dealer shipped the items marked as clay or ceramic tiles to three Hobby Lobby sites in Oklahoma. The country of origins on all three packages were falsely labeled as coming from Turkey.

In addition to the complaint, prosecutors filed a stipulation of settlement with Hobby Lobby requiring them to return all artifacts pieces while also paying a fine of $3 million dollars to the government in order to resolve the civil action. Hobby Lobby has also been ordered to adopt better internal policies to govern its importation of cultural items, while also hiring qualified customs brokers and advisers. Finally, Hobby Lobby is required to submit quarterly reports to the U.S. attorney’s office detailing any future antiquity purchases within the next 18 months.

An online notification will be posted giving the original owners of the pieces 60 days to claim the artifacts, and the Iraqi government can then submit a claim should no claim be posted or not all artifacts are claimed.

Hobby Lobby’s collection of artifacts and historical Bibles are consistent with the religious climate within the company, and that their intentions were to share the tablets with museums and public institutions. Hobby Lobby response to the smuggling allegations was that they were new to the acquiring antiquities, find the acquisition process far more complex.

Hobby Lobby’s action is not new, and in fact, they have spent years undertaking numerous efforts to promote evangelical Christianity through the use of media and their store outlets. In 2014, Hobby Lobby was the defendant in a case regarding paying insurance coverage of contraception. Hobby Lobby won with a ruling that family-owned corporations could not be forced to pay insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act if it violated a federal law protecting religious freedom.

Supporters of Hobby Lobby or the company itself may respond to the forfeiting of the artifacts as a violation of their religious freedom. It is in cases like these that granting companies religious protections difficult, as the lines blur as to whether the actions of the family represent the actions of the company and vice versa. There is a possibility for this situation to be taken advantage of, considering that stolen artifacts can provide a great amount of profit. Hopefully, Hobby Lobby learns from its mistakes and does not attempt to illegally import potentially stolen artifacts again.

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