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Hobby Lobby smuggled biblical artifacts looted from Iraq. Now it has to return them.

An example of a cuneiform tablet smuggled into the U.S.
An example of a cuneiform tablet smuggled into the U.S. Department of Justice

Hobby Lobby will pay $3 million and return thousands of biblical artifacts smuggled into the U.S.

The craft store chain imported the items into the U.S. after deciding in 2009 to start collecting “a variety of historical Bibles and other artifacts.” Hobby Lobby said the cuneiform tablets and lay bullae were antiquities “consistent with the company’s mission and passion for the Bible.”

But the items, which originated in Iraq, were not appropriately labeled when they were shipped into the U.S. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, the artifacts were smuggled through the United Arab Emirates and Israel. Iraq did not appear as a country of origin on the packages, which were labeled as tile “samples,” not items of historical significance.

“We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” Hobby Lobby President Steve Green said in a statement. “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.”

Although an expert on cultural property law warned Hobby Lobby that such historic items had likely been looted from Iraq, the company agreed to purchase more than 5,500 artifacts in December 2010. The company said in its statement following the settlement that it “did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process” which resulted in “some regrettable mistakes.”

“The acquisition of the artifacts was fraught with red flags,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York said in a statement. “Hobby Lobby representatives had not met or communicated with the dealer who purportedly owned the artifacts, nor did they pay him for the artifacts. Rather, following instructions from another dealer, Hobby Lobby wired payment for the artifacts to seven personal bank accounts held in the names of other individuals.”

Shipments were sent to three different locations in the U.S., with one to three arriving at a time. After around 10 packages were received by Hobby Lobby and its affiliates, U.S. Customs and Border Protection intercepted five additional shipments. Shipping labels read that the contents’ country of origin was Turkey, with one additional shipment supposedly from Israel.

“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,” said Angel Melendez, special agent-in-charge of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security investigations.

Hobby Lobby is well known for its challenge to the federal mandate under the Affordable Care Act requiring companies to pay for contraception for employees. The craft chain argued it violated religious freedom and the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the company in the 2014 case.

Green also serves as chairman of the board of the Museum of the Bible which is slated to open in Washington, D.C. this November. Its collection will include Bibles in more than 2,000 language, a walk-through replica of first-century Nazareth and a host of other artifacts.

“We have accepted responsibility and learned a great deal,” Green said. “Our entire team is committed to the highest standards for investigating and acquiring these items. Our passion for the Bible continues, and we will do all that we can to support the efforts to conserve items that will help illuminate and enhance our understanding of this great book.”

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