Hobby Lobby to pay $3M fine, hand over illicit ancient artifacts

Gladys Abbott
July 6, 2017

"The protection of cultural heritage is a mission that (Homeland Security Investigations) and its partner U.S. 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", Angel Melendez, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in NY, said in the statement.

Cuneiform is an ancient system of writing on clay tablets that was used in Mesopotamia, according to the DOJ, and clay bullae are balls of clay on which seals have been imprinted.

"The acquisition of the Artifacts was fraught with red flags", the DOJ wrote.

In or around 2009, Hobby Lobby began to assemble a collection of historically significant manuscripts, antiquities and other cultural materials. Though a consultant to the company estimated the artifacts' value at $11,820,000, an invoice shows Hobby Lobby paid $1,600,000 for them in deals with the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

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The company was reportedly warned by an expert on cultural artifacts in 2010 about its practice, with the expert claiming that "acquisition of cultural property.carries a risk that such objects may have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq". There were also questions in the purchasing procedure, where the company did not pay the reported owner for the artifacts, but wired money to different personal bank accounts under the instruction of another dealer, according to the DOJ.

Shipments were sent to three different locations in the USA, with one to three arriving at a time. 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.

"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.

Hobby Lobby may have known the lawsuit was forthcoming. In 2014, the company was the defendant in a landmark Supreme Court case that found forcing family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act violated a federal law protecting religious freedom. "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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