Hobby Lobby — home to glitter glue, crepe paper, and distress paint — was also apparently in the business of acquiring ancient Mesopotamian relics. However, the crafty retailer says it didn’t quite understand all the ins and outs of the whole “importing artifacts from Iraq” process and has agreed to forfeit thousands of items, including clay cuneiform tablets, that the federal government says were smuggled into the country.
According to court documents [PDF], Hobby Lobby began acquiring historically significant manuscripts and other rare items in 2009. The money spent on these purchases was approved by the retailer’s president Steve Green, says the DOJ.
In 2010, he and a hired consultant traveled to the United Arab Emirates to look at artifacts that two Israeli dealers were offering for sale, including 1,500 cuneiform tablets, 500 cuneiform bricks, 3,000 bullae (clay balls that have been stamped with a seal), 35 envelope seals, 13 extra-large cuneiform tablets, and 500 stone cylinder seals.
Hobby Lobby told prosecutors that the dealers who were selling these artifacts had provided documentation declaring that the various items had been “legally acquired” in the 1960s by a father of one of the dealers, that the items had been moved to U.S. in the 1970s and then taken back to the UAE to show to the Hobby Lobby president. They gave the retailer the name of a Mississippi-based, purported “custodian” of these items, but the DOJ says this had never stored any of these items.
An expert in cultural property law advised Hobby Lobby’s top lawyer about the risks associated with items that originated in Iraq or neighboring countries, as they are “likely to have been looted.” In fact, he specifically named “cuneiform tablets” as a red-flag item, noting that a fuzzy import history of such an item could “lead to seizure and forfeiture of the object,” and that there are potential criminal risks involved with importing looted artifacts from Iraq.
The DOJ says this expert’s memo was never shown to the Hobby Lobby president or “anyone involved in the purchase and importation” of the tablets and other items.
And so, in Dec. 2010, Hobby Lobby’s president agreed to pay $1.6 million to purchase thousands of artifacts from one of these sellers, who had already sent at least one containing as many as 23 pieces. The items — and other subsequent packages — were not formally declared to Customs, despite being over the maximum value threshold for informal entry, and the shipping label on the package merely described them as “ceramic tiles” or “tiles (SAMPLE).” Some packages did accurately describe the contents, but inaccurately described the country of origin, says the DOJ.
In Jan. 2011, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detained multiple FedEx shipments, containing tablets and bullae, coming from the UAE and heading to Hobby Lobby in Oklahoma City. The first one had a shipping label that described the contents as “hand made [sic] clay tiles (sample)” that had been manufactured in Turkey and totaling only $250 in value. The DOJ says the actual value of this one package was more than $14,000.
Two days later, another box of supposedly Turkish tiles samples was detained by CPB, which determined that the package was actually worth in excess of $84,000 — 280 times the declared value of $300.
The government notified Hobby Lobby of these and other seizures in March 2011. Two months later, the company actually petitioned CBP for the release of the artifacts, providing the provenance documents they received from the dealers; documents that ultimately turned out to be wildly inaccurate.
Now Hobby Lobby has agreed to acknowledge its failures in doing proper due diligence on these purchases. The detained items will not be given over to the retailer, and Hobby Lobby will forfeit approximately 450 tablets, 3,000 bullae, and 144 cylinder seals. Additionally, the company will pay $3 million.
It’s worth pointing out that the forfeiture lawsuit brought by the DOJ wasn’t against Hobby Lobby, but an in rem complaint, which is brought against a disputed piece of property. For another example, read this story about the time the federal government “arrested” a solid gold rooster statue.
In a statement on its website, Hobby Lobby’s Green admits that “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”
The retailer says it “imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items,” and stresses that “At no time did Hobby Lobby ever purchase items from dealers in Iraq or from anyone who indicated that they acquired items from that country.”
Hobby Lobby defends the idea of acquiring these artifacts, contending that “Developing a collection of historically and religiously important books and artifacts about the Bible is consistent with the Company’s mission and passion for the Bible,” and that the retailer had hoped to preserve the purchased items and make them available for scholars to study.
“We have accepted responsibility and learned a great deal,” says Green. “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.”