At first glance, the news that an American arts and crafts chain was fined for smuggling ancient clay cuneiform tablets may not compute, but it makes more sense when you learn the chain is Hobby Lobby, and the artifacts are related to the company’s effort to amass a collection of biblical antiquities.
Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York announced on Wednesday that Hobby Lobby has agreed to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit 5,500 Iraqi artifacts, including cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay bullae, and cylinder seals. Hobby Lobby purchased the items for $1.6 million in December 2010, about a year after company founder David Green and his family began collecting ancient artifacts.
Hobby Lobby has made various efforts to promote evangelical Christianity – most notably by successfully fighting a provision of the Affordable Care Act that would have forced companies to pay for insurance that covers birth control. As The Atlantic explained in a January 2016 report, the Green family has amassed the largest private collection of biblical antiquities – particularly ancient manuscripts that shed light on the origins of the Bible as it’s known today. The family is the major force behind the $500 million Museum of the Bible, which is set to open in Washington, D.C., this fall.
There’s debate about what these contradictory fragments say about the authority of Scripture. As The Atlantic reports, more recent nonprofit filings describe the museum’s mission as “nonsectarian,” but in its original 2010 filing the museum made its stance known, saying it exists “to bring to life the living word of God, to tell its compelling story of preservation, and to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible.”
Federal prosecutors say that in October 2010 an expert on cultural property law retained by Hobby Lobby warned the company that objects from Iraq were risky purchases, as many sites were illegally looted during the Iraq War and and the rise of ISIS. Nevertheless, a few months later, Hobby Lobby went forward with a purchase that was “fraught with red flags,” according to the prosecutors’ statement:
For example, Hobby Lobby received conflicting information where the Artifacts had been stored prior to the inspection in the UAE. Further, when the Artifacts were presented for inspection to Hobby Lobby’s president and consultant in July 2010, they were displayed informally. In addition, 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.
Dealers in the United Arab Emirates and Israel falsely labeled the artifacts as“ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample)” and shipped them to three Hobby Lobby properties in Oklahoma in 2011.
Hobby Lobby issued a statement accepting responsibility, saying it was new to the world of purchasing antiquities and made “regrettable mistakes” while navigating the acquisitions process.
“We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” said Steve Green, the company’s president and founder. “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.”
The Justice Department said it will give then artifacts’ owners 60 days to submit claims to the pieces, and then the Iraqi government can submit its own claim to have the items returned.