Hobby Lobby smuggling scandal exposed

Christian US company forefeits artifacts, pays $3 million after prosecutors accuse them of looting, theft, and smuggling.

Chana Roberts ,

Hobby Lobby
Hobby Lobby

US-based Hobby Lobby on Wednesday agreed to pay $3 million for smuggling ancient clay tablets, seals, and other ancient artifacts which may have been looted from Iraq in 2010 and 2011.

Hobby Lobby is a Christian-owned arts and crafts chain based in Oklahoma City. Its 6,000 branches remain closed on Sunday so employees can attend church.

Hobby Lobby President Steve Green is building the $800 million Museum of the Bible in Washington and has been collecting ancient artifacts, including clay bullae and cuneiform tablets, since 2009.

He pleaded innocent to doing business with dealers in the Middle East after federal prosecutors claimed the company's middlemen used phony invoices, shipping labels, and other paperwork to get the artifacts past US customs agents.

Prosecutors also claimed the company in 2010 agreed to buy over 5,500 artifacts for $1.6 milllion, and that Hobby Lobby experts warned the company that the acquisitions carried "considerable risk" because of the high probability that the purchased articles were stolen.

Cuneiform tablets were labeled "ceramic tiles," and the imports were undervalued, shipped in small batches to multiple addresses, and labelled as imported from Turkey or Israel.

Some of them were sent by associates via the United Arab Emirates, where Green visited in 2010 for the purpose of viewing the artifacts.

As part of the settlement, Hobby Lobby will forfeit the stolen goods.

In a statement, Hobby Lobby said, "The company was new to the world of acquiring these items and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process. This resulted in some regrettable mistakes."

"It’s like that scene in 'Casablanca,' 'I am shocked, shocked, that there is gambling going on here,'" Boston University's Associate Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology Bob Murowchick said.

Explaining the ban on importing artifacts removed from Iraq after 1990, Murowchick said: "Our goal is, if we can cut down on the demand or make the punishment severe enough, we will have a chain reaction and people will be unwilling to loot."

The Museum of the Bible will open in November as planned, a representative said, adding that none of the stolen artifacts were ever part of its collection.