The Scandal over Hobby Lobby’s Purchase of 5,500 Smuggled Artifacts, Explained

  • Photo by Nicholas Eckhart, via Flickr.

    Photo by Nicholas Eckhart, via Flickr.

In early January of 2011, United States Customs and Border Patrol agents in Memphis, Tennessee intercepted a FedEx package from the United Arab Emirates bound for the president or executive assistant of Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts supply chain headquartered in Oklahoma. Labeled “hand made [sic] clay tiles (sample)” and purported to have been manufactured in Turkey, the contents were valued by the shipper at a mere $250—far below the $2,000 threshold required for clearance with customs.

Inside, agents found roughly 50 ancient cuneiform tablets smuggled out of Iraq, purchased by Hobby Lobby for around $14,000. Over the course of several days, customs agents detained four more packages filled with ancient artifacts, all accompanied by false customs information and en route to multiple addresses affiliated with Hobby Lobby. Their collective declared value was $1,435—less than 1% of the $146,649 Hobby Lobby paid, according to invoices that accompanied the purchases. And these were just the packages customs agents detained, several more made it to Hobby Lobby addresses.

These are just a few of the details from a settlement agreement, filed on Wednesday, between the Department of Justice and Hobby Lobby over smuggled artifacts purchased in a 2010 transaction by the company, which is owned by the Green family. The artifacts were destined for a forthcoming Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., of which Hobby Lobby president Steven Green is the major backer. The museum is slated to open in November of this year.

The settlement documents describe a series of events reminiscent of an Indiana Jones film. Hobby Lobby seemingly ignored red flags raised by an internal expert about the artifacts’ provenance, and worked with shady dealers who actively attempted to keep the imports out of the view of customs officers.


A fine and a forfeiture

Under the terms of the settlement, Hobby Lobby will pay a $3 million fine and forfeit more than 5,500 illicit objects—mainly cuneiform tablets and clay seals—purchased from unidentified agents for $1.6 million at Green’s behest. The government will list the pieces on forfeiture.gov for the rightful owners to claim within 60 days, after which the Iraqi government can submit its own claims. Additionally, Hobby Lobby will have to submit reports on its acquisitions for the next 18 months, work with customs brokers, and abide by industry guidelines governing the purchase of such works while tightening its own internal review processes.

“We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” Green said in a statement on the company’s website. “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.”

This is not the first time Hobby Lobby has made headlines for activities associated with the evangelical Christian beliefs of its owners. In 2014, the company was the defendant in the Supreme Court case which controversially established that family-owned companies do not have to provide for birth control under the Affordable Care Act if doing so violates their religious beliefs.

  • Cuniform tablet, via the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

    Cuniform tablet, via the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

Not a surprise to some

Hobby Lobby began assembling its collection of artifacts in 2009, and over the years the family amassed some 40,000 pieces. In mid-July of 2010, Green himself traveled to the UAE to inspect thousands of ancient objects for a potential sale. Several dealers from the UAE and Israel attended the viewing, in which cuneiform tablets—clay objects inscribed with the writing system of ancient Mesopotamia, which includes modern-day Iraq—were “spread on the floor, arranged in layers on a coffee table, and packed loosely in cardboard boxes, in many instances with little or no protective material between them,” the stipulation of settlement said.

Around December 8th, Hobby Lobby purchased the Iraqi artifacts for $1.6 million, wired to seven different bank accounts registered to five different people.

The scale of personal and institutional collecting efforts drew the attention of those in the antiquities field. Even before reports emerged two years ago that Green was under investigation, some questioned the legality of the purchases, given the paucity of legitimate sources offering such artifacts at market. For them, Wednesday’s announcement was a long time coming.

“My first reaction was: finally,” said Donna Yates, a professor who studies art crime and trafficking at the University of Glasgow, and who wrote about the Hobby Lobby case on her website.


Red flags

It wasn’t only outside observers who sensed trouble. Before the sale, an expert hired by Hobby Lobby raised stark concerns about the purchase of works from Iraq, writing in a memo to the company that “the acquisition of cultural property from Iraq [...] carries a risk that such objects may have been looted from archeological sites in Iraq,” according to the settlement document. The trade of looted property or property reasonably suspected of being looted after 1990 is forbidden by both Iraqi and U.S. law. The expert also advised Hobby Lobby to research the rest of its collection and ensure that the correct country of origin was reported at the time of import.

“Often with cases, companies or collectors will say ‘I had no idea there was an issue,’” said Leila A. Amineddoleh, an art lawyer who consulted for the government on its investigation. “In this case there is some proof that at least some people in company did know what was going on, because they did speak to an expert.” Despite the red flags, the transaction continued.

Furthermore, an employee at Hobby Lobby tasked with handling the artifacts purchased for the collection (identified in the stipulation of settlement as the “curator”) contacted the company’s International Department and Green’s executive assistant to determine how the works should be imported. The International Department advised contacting a customs broker, who in turn reported that the artifacts could be held by customs. “The curator and executive assistant agreed on their own to bypass the International Department and Customs Broker and have the vendor handle the shipping arrangements,” the settlement reads.

Beginning in November 2010, the artifacts were shipped to Hobby Lobby by a UAE-based dealer and by another dealer based in Israel. In addition to being inaccurately labeled, the packages were shipped to several different addresses, a practice “consistent with methods used by cultural property smugglers to avoid scrutiny by Customs,” the complaint asserts.

Given the timing of the transaction, it is highly unlikely that company money ever went to the terrorist group Islamic State (which did not yet exist in its current form when the payment was made in 2010) or directly to any other extremist organization. Though she couldn’t speak to the specifics of the Hobby Lobby purchase, Yates also noted that generally the type of dealers who participate in this level of transaction are also not religious extremists but rather “Janus figures,” people who straddle the line dividing legitimate art-dealing circles and the organized criminal elements tied to the trade.

After some of the packages were detained by customs, the government filed in March of 2011 to officially seize the pieces. Hobby Lobby initially resisted in court, citing flawed and contradictory provenance statements provided by the UAE dealer. Why they decided to cooperate now is unclear, but the government might have used the potential for criminal action as leverage to negotiate a settlement.

However, the settlement’s terms do not preclude future prosecutions related to the case, said Steven D. Feldman, a former assistant U.S. attorney, now a lawyer with Murphy & McGonigle, who has written about looted antiquity. While a fine of $3 million might not deter illicit trade of this kind, jail time would send a more forceful message. And many of the actions detailed in the government’s complaint, particularly the false customs information, constitute“the kind of conduct people are prosecuted criminally for,” he said.  

Whether or not there are future prosecutions, the case highlights the risks of purchasing antiquities, since the market for ancient artifacts is rife with looted or smuggled goods, said Feldman.

“If you’re buying this stuff, you’re running the risk that you’re going to be investigated and potentially subject to forfeiture and criminal prosecution,” he said.


—Isaac Kaplan

Correction:

An earlier version of this article stated the first shipment of illicit antiquities to Hobby Lobby was in November of 2011. It was actually in November of 2010.