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.
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.