Hobby Lobby today agreed to forfeit thousands (yes, thousands) of cuneiform tablets and clay seals (bullae), along with 144 cylinder seals and $3 million dollars to the United States Government in a civil suit. The artifacts most likely were looted from Iraq and smuggled into the US as “tile samples” via the UAE. Removing artifacts from archaelogical sites removes them from their historical context and makes them largely unusable for understanding the past. The money from their sales often goes to organizations like ISIS.
According to the complaint and stipulated statement of facts filed with the court, in or around 2009, Hobby Lobby began to assemble a collection of historically significant manuscripts, antiquities and other cultural materials. In connection with this effort, Hobby Lobby’s president and a consultant traveled to the UAE in July 2010 to inspect a large number of cuneiform tablets and other antiquities being offered for sale (the “Artifacts”). Cuneiform is an ancient system of writing on clay tablets that was used in ancient Mesopotamia thousands of years ago.
In October 2010, an expert on cultural property law retained by Hobby Lobby warned the company that the acquisition of cultural property likely from Iraq, including cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals, carries a risk that such objects may have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq. The expert also advised Hobby Lobby to review its collection of antiquities for any objects of Iraqi origin and to verify that their country of origin was properly declared at the time of importation into the United States. The expert warned Hobby Lobby that an improper declaration of country of origin for cultural property could lead to seizure and forfeiture of the artifacts by CBP.
Notwithstanding these warnings, in December 2010, Hobby Lobby executed an agreement to purchase over 5,500 Artifacts, comprised of cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay bullae and cylinder seals, for $1.6 million. The acquisition of the Artifacts was fraught with red flags. 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.
Hobby Lobby’s religion is so strong, though, that they can’t pay for insurance that would allow women to have contraceptives.