US retailer Hobby Lobby fined millions over smuggled Iraqi artefacts
The US Department of Justice says thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae, originally from Iraq, were smuggled into the United States via the UAE and Israel in packages shipped to the Oklahoma-based company.
Hobby Lobby, one of the largest privately owned arts-and-crafts retailer in the world, began acquiring artefacts in 2009 as part of the "company's mission and passion for the bible", and aimed to share them with museums and public institutions.
US prosecutors warned the company against the risk of such items being looted from archaeological sites in Iraq and said the improper declaration of country of origin could lead to forfeiture.
In 2010, 10 packages were shipped to the firm in Oklahoma City, with five intercepted by customs officials bearing labels falsely declaring the artefacts came from Turkey.
Hobby Lobby paid $1.6 million for the more than 5,500 artefacts, including cuneiform tablets, clay bullae and cylinder seals.
The company did not communicate with the dealer who claimed to own the artefacts and instead wired payment to personal bank accounts held in the names of other people.
In 2011, the firm also received a package of 1,000 clay bullae shipped by an Israeli dealer, accompanied by a false declaration stating that the contents originated in Israel.
"American collectors and importers must ensure compliance with laws and regulations that require truthful declarations to US Customs and Border Protection," said acting US attorney in Brooklyn, Bridget Rohde.
Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit the artefacts and pay $3 million to settle the civil action, with company president Steve Green saying it "should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled."
"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," Hobby Lobby said.
Iraq says 15,000 artefacts have been looted since the US-led invasion in 2003, including statues and treasure from the Akkadian era (2161-2371BC).
During the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, US forces were widely accused of failing to protect the cultural antiquities of Iraq.