BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Seizing thousands of Iraqi artifacts from Hobby Lobby, federal prosecutors said in a complaint Wednesday that the retailer had been warned by its own expert that the antiquities it acquired were likely looted.
The Oklahoma-based arts-and-crafts chain is no stranger to federal litigation, as the force behind the 2014 Supreme Court decision carving out a contraception exemption for closely held for-profit corporations under the federal health care law.
That case showcased the conservative Christian beliefs of Hobby Lobby president Steve Green, who is depicted in Wednesday’s complaint as the driving force behind the store’s collection of historically important manuscripts and antiquities with biblical resonance.
Neither Hobby Lobby, Green, nor other executives are accused of wrongdoing in the complaint, which lists only the artifacts as defendants. The Justice Department did say in a statement, however, that shipments of the antiquities to Hobby Lobby stores were falsely labeled as tile “samples.”
Having agreed to settle the case, Hobby Lobby will forfeit the artifacts and pay $3 million. Green acknowledged that his team should have vetted the acquisitions more closely.
“We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” Green said in a statement. “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.”
Starting the collection in 2009, Green traveled with a consultant to the United Arab Emirates a year later to inspect the artifacts a year later, prosecutors say.
“The contemplated sale included 5,548 distinct artifacts: 1,500 cuneiform tablets, 500 cuneiform
bricks, 3,000 clay bullae, 35 clay envelope seals, 13 extra-large cuneiform tablets and 500 stone cylinder seals,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Karin Orenstein wrote in a 21-page complaint.
Prosecutors believe that Hobby Lobby made out with a sizeable portion of the collections, including roughly 450 cuneiform tablets and approximately 3,000 ancient clay bullae. Cuneiform script is one of the earliest systems of writing, invented by the Sumerians.
When he returned from his July 2010 trip, Green told a customs officer that he had brought back a Bible that cost him more than $1 million, prosecutors say.
According to the complaint, unnamed Israeli dealers sent Hobby Lobby a provenance statement claiming that the artifacts had been legally acquired, but an expert retained by the company’s in-house counsel warned otherwise.
“I would regard the acquisition of any artifact likely from Iraq (which could be described as Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Akkadian, Sumerian, Babylonian, Parthian, Sassanian and
possibly other historic or cultural terms) as carrying considerable risk,” the unnamed expert wrote, according to the complaint.
“An estimated 200-500,000 objects have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq since the early 1990s; particularly popular on the market and likely to have been looted are cylinder seals, cuneiform tablets,” the expert continued.
Prosecutors say Hobby Lobby’s in-house counsel read the expert’s report but did not share it with Green or anyone else involved with the sale.
Green ultimately signed a $1.6 million purchase agreement for the antiquities, which ranged from $280.40 to $1,000 per item.
Roughly six years after seizing the items in 2010 and 2011, federal prosecutors announced the commencement of forfeiture proceedings Wednesday.