Several thousand ancient artifacts are being returned to Iraq after they were falsely labeled as “tile samples” and illegally smuggled to the US retailer Hobby Lobby, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, said this week.
The move comes after ICE and the Justice Department last year brought a civil action against Hobby Lobby, saying it had received thousands of falsely labeled Iraqi artifacts from a United Arab Emirates-based supplier. Hobby Lobby in July agreed to forfeit the artifacts and pay a $3 million fine to resolve the action.
In all, ICE returned 3,800 ancient artifacts, including cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals and clay bullae.
“We will continue to work together to prevent the looting of antiquities and ensure that those who would attempt to profit from this crime are held accountable,” ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan said. “This ceremony should serve as a powerful reminder that nobody is above the law.”
“This is really important to us,” Iraqi Ambassador to the US Fareed Yasseen said. “You have to understand that in Iraq, memories are long, and so we really have a sense of kinship to these artifacts.”
Many of the tablets came from the ancient city of Irisagrig and date from 2100 to 1600 BC, with other artifacts thought to be around 500 years older, ICE said. Cuneiform is an ancient system of writing on clay tablets that was used in Mesopotamia, while the seals are engraved with pictorial stories, and clay bullae are balls of clay on which seals have been imprinted.
The cuneiform tablets and clay bullae were smuggled into the United States through the United Arab Emirates and Israel, Justice officials said.
The dealers working with Hobby Lobby falsely labeled the shipments as “ceramics” and “samples” and illegally shipped them to Hobby Lobby stores and two corporate offices, according to the DOJ.
Hobby Lobby’s president last year opened a Bible museum in Washington said to contain some 40,000 biblical artifacts.
At the time of its settlement with ICE and DOJ, Hobby Lobby said that it should have exercised more oversight in its acquisitions.
“In 2009, Hobby Lobby began acquiring a variety of historical Bibles and other artifacts. Developing a collection of historically and religiously important books and artifacts about the Bible is consistent with the company’s mission and passion for the Bible,” it said in the July statement.
“We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” Hobby Lobby President Steve Green said in the 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.”
The DOJ said Hobby Lobby had pledged to set up policies on the buying of cultural property, provide necessary training to its personnel, hire qualified outside customs counsel and customs brokers, and submit quarterly reports to the government on any cultural property it buys for eighteen months.
CNN’s Chris Boyette, David Shortell and Eric Levenson contributed to this report.