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Hobby Lobby Fined $3M, Agrees to Return Smuggled Iraqi Artifacts

by Tracy Connor /
Image: Cuneiform tablets
Cuneiform tablets were falsely labeled as product samples and shipped to Hobby Lobby Stores.U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York

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The arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby will pay $3 million to settle a federal case over smuggled Iraqi antiquities it bought to demonstrate its "passion for the Bible."

The Oklahoma-based retailer also agreed to forfeit thousands of clay artifacts it bought in 2010 — an acquisition that prosecutors said was "fraught with red flags" the company didn't heed.

In a statement, Hobby Lobby President Steve Green acknowledged "regrettable mistakes" that he chalked up to inexperience.

"We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled," Green said, adding that the firm fully cooperated with the investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

Hobby Lobby is perhaps best known for its Supreme Court victory in a 2014 religious freedom case over contraception. The family that owns the company is also bankrolling a $500 million Museum of the Bible slated to open in Washington in the fall.

In 2009, the company decided to amass a collection of books and artifacts "consistent with the Company’s mission and passion for the Bible." Green and a consultant traveled to the United Arab Emirates to inspect cuneiform tablets that were thousands of years old, along with engraved seals and the clay impressions they made.

According to a civil complaint, an expert hired by Hobby Lobby had warned its in-house lawyer that there was a risk the items it wanted to buy had been looted and counseled them to make sure the country of origin was properly labeled on customs forms.

Image: Cuneiform tablets
Hobby Lobby paid $1.6 million for tablets and other artifacts.U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York

Instead, prosecutors said, the 5,500 artifacts were shipped without proper documentation, with labels that described them simply as "ceramic tiles" or "samples" from Turkey or Israel. The company didn't pay the dealer who supposedly owned the items, instead wiring $1.6 million in payment to the accounts of seven other individuals.

Green said Hobby Lobby didn't know the items were from Iraq and has put safeguards in place to ensure future acquisitions are properly vetted.

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