July 6, 2017

Civil Complaint requires forfeiture of thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae, but is that enough?

Cuneiform Tablet - Image Credit U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York
By: Lynda Albertson


At the heart of the investigation, were import irregularities related to ancient artifacts shipped to Hobby Lobby, Mardel, Inc. and Crafts, Etc! The firms Mardel, Inc. and Crafts, Etc! were affiliates of Hobby Lobby and both maintained their principal corporate offices adjacent to Hobby Lobby’s headquarters in Oklahoma City.  

The antiquities were shipped to Hobby Lobby and their associates by dealers in Israel and the United Arab Emirates (“UAE”), all of whom have been left unnamed in the civil complaint.  The objects were shipped without required customs entry documentation being filed with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and bore shipping labels that falsely and misleadingly described their contents and their value, in some cases as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample).” In truth, the mislabeled objects were ancient clay and stone artifacts that originate from the area of modern day Iraq, which had been smuggled into the United States after their contracted purchase in the Middle East. 

Hobby Lobby's growing Green Collection is purported to be the largest private collection of rare biblical texts and artifacts worldwide and is estimated to be made up of more than 40,000 biblical-related antiquities, purchased and assembled by the Green family, who are founders of the national arts and crafts chain.  The bulk of this collection is intended to be displayed in their 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible, which is scheduled to open in Washington DC in November of 2017.

As is often the case with illicit antiquities smuggled around the globe, the intercepted packages, destined eventually to join the museum's collection, had their shipping labels intentionally mislabeled, stating the country of origin as imports from Turkey and Israel, not Iraq.  The shippers also used multiple shipping addresses for objects destined for a single recipient.  This too is a technique used by smugglers of all types, not just illicit antiquities, as it is a means of avoiding scrutiny by customs authorities. 

In the DOJ press release Bridget M. Rohde, Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and Karin Orenstein, Assistant United States Attorney, of counsel, announced that Hobby Lobby Stores has agreed to pay a $3 million federal fine and forfeit thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts believed to have been smuggled in 15 shipments, 5 of which were stopped by the CBP on their way to the Greens.   

Hobby Lobby had executed an agreement to purchase the objects, despite their likely illicit origins, in 2010 for $1.6 million.  They paid for the antiquities via wire payments to seven personal bank accounts held in the names of five individuals.  This despite noticeable suspicious irregularities in the objects purported provenance and no direct contact with the objects' "owner.  The civil complaint also outlines conversations related to the purchase and import which indicate intentional changes to invoices and shipment to disguise the objects' value, and in some cases to change to purported seller. 

As DOJ documents state Title 19, United States Code, Section 1595a(c)(1)(A) provides that “merchandise which is introduced or attempted to be introduced into the United States contrary to law . . . shall be seized and forfeited if it . . . is stolen, smuggled, or clandestinely imported or introduced.”

Legal measures specific to Iraq also make it a violation of U.S. law to import any cultural objects removed from Iraq since August 1990, unless exported with the permission of Iraqi authorities.  Illegally importing objects that meet this criteria are subject to criminal penalties and fines.

Equally important Under Article 3 of Iraq’s Antiquities Law No. 59 of 1936 (as amended in 1974 and 1975), all antiquities found in Iraq, whether movable or
immovable, on or under the ground, are considered property of the state. Under Article 16 of Antiquities Law No. 59, private persons generally cannot possess antiquities. Article 26 of the same antiquities law prohibits the export of Iraqi antiquities and defines “antiquities” as movable possessions which were made, produced, sculpted, written or drawn by man and which are at least 200 years old.  Southern Mesopotamian objects definitely fall into this category as any collections management expert in Near East antiquity would be aware of.


Is a $3 million fine and the forfeiture of 450 ancient cuneiform tablets and 3,000 ancient clay bullae enough?

As a result of this investigation, Hobby Lobby has agreed to adopt internal policies and procedures governing its importation and purchase of cultural property, provide appropriate training to its personnel, hire qualified outside customs counsel and customs brokers, and submit quarterly reports to the government on any cultural property acquisitions for the next eighteen months.


So much for remorse. 

NB: No one has faced criminal prosecution (read: jail time) for their actions. 

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