Hobby Lobby To Forfeit Smuggled Iraqi Antiquities
by RICHARD GONZALES, NPR / July 5, 2017
Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma-based chain of arts and crafts retail stores, has agreed to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit thousands of ancient clay tablets and clay bullae that were smuggled into the United States with improper labels.
The announcement by the Justice Department says Hobby Lobby bought over 5,500 artifacts, such as clay tablets and blocks with cuneiform writing, and cylinder seals for $1.6 million. The artifacts were shipped to the company from Iraq through the United Arab Emirates and Israel with labels that described them as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample).”
In a statement, Hobby Lobby President Steve Green said 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.”
“We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” he said.
But the Justice Department prosecutors say the company should have realized that its acquisition of the artifacts “was fraught with red flags.”
In the announcement by Bridget M. Rohde, Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, says that in October 2010, “an expert on cultural property law retained by Hobby Lobby warned the company that the acquisition of cultural property likely from Iraq, including cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals, carries a risk that such objects may have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.”
The expert also told Hobby Lobby that the government could seize artifacts with “an improper declaration of country of origin for cultural property.”
Green said the company has adopted internal policies for importing cultural property and “is pleased the matter is resolved.”
He added that Hobby Lobby’s interest in acquiring historical Bibles and other artifacts “is consistent with the Company’s mission and passion for the Bible. [END]
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My random thoughts:
- This is a very strange story! To me, it exudes the strong and decidedly unpleasant odor of American, Evangelical-Christian arrogance.
- NPR’s headline and lead paragraph focus on the smuggling aspect, the intentional evading of legal and bureaucratic controls that have been put in place precisely for dealing with such things. But the statement by the U.S. Attorney, citing a warning years ago from the company’s own hired expert — which the company clearly ignored — goes more to the heart of the matter: “such objects may have been looted”.
- The U.S. Justice Department announcement (follow link) has more details of this shady affair, and additional pictures.
- The retailer — behind their veil of piety and supposed good intentions — is not the innocent victim they make themselves out to be. Hobby Lobby’s statement is actually pretty lame, seeing as they blatantly ignored sound advice before jumping into this morass. Their statement that the “dealers and shippers … did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items” is completely disingenuous. There was no “correct way”, because the people they were dealing with are smugglers and crooks! — and chances are that HL knew this right along.
- Note that the items in question were laundered through two Middle Eastern countries, the UAE and Israel. The same Justice Dept. press release states that the final batch of goodies “was shipped by an Israeli dealer and accompanied by a false declaration stating that the bullae’s country of origin was Israel.” Understand that the State of Israel allows for a “legal” antiquities trade, carried out by dealers licensed by the IAA, but any actual, meaningful oversight is very, very limited.
- ANYONE who purchases antiquities, however innocently, even from a “licensed” dealer, is very often — at least indirectly — enabling and encouraging the looting of another people’s cultural heritage, not to mention the irretrievable destruction of archaeological sites.
- As for Iraq: Haven’t Americans already done enough damage there, for God’s sake?
The original story, from NPR, is here: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/05/535698988/hobby-lobby-to-forfeit-smuggled-iraqi-antiquities
(1) BY FAR, the most incisive, informed comments I’ve encountered on this affair (as of mid-afternoon, Day One!) were posted this morning by an international expert in the field, Donna Yates, who blogs under the (presumably tongue-in-cheek) moniker “Anonymous Swiss Collector“. Here’s a sampling:
Yes, you should all be upset but this isn’t a surprise. […] You can’t collect antiquities without risking buying looted ones. […] You can’t collect antiquities on the scale of the Greens (MASSIVE SCALE) without certainly buying a lot of loot. This is common knowledge held by everyone in the trade. […] There is no legitimate source of these kinds of artefacts. [emphasis in original] Not on that scale. Looting is the source and lack of provenance is the proof. […] Yes, this is white collar crime. They expected to be shielded by their wealth and social capital. […] Return of that many artefacts and $3mil is more than the usual slap on the wrist. We’ll see if it happens. That said, Google tells me that David Green has a net worth of $5.7 billion so he won’t feel it. He may not feel a lot of social shame either. For this level of white collar criminal, I wonder if even a tiny sliver of jail time is a more effective deterrent. You heard me: dodgy market-end folks should go to jail, not low-level antiquities looters. It’s all about what is effective, folks. Sadly, it never works out that way.
(2) MORE EXCELLENT COMMENTARY on this affair, the Green family collection, the soon-to-be-opened Museum of the Bible, and the broader issues of the trade in antiquities, is HERE. (Contrary to the title of my original post, the Green family are not merely “dabbling” in antiquities — they’ve waded in up to their waists, or more.)
(3) 31 JULY 2017
(4) 03 MAY 2018
(5) JUNE 2018
(6) OCT 2018
(7) MAR 2020
(8) MAY 2020
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My closely related post (and comments), from 2012: