Hobby Lobby fined $3M over smuggled Iraqi artifacts

OKLAHOMA CITY — Federal prosecutors say Hobby Lobby Stores has agreed to pay a $3 million federal fine and forfeit thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts smuggled from the Middle East that the government alleges were intentionally mislabeled.

Prosecutors filed a civil complaint in New York on Wednesday in which Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby consented to the fine and forfeiture of thousands of tablets and bricks written in cuneiform, one of the earliest systems of writing, as well as other artifacts that prosecutors say were shipped without proper documentation.

Hobby Lobby executed an agreement to purchase over 5,500 artifacts in December 2010 for $1.6 million. Prosecutors say acquisition of the artifacts “was fraught with red flags” and that packages bore shipping labels that described their contents as “ceramic tiles.” A dealer based in the United Arab Emirates shipped packages containing the artifacts to three different corporate addresses in Oklahoma City. Five shipments that were intercepted by federal customs officials bore shipping labels that falsely declared that the artifacts’ country of origin was Turkey.

In September 2011, a package containing about 1,000 clay bullae, an ancient form of inscribed identification, was received by Hobby Lobby from an Israeli dealer and accompanied by a false declaration stating that its country of origin was Israel.

Prosecutors say Hobby Lobby has agreed to adopt internal policies for importing cultural property and training its personnel.

In a statement, Hobby Lobby President Steve Green says the company cooperated with the government and “should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”