Earlier this week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York fined the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby $3 million for its role in the smuggling of cuneiform tablets, along with clay tokens and sealings (often called bullae by archeologists) from Iraq. The U.S. federal government had found that these artifacts had been smuggled to the U.S. via Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Packages containing the artifacts had been shipped from the Middle East to Hobby Lobby’s headquarters in Oklahoma City, as well as to two of the company’s affiliates. Shipping labels affixed to those packages described the tablets as “samples.” All those items have since been forfeited by the company.
In a public statement, Hobby Lobby and its CEO, Steve Green, did their best to walk away from any accountability for the incident. “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” said Green, “We have accepted responsibility and learned a great deal.”
Green is currently leading the construction of a $500 million Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC.
The privately-held $4 billion company claimed that it was “new to the world” of acquiring antiquities, and it “did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process.” The result, insisted the company, were “some regrettable mistakes.” Hobby Lobby said that it had cooperated with the federal government’s investigation, and that the company never directly purchased antiquities from dealers in Iraq or from anyone who has ties to the country. In assuring the public that its passion for the Bible is in part what drives the company to preserve ancient items of cultural and historical importance, the company said the goals of such acquisitions were to provide access to scholars, students and the public.
Sadly, the export of antiquities from countries including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan is nothing new. Visit an antique shop in the UAE’s Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Sharjah, and there is a good chance that many of the items for sale are from Afghanistan. When I visited the popular Qbara restaurant at Dubai’s Egyptian-themed Wafi Mall two years ago, a staff member gave me a guided tour of the space and told me how much of the interiors and artifacts on display had been bought in bulk in Afghanistan. Knowingly or unwittingly, Hobby Lobby is just one more recipient of such antiquities due to another society that has long found itself in disarray.
But Hobby Lobby’s antiquities snafu is more than an awkward public relations miscue for three reasons. First, being caught red-handed with these items plunks Hobby Lobby in fine company with Islamic State (often called ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, which dates back to 2003); the jihadist group has reaped millions of dollars (some say billions) from the selling of antiquities its minions have stolen or excavated across Syria and Iraq. Once they are sold on the black market, and most likely sold again and again, the likelihood is high that they will never return to their provenance.
In addition, the company has made it clear that Christianity is important to the mission of the company. Hobby Lobby has been in the middle of several high-profile legal cases this decade, including Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that closely held corporations can exclude certain medical services such as contraception from their medical plans if they have a religious objection. Now the company finds itself jeered by taunts of Schadenfreude. “Thou Shalt Not Steal” has been a common refrain heard from columnists and bloggers since news accounts of the company’s ties to smuggling antiquities was first disclosed on The Daily Beast. True, the company could argue it technically and legally did not steal anything – but the optics are unflattering.
Third, for a company that has been accumulating such artifacts for almost a decade (2009 according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office), the “new to the world” claim is a stretch. A cultural property law expert had reportedly warned the company that any accumulation of such objects could land the company in hot water with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In addition, the company’s president and a consultant had traveled to the UAE to inspect cuneiform tablets and other items. Despite those warnings, the company agreed to purchase over 5,500 artifacts for $1.6 million – but Hobby Lobby’s representatives had not met with the dealer, nor had they communicated with the antiquities’ seller. Furthermore, the company wired funds for payment not to the dealer, but to seven different personal bank accounts. A $4 billion company and its legal team, quite simply, should have known better.
Image credit: U.S. Department of Justice