Hobby Lobby, the arts-and-crafts store operated by a Christian family which gained most of its publicity from a religious freedom case at the Supreme Court in 2014, has recently been gaining media attention once again — but this time, under accusations of smuggling biblical artifacts.
The company came under fire when the U.S. Department of Justice found that it broke federal laws when it purchased and brought to America artifacts including clay bullae, cuneiform tablets, and cuneiform bricks from the Middle East in 2010. Hobby Lobby agreed to give up thousands of its artifacts, as well as to pay a $3 million fine.
“We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” Steve Green, the president of the Hobby Lobby chain, said in a statement on July 5. “Hobby Lobby has cooperated with the government throughout its investigation, and with the announcement of today’s settlement agreement, is pleased the matter has been resolved.”
The company added in the statement that its actions were a consequence of being unfamiliar with the field, saying Hobby Lobby “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,” it said. “The Company imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items.”
Green had begun collecting artifacts since 2009, reports say, and Hobby Lobby has been a major backer of the Museum of the Bible set to open in Washington, D.C. this fall.
Acquiring artifacts from Iraq carries risks, as many of them are looted, and bringing looted items into the U.S. breaks federal law. Antiquities in Iraq are also generally forbidden from being owned by private individuals unless authorized by the country. However, Green went on with the purchase of some 5,500 pieces of artifacts, which was brought into the U.S. through Israel and the United Arab Emirates, according to the complaint filed by the Department of Justice on July 5. Shipping labels of the purchase also said the packages were “samples” or “ceramic tiles” shipped from Turkey or Israel.
“American collectors and importers must ensure compliance with laws and regulations that require truthful declarations to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, so that Customs officers are able to scrutinize cultural property crossing our borders and prevent the inappropriate entry of such property,” said Bridget M. Rohde, acting U.S. attorney, in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Museum of the Bible clarified that none of the artifacts acquired by Green were included in the museum’s collections.
“The Museum of the Bible was not a party to either the investigation or the settlement,” the museum told the Baptist Press. “None of the artifacts identified in the settlement are part of the Museum’s collection, nor have they ever been. We remain on track to open in November and look forward to sharing our exhibits and displays with the public.”