The Republic of Iraq has finally taken possession of thousands of ancient artifacts illegally shipped to the U.S. by Hobby Lobby in an international smuggling operation more befitting an Indiana Jones villain than America’s favorite arts-and-crafts retailer.
Iraq’s reclaiming of the antiquities comes roughly 10 months after the Oklahoma City-based chain settled a $3 million civil suit with the U.S. government for smuggling thousands of clay artifacts — which originated in modern-day Iraq — into the U.S. through the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
The company used shipping labels that falsely described the artifacts as tile “samples,” according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Top American immigration agents and diplomats visited the Washington home of the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. on Wednesday for an elaborate outdoor repatriation ceremony.
The roughly 3,800 artifacts returned to the nation include a collection of cuneiform tablets dating as far back as 2100 B.C., clay bullae (seals) formed as early as the late second century B.C., and a pair of cylinder seals — clay cones featuring royal inscriptions from the mid-third millennium B.C.
The acting chief of ICE, Thomas Homan, and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Richard Donoghue — the prosecutor of the government’s case against Hobby Lobby — facilitated the handoff to Ambassador Fareed Yasseen, who thanked the American officials.
“Not only do they enforce the law, they serve a sense of historic justice, and they help in the fight against criminal and terrorist networks,” Yasseen said. “They serve a sense of historic justice because they are returning items to their natural homes, and to a nation that is very attached to its cultural heritage.”
Hobby Lobby began amassing a trove of black-market antiquities in 2009, according to federal investigators, and the company’s president, Steve Green, traveled to the UAE in July 2010 to inspect a variety of cuneiform tablets and other materials being offered for sale.
In an agreement five months later, the company paid $1.6 million to an unknown dealer through seven different bank accounts for more than 5,500 artifacts, including the tablets, cylinder seals and clay bullae.
Around the same time, Green was laying the groundwork for his mammoth, $500 million Museum of the Bible — a 430,000-square-foot complex near the National Mall in Washington stocked with eight stories of Biblical artifacts.
Green chairs the museum’s board, and the evangelical billionaire’s family fortune provides the bulk of the funding for the institution, which has in the past struggled to answer questions on the providence of its various collections.
But the litigation surrounding Hobby Lobby’s smuggling of Iraqi treasures wasn’t the only time the Greens’ religiosity registered at the highest rungs of the federal government.
Just four years ago, the company became the focus of a major Supreme Court case when it objected to providing employees taxpayer-funded birth control through the Affordable Care Act.
The court ultimately sided with the store in a June 2014 decision, ruling that for-profit companies can use religious objections to avoid paying for contraception coverage required under Obamacare.
“We doubt that the Congress that enacted [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] — or, for that matter, ACA — would have believed it a tolerable result to put family-run businesses to the choice of violating their sincerely held religious beliefs or making all of their employees lose their existing healthcare plans,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the 5-4 opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy.