The major U.S. arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby Stores Inc has returned 3,800 illegally smuggled artifacts, mainly ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablets over 4,000 years old, to Iraqi officials.
Hobby Lobby had agreed in July to return the artifacts and pay US$3 million in settlement for the illegal purchase.
The company had purchased over 5,500 artifacts in 2010 through dealers in the United Arab Emirates and Israel. U.S. Justice Department officials have said that the purchase was “fraught with red flags,” and that Hobby Lobby ignored warnings that the items had been looted illegally from archaeological sites in Iraq.
The Justice Department formally filed a lawsuit against the corporation in 2017, arguing that the purchase was illegal and constituted smuggling.
A statement from the Justice Department states: “These ancient clay artifacts originated in the area of modern-day Iraq and were smuggled into the United States through the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, contrary to federal law. Packages containing the artifacts were shipped to Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a nationwide arts-and-crafts retailer based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and two of Hobby Lobby’s corporate affiliates. The shipping labels on these packages falsely described cuneiform tablets as tile 'samples.'”
Officials from the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agency formally signed over the artifacts to Iraqi Ambassador Fareed Yasseen in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.
The returned items will likely be housed and displayed at Iraq's National Museum.
“We will continue to work together to prevent the looting of antiquities and ensure that those who would attempt to profit from this crime are held accountable,” ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan said.
Hobby Lobby has previously faced controversy for its controversial conservative politics, making headlines in 2014 when a Supreme Court ruling permitted the company to deny contraceptive coverage in employee health insurance due to the owners' religious beliefs.
The company's president, Steve Green, is the founder of the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. which collects biblical artifacts and texts. Green claims that the smuggled artifacts were not intended for the museum, although it remains unclear what exactly was planned for them.
Over 1,000 documents have still not been turned in, but Reuters reported that a court order demands them to notify federal officials should the location of remaining artifacts become known.