NEW YORK — The owners of Hobby Lobby are quaint home ware and curio dealers by day, but were apparently tomb raiders by night.
Hobby Lobby’s evangelical Christian owners who have avidly collected biblical artifacts from the Middle East have agreed to forfeit 5,500 ancient cuneiform tablets they illegally smuggled out of Iraq in addition to paying $3 million in fines.
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn say the company paid $1.6 million for the tablets and clay talismans it acquired in 2010 from an unnamed dealer in the United Arab Emirates.
At the time, the company sent its president and an antiquities consultant to inspect the treasure trove that is thousands of years old, but ignored the opinion of a cultural property law expert who warned that the artifacts might have been looted from historical sites in Iraq. Extremist groups like ISIS have often traded in looted artifacts to fund terrorist activities.
The expert had told the Hobby Lobby execs that failing to determine the artifacts’ exact provenance could put them in violation of the law. Despite what prosecutors said were numerous “red flags” Hobby Lobby shipped the items back to its Oklahoma headquarters with false shipping labels identifying them as clay or ceramic tiles that had originated in Turkey.
The company’s owners began amassing their collection of biblical artifacts in 2009, and in a statement, admitted they had made mistakes because they were new to the process at the time they made the illicit deals in 2010.
“The company 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,” said Hobby Lobby president, Steve Green. “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”
The company deals primarily in home wares, knickknacks and arts and crafts materials and operates 600 stores across the country with about $4 billion in annual sales.
Over the years, Hobby Lobby’s owners have engaged in widespread efforts to promote evangelical Christianity by producing biblical-themed films, operating a chain of Christian bookstores and donating to Christian charities.
In 2014, the company made headlines when it was the defendant in a landmark Supreme Court case that found barred the Affordable Care Act from forcing family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception, saying it was a violation of religious freedom.