Bible Museum stolen artifacts returned to Iraq after Hobby Lobby's illegal acquisition

The Bible Museum in Washington D.C. has returned nearly 4,000 artifacts that were illegally acquired from Iraq. Hobby Lobby, which owns and operates the museum, apparently smuggled the ancient objects into the U.S., thus violating the law.

(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)A visitor stands near Torah scrolls on display at the Bible Museum.

The Justice Department filed a case against the retail chain in 2017 after buying the artifacts from dealers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2010. Hobby Lobby proceeded with the transaction despite a piece of advice from a cultural property law expert that those items might have actually been stolen.

Among these artifacts include cuneiform tablets, bullae and seals that are believed to be over 500 years old and taken from archaeological sites. These were shipped from the UAE and from Turkey or Israel, which were labeled and declared falsely as ceramic tiles samples in the documents.

The Justice Department, with the help of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said that Hobby Lobby employees never met with the dealer. Instead, they completed the transactions via wired payments amounting to $1.6 million to accounts that bore questionable names.

Because of the lawsuit, Hobby Lobby agreed to pay the fine of $3 million and forfeited the artifacts. The company, however, said that it did not receive all of the items bought from the dealers and promised the Justice Department to disclose any information they might learn regarding the remaining items.

"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," Thomas Homan, the ICE acting director, told reporters. "This ceremony should serve as a powerful reminder that nobody is above the law."

In 2017, Hobby Lobby opened the Bible Museum, which supposedly has 40,000 Biblical artifacts. In a statement, the company's president, Steve Green, acknowledged that Hobby Lobby "should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled."

Fareed Yasseen, the Ambassador of Iraq to the United States, expressed gratitude for the return of the ancient pieces that rightfully belonged to their country.