Christian firm Hobby Lobby agrees to pay $3M in artifact smuggling case

Christian-owned corporation Hobby Lobby has agreed to pay $3 million to settle a case involving smuggled ancient artifacts from Iraq which it had purchased to be displayed at a Bible museum.

(REUTERS / Jonathan Ernst)Hobby Lobby President Steve Green addresses the Faith & Freedom Coalition Road to Majority Conference in Washington June 15, 2013.

U.S. attorneys said Hobby Lobby broke federal law when it imported thousands of ancient artifacts from Iraq as "tile samples." The Christian-owned arts and crafts company has agreed to surrender the smuggled items and pay $3 million in a settlement, saying it did not "fully appreciate the complexities" of the process of importing the artifacts, the BBC relayed.

New York-based lawyers said the smuggled items in question included "thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae," which were what people wrote on before they started using paper. The artifacts were sent from the United Arab Emirates and Israel to Hobby Lobby's offices in Oklahoma and were labeled as "ceramic tiles" from Turkey and Israel.

"The company imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items," said Hobby Lobby in a statement.

It added: "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."

However, prosecutors said an expert had warned Hobby Lobby that the ancient artifacts might have been illegally obtained or looted from archaeological sites. They pointed out that the company did not conduct the purchase directly with the dealer, plus the payments were coursed to seven private bank accounts. Despite the warning, the Christian-owned firm went ahead and shelled out $1.6 million to buy the 5,500 pieces of artifacts.

Hobby Lobby president Steve Green, who is also the chairman of the planned museum where the ancient items were supposed to be displayed, said they have learned a lot from the case. Nevertheless, he said they will remain true to their passion to support efforts to preserve items that will enrich their understanding of the Bible.

The case highlighted the rampant smuggling of ancient artifacts from Iraq and other countries. It also shed a light on the illegal methods of acquiring these previous antiquities, the Money Magazine noted.

Elizabeth Stone, an antiquity expert from Stony Brook University, told Money that there are no standard procedures to ensure the legality of procuring cultural artifacts. However, prominent museums usually require thorough research and proper communication with dealers to ensure that the purchase is conducted in a legal manner with respect to the items' origins.