Why Did Hobby Lobby Smuggle Iraqi Antiquities?

Hobby Lobby, a conservative Christian chain of craft stores, most recently made news for its participation in a lawsuit challenging provisions of the Affordable Care Act that required employers to include birth control in their insurance coverage. Now, the company has hit headlines for a really bizarre reason: smuggling antiquities.

Hobby Lobby just forfeited thousands of artifacts and agreed to pay a $3 million fine, in addition to developing better internal policies to prevent what it termed “mistakes.”

If you find this turn of events totally bizarre, you’re not alone.

First, a point of clarification: The company wasn’t purchasing priceless cultural heritage for retail sale in its stores, but rather to add them to a “Bible museum” the firm is curating in Washington, D.C. Representatives of the company aim to acquire a range of items of historical importance for Christianity, though they claim that they were not involved with any of the antiquities in this case.

The Middle East is sometimes called the cradle of civilization for a reason: It’s filled with archaeological treasures from the dawn of organized society, including countless clay tablets covered in cuneiform — an early writing system — and official seals, known as bullae.

The region is also the birthplace of Christianity, making artifacts like these extremely interesting for those studying Christian history — including, apparently, evangelical craft companies.

Very strict international regulations cover the antiquities trade. While it is technically legal to import a variety of cultural items, it requires coordination between dealers and handlers who can source legal artifacts, package them appropriately and declare them to customs.

In this case, the origin of the antiquities remains unclear, though many are believed to be from Iraq. The items were brought into the United States via Israel and the United Arab Emirates in packages labeled with phrases like “tile samples.”

Furthermore, Hobby Lobby didn’t complete financial transactions related to the items in a conventional way, by wiring money to a dealer. Instead, it made deposits in several bank accounts under different names.

That illustrates a pretty clear intent to deceive.

In fact, an expert in such transactions warned the company that the methods it was using might not be legal, and that it was running the risk of purchasing looted archaeological items.

In a statement, Hobby Lobby implied that the situation was caused by lack of familiarity with the issue, and that it was taking steps to prevent future incidents like this. The federal government certainly seems satisfied with the outcome.

But there’s another weird twist to this story. Hobby Lobby may have indirectly funded Daesh, a terrorist organization known for destroying cultural artifacts and selling antiquities to fuel its operations.

Extremist groups like Daesh have destroyed some stunning cultural heritage on the grounds that it’s “un-Islamic,” but they’ve also learned that they can profit from history.

In fact, it isn’t the first time this year that prominent individuals and companies have come under scrutiny for questionable antiquities transactions that may be traceable to Daesh. The crisis of stolen and privately sold items is getting worse, with historians and advocates struggling to stop it.

When antiquities disappear into the private market, they lose valuable context and cultural associations — and rarely return to their regions of origin. Though Iraq is war-torn and struggling to preserve items of historic significance, exporting items through illegal channels certainly won’t protect them or ensure that they’re available for display in the future when the nation has had a chance to rebuild museums and preservation facilities.

Long before this settlement, concerned observers raised flags about the pace of acquisitions for the museum and the origins of the ostensible Biblical artifacts the firm was stockpiling. Developing any museum can be a time-consuming, painstaking process — even with a lot of money to bring to the equation — and the rapid growth of the collection was certainly cause for concern.

This settlement seems to vindicate the worries of those who raised red flags, noting that trading in illegal antiquities is bad enough, but funding terrorism while doing it is particularly egregious.

Photo credit: OU History of Science

80 comments

Berny p
Berny p2 months ago

MONEY..MONEY.....

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heather g
heather g2 months ago

Well the USA also imports tons of Ivory, illegally captured wild birds and animals and seemingly turned a blind-eye to this "Christian" organisation.

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara2 months ago

Odd

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Ruth S
Ruth S2 months ago

Thanks.

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Margie FOURIE
Margie F2 months ago

Sounds as if they were convenient mistakes.

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Marija M
Marija M2 months ago

Crazy world, crazy people, crazy...

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Lisa M
Lisa M2 months ago

Noted.

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Lisa M
Lisa M2 months ago

Noted.

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Lorraine A
Lorraine A2 months ago

Different names, different bank accounts....hummm sounds like smuggling to me. So much for the holier than thou people who won't even allow their employees birth control. But what the heck, our museum has to look good so we smuggle everything we can find!

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Ciaron D
Ciaron D2 months ago

Darn it I was hoping to off load my Ark of the Covenant to Hobby Lobby - it is no use all I can do is melt Nazis and curiously it is not so much commandments it is more I'd Really Rather You Didn'ts.

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