A clay cuneiform tablet, one of the 5,500 artifacts the owners of Hobby Lobby illegally imported into the United States from Iraq. Photo courtesy of the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York

Experts say Hobby Lobby must have known it was illegally importing artifacts

A clay cuneiform tablet, one of the 5,500 artifacts the owners of Hobby Lobby illegally imported into the United States from Iraq. Photo courtesy of the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York

(RNS) Hobby Lobby's claim that it did not know it was buying ill-gotten artifacts is disingenuous, say those who work in the field and study the ancient Near East.

"Ridiculous," said Jerome Eisenberg, who has specialized in ancient art for more than 60 years and founded New York's Royal-Athena Galleries.

"Fatuous," said Matthew Canepa, a professor of art and archaeology of the ancient Near East at the University of Minnesota.

"No dealer in his right mind would have been involved in this,” added Eisenberg.

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The Justice Department on Wednesday (July 5) announced a $3 million settlement with the national craft store chain, after an investigation into its acquisition of 5,500 artifacts that originated in Iraq.

Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, in Austin, Texas, in 2013. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Hobby Lobby President Steve Green is also the founder and chief funder of the Museum of the Bible, slated to open in November a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Green, an evangelical, began acquiring artifacts from the ancient Near East about eight years ago.

His family-owned company, which won a major religious rights case in 2014 over its refusal to offer certain types of contraception in its insurance plan as mandated by the Affordable Care Act, has branched out into other ventures rooted in their faith, including a chain of bookstores and the museum.

"We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” Green said in a statement Wednesday.

"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," the statement continues.

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Hobby Lobby did not immediately respond to an RNS query on the company's intended destination for the artifacts — the Museum of the Bible or elsewhere — before they were forfeited in the settlement. Nor did it immediately respond to a question on experts' contention that the company should never have pursued the Iraqi artifacts.

University of Minnesota professor Matthew P. Canepa

Those experts say their story doesn't add up.

"They have obviously created a track record of having a knowledge and at least an appreciation of the value of these things," Canepa said. "They're not just sort of a naive tourist kind of picking up a souvenir."

They were buying thousands of Iraqi artifacts, which is illegal practically by definition, Canepa continued. Anything that comes from Iraq, unless it has a long history within a respected museum, is considered "highly ethically suspect."

According to the U.S. attorney for the Eastern Division of New York, which brought the civil complaint against Hobby Lobby, the company in 2010 imported thousands of artifacts that originated in Iraq and were smuggled through the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

They were marked "samples" — as if they were kitchen tiles or carpet squares — and sent in several shipments to company offices in Oklahoma City.

According to a court filing, Hobby Lobby bought more than 5,500 artifacts for $1.6 million from an unnamed dealer in 2010. The artifacts were misleadingly labeled in shipments to the U.S. Photo courtesy of the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York

What they contained, among other objects, were cuneiform tablets — Mesopotamian writings — and clay bullae, or seals on ancient documents.

The U.S. attorney's office said in a statement that Hobby Lobby cooperated with the government, agreed to the $3 million settlement and promised to reform its methods of acquisition.

But the U.S. attorney's office also made clear that Hobby Lobby — and Steve Green personally, who had flown to the UAE to inspect the artifacts —  ignored warnings about the purchase.

The company's own expert on cultural property law, for example, made it clear that Hobby Lobby risked buying looted artifacts.

"Notwithstanding these warnings, in December 2010, Hobby Lobby executed an agreement to purchase over 5,500 Artifacts, comprised of cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay bullae and cylinder seals, for $1.6 million," the District Attorney's statement reads. "The acquisition of the Artifacts was fraught with red flags."

Even cautious experts say Hobby Lobby should have known better.

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Asked whether the company could reasonably claim it was naive about the artifacts it purchased, Eric M. Meyers, emeritus professor of Judaic studies at Duke University, said in an email that it's hard to say without knowing the identity of the dealer.

But with cuneiform tablets, Meyers added, "the robust supply on the market since the two Iraq wars should have sent a caution sign to both the dealer and the purchaser, whoever they might be."


  1. Hobby lobby only knows what it’s doing when it is selling hobby supplies to people, or trying to control the lives and medical choices of their employees.

  2. Maybe Hobby Lobby should get a new hobby.

  3. An excess of enthusiasm and zeal by Christians for those things from the ancient Middle East that might tend to confirm the Biblical narrative is no excuse for failing to follow the proper protocols when it comes to acquiring such objects. Is our faith so weak as Christians that the scriptures are insufficient to sustain our faith without reference to archaeological remnants? While I am encouraged by the testimony that artifacts from the past bring to us, depending on them to shore up possible doubt is not the answer. I can think of no other rationale for going to such lengths to obtain these items.

  4. I can definitely see the nexus between Hobby Lobby’s unnecessarily interfering with the healthcare choices and bedroom behavior of employees and its financial support of ISIS.

  5. Hobby Lobby’s statement and the Attorney General’s statement don’t match up. Both statements are a reflection on Hobby Lobby’s ownership and unfortunately both statements will probably be seen as a reflection on anybody who identifies as Christian evangelical. Thanks Hobby Lobby.

  6. What, they’re not crying about religious freedom because christian exceptionalism? So, secular laws really do take precedence over religious greed.
    Tax ’em!

  7. Wasn’t there a reference from either Jesus or Paul about not demanding physical proof for anything?

  8. I’ve considered Hobby Lobby to be run by hypocrites long before they began forcing their employees to conform to Greens religious beliefs. This is a company open to the public and it has no right to force their religious beliefs on its employees or its customers. The HL Fourth of July full page add was especially disgusting as it cherry picked Biblical verses to back up its heretical and theocratic positions. Others “rights” end at the tip of my nose so they can take their Dominionist belief system and hunker down in their Preper enclaves and just stay there. The vile anti-Christian beliefs spewing from HL are way beyond anything civilized people should have to tolerate. Sounds more like Tim McVeigh and the author of The Turner Diaries than anyone else.

    Fortunately there is a Dick Blick art supply store not far from us, plus of course the ability to purchase supplies on-line. As the alt-right “Christians” further push their beliefs trying to make them “mainstream” they expose themselves as hypocrites and should be treated as such. Its simple, boycott HL.

  9. It’s those good christians at work again.

  10. Perhaps Steve Green’s Bible museum should be named the Museum of Holy Hypocrisy. Green’s Hobby Lobby court ruling was a win for his fundamentalist thrust to impose his narrow values on his employees and curtail their rights of conscience on family planning. What next from Green? A chain of evangelical private schools paid for all taxpayers through a Trump/Pence/DeVos voucher plan? — Edd Doerr

  11. To be honest, I’m not certain I can answer your question. As I search my memory, I can’t think of a specific text that applies, but it might be interpolated from some instruction I suppose.

  12. This makes the provenance of every artifact in the museum suspect, as well as the museum’s intellectual integrity..

  13. they have probably been buying these items from isis, either directly or indirectly. so they are financially supporting terrorism and a fundamentalist islamist movement. thing is they probably knew it and have no problem with it as they need a strong and ever growing boogyman (isis) to support their narrative, both religiously and politically. scumbags, the lot of them.

  14. You couldn’t possibly be insinuating (gasp!) – ‘idolatry’? Surely not Holy Lobby, who is such a zealous believer in the sanctity of life that they want to encourage the birth of more children than the economy, or even the planet, can support, so that they can then encourage Christians to vote ‘conservative’ Republican and make absolutely certain that these ‘precious children’ don’t get a scrap of food or a roof over their heads?

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