Last year, it was revealed that thousands of ancient artifacts had been illegally smuggled out of Iraq for Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts store. It was one of the strangest stories of all time, but it now has a happy ending. Today, U.S. officials finally returned roughly 3,800 artifacts back to Iraq.
The bizarre tale all started in 2009, when executives at Hobby Lobby sought to purchase about 5,500 objects dating back to as early as 2100 BC out of Iraq through dealers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel. Hobby Lobby paid roughly $1.6 million for the objects, comprised mostly of cuneiform tablets, cylinders, and clay bullae.
The artifacts were shipped to Hobby Lobby in the U.S. from overseas using labels like “ceramic tiles” and “clay tiles (sample),” most commonly with shipping information that falsely claimed the boxes originated in Turkey.
The purchase is suspected to have been fueled by a desire for artifacts to populate Washington D.C.’s new Museum of the Bible, which opened in November with roughly 40,000 artifacts. The museum was started by Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green and his family, though Green denies the artifacts were going to be used at the controversial museum. Maybe Green just really likes to have ancient tablets hanging in his den? Who knows.
According to the Department of Justice, an expert advised Hobby Lobby in 2010 that the items it sought to purchase could come from unethical looters who were plundering archaeological sites in war-torn Iraq.
Hobby Lobby ultimately paid a $3 million fine and had to forfeit the items to the U.S. government, which were returned to Iraq today. No one from Hobby Lobby appears to have spent a single night in jail.
From an ICE press release about the return of the artifacts today:
Many of the tablets can be shown to come from the ancient city of Irisagrig. The tablets, primarily from the Ur III and Old Babylonian period (2100-1600 BCE), are mostly legal and administrative documents, but also include an important collection of Early Dynastic incantations and a bilingual religious text from the Neo-Babylonian period. Two clay cones are inscribed with royal inscriptions from the Early Dynastic Lagash II periods (mid-third millennium BCE). The clay bullae include artifacts believed to be of Parthian or Sasanian date (late 2nd cent. BCE – early 7th cent. AD).
“We are proud to have played a role in removing these pieces of Iraq’s history from the black market of illegally obtained antiquities and restoring them to the Iraqi people,” U.S. Attorney Richard P. Donoghue said in a statement.
The job of actually getting the artifacts back to Iraq fell on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency that is perhaps best known for rounding up undocumented people and placing them in detention camps. But this job fell to ICE agents who aren’t tasked with tearing families apart.
“I would like to thank my colleagues at U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York for making this repatriation possible,” outgoing ICE acting Director Thomas Homan said today in a statement.
Homan, who oversaw a 40 percent surge in deportation arrests under his leadership of ICE, announced his retirement this week. He faced a tough confirmation hearing after some controversial statements, including one that undocumented immigrants “should be afraid.”
“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,” Homan continued. “This ceremony should serve as a powerful reminder that nobody is above the law.”
But what about the discrepancy between the number of artifacts that have been returned? The US Department of Justice reported back in July of 2017 that Hobby Lobby had agreed to purchase 5,500 items to the US government and yet today ICE reports that just 3,800 are being returned to Iraq. It’s not exactly clear. One possibility is that Hobby Lobby paid for 5,500 items and only received about 3,800, but that’s just speculation. Gizmodo has reached out to ICE for answers and will update this post if we hear back.
Update 10:38 AM, May 3rd: An apparently very offended ICE spokesman told Gizmodo that the agents involved in returning the Hobby Lobby artifacts are part of a separate division from those who, say, arrest undocumented pregnant women who had fled violence in their home countries, which we clarified in the copy above. Further, the ICE spokesperson said it is unclear whether Hobby Lobby received all 5,500 artifacts, although it did agree to pay for them, which we’ve also clarified above.