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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement returned over 3,000 ancient artifacts to Iraq this week after the items were illegally smuggled and purchased by arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby.
The items, which include cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, and clay bullae, were falsely described as “tile samples” in some cases, and shipped out of Iraq via the United Arab Emirates and Israel in defiance of federal law, Time reports. The retail chain purchased more than 5,500 of the ancient artifacts in 2010, and reportedly spent $1.6 million on them, despite being warned by an expert on cultural property law that the objects may have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq, according to a report from the U.S. Justice Department. The department filed a civil complaint against the retailer last year, who later agreed to a settlement that would involve forfeiture of the items and payment of a $3 million fine.
Hobby Lobby admitted their wrongdoing in a statement in July and explained their interest in acquiring a collection of “variety of historical Bibles and other artifacts” as being in line with the company’s “mission and passion for the Bible.” Their goals were reportedly to preserve such items for future generations and to make them accessible to others via various public institutions like museums.
Company president Steve Green admitted, “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”
“Hobby Lobby has cooperated with the government throughout its investigation, and with the announcement of today’s settlement agreement, is pleased the matter has been resolved,” Green continued.
A number of Hobby Lobby’s packages were first intercepted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2010, after they noticed the labels falsely described the antique artifacts as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample)” and listed the artifacts’ country of origin as Turkey and, at a later date, Israel.
ICE returned 3,800 of the ancient artifacts on Wednesday, the organization announced. Many of the items are believed to have come from the ancient city of Irisagrig and are centuries old.
ICE Acting Director Thomas D. Homan called it a “great honor” to be able to return so many priceless artifacts to the citizens of Iraq.
“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,” he said. “This ceremony should serve as a powerful reminder that nobody is above the law.”
“This is really important to us,” Iraqi Ambassador to the US Fareed Yasseen said, according to CNN. “You have to understand that in Iraq, memories are long, and so we really have a sense of kinship to these artifacts.”
(Photo: Ancient artifacts, smuggled into the U.S. in violation of federal law and shipped to Hobby Lobby stores, are shown at an event returning the artifacts to Iraq May 2, 2018 in Washington, DC. By Win McNamee/Getty Images)