Hobby Lobby Stores has agreed to pay a $3 million fine and hand over thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts — including clay cuneiform writing tablets — that were smuggled from the Middle East, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.
Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby, a popular arts and crafts supplier, bought hundreds of cuneiform tablets and thousands of other artifacts in a $1.6 million deal that “was fraught with red flags” and was consistent with a “clandestine” operation, according to a civil complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The packages bore shipping labels that described their contents as “ceramic tiles,” the complaint said.
“Cuneiform is an ancient system of writing on clay tablets that was used in ancient Mesopotamia thousands of years ago,” prosecutors wrote in the complaint. “These clay tablets are generally not baked or fired and must be handled carefully to avoid damage.”
A dealer based in the United Arab Emirates shipped packages containing the artifacts to three different corporate addresses in Oklahoma City. Five shipments that were intercepted by federal customs officials bore shipping labels that falsely declared that the artifacts’ country of origin was Turkey.
In September 2011, a package containing about 1,000 clay bullae, an ancient form of inscribed identification, was received by Hobby Lobby from an Israeli dealer and accompanied by a false declaration stating that its country of origin was Israel. The complaint alleges that the company was not careful in its procurement of the pieces and its personnel did not speak with the dealer who supposedly owned them.
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