Hobby Lobby forfeits more than its reputation (1)

Social and mainstream media are alight with speculation and anger after the release last week of an agreement between the US District Court Eastern District of New York and Hobby Lobby in answer to a complaint filed against Hobby Lobby by the Court. In short, the Court alleged that Hobby Lobby had acquired 3,450 archaeological artifacts probably from Iraq that had violated US customs regulations upon entry into the US. In the agreement, Hobby Lobby undertook to pay a $3 million forfeiture, relinquish claims to and possession of 3,599 artifacts, and implement a new antiquities policy to govern its collections. As always, Rick St. Hilaire provides a succinct summary of the case. Hobby Lobby is a US retail chain owned by the Green family. In 2009, the family established the Green Collection of objects related to biblical history and has funded the foundation and construction of the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC which will open later this year. Joel Baden and Candida Moss published a good overview in the January/February 2016 issue of the Atlantic.

Many commentators have complained that what looks to have been a large smuggling bust by US Customs was followed up with a civil complaint and fine but no criminal charges. The complaint is interesting in itself as it details the complex and evasive manoeuvres necessary to smuggle Iraqi artifacts into the US, and the roles played by a large and diverse cast of actors. Over this and the next post, I will describe the main substance of the complaint and agreement and consider some of their implications.

The inspection

According to the complaint, on 15 July 2010 the Hobby Lobby President and an individual identified as a Hobby Lobby ‘Consultant’ inspected 5,548 artifacts for prospective purchase at an undisclosed location in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The artifacts comprised cuneiform tablets, clay bullae and cylinder seals most likely from Iraq. Also present at the meeting were two Israeli dealers (ID1 and ID2) and a UAE dealer (UAED). In August 2010 the Hobby Lobby Consultant met again with ID1 and ID2, this time in Israel, and on 23 August reported back to the President and the President’s ‘Executive Assistant’. He had been told the artifacts were the property of a third Israeli dealer (ID3) and were part of ID3’s family collection. The collection had been stored in Washington DC before being moved to the UAE for the July inspection. The Consultant advised the President that the asking price was $2,091,000 but that the material would most likely have an appraised value of $11,820,000. On 30 August 2010, ID1 supplied written confirmation of provenance from ID3 for 5,313 of the artifacts. It states that ID3’s father had legally acquired them in the 1960s from local markets and that the collection had been moved to the US for safe storage in the 1970s. (The alleged US custodian subsequently denied ever having possessed the material).

The purchase

While these negotiations were proceeding, on 9 August 2010, at the invitation of Hobby Lobby ‘In-house Counsel’, an invited legal ‘Expert’ made a presentation on relevant aspects of cultural property law to the President, In-house Counsel and Consultant. This presentation was followed up on 19 October 2010 when at the In-house Counsel’s request the outside Expert provided a memorandum detailing the risks associated with acquiring Iraqi cultural property and advising rigorous due diligence. This memorandum was received by the In-house Counsel but not shared with the President, Consultant or any other responsible officer.

On 8 December 2010 the President and ID2 signed a purchase agreement whereby Hobby Lobby agreed to pay $1,600,000 for the artifacts on offer. The associated invoice named ID3 as the seller and stated (falsely) that the artifacts originated in Israel. The President authorised wire transfers of the purchase money to seven personal bank accounts associated with five different people. The payees included ID1, ID2, UAED and two other individuals, but not ID3. Two days after the wire transfers, on 10 December, ID2 asked the President to amend the purchase agreement by replacing ID2 with ID3 as seller. The President complied on 15 December.

The first shipments

UAED starting shipping material through international post in November 2010. None of the shipping labels listed the origin or value of package contents. The shipments were as follows:

Date Description

Number of objects

23 November 2010 Ceramic tiles 13 or 23
19 December 2010 Tiles (sample) 13-18
19 December 2010 Tiles (sample) 13-18
19 December 2010 Tiles (sample) 13-18
20 December 2010 Tiles (sample) 12-18
20 December 2010 Tiles (sample) 12-18
20 December 2010 Tiles (sample) 12-18

Shipments were processed through JFK in New York. Each package was addressed to the President and/or the ‘Executive Assistant’ at Hobby Lobby or one of its affiliates, Mardel, Inc or Crafts, Etc!. The different addresses were used at the request of UAED. The complaint states that such practice is normal for smuggling cultural property so as not to attract the attention of customs agents.

The seized shipments

On 19 January 2011 US Customs and Border Protection seized five FedEx packages despatched by UAED that had been detained at Memphis, Tennessee. Together they contained 223 cuneiform tablets and 300 clay bullae. Three more FedEx packages had previously passed through Memphis and been received by Hobby Lobby. The seized packages were all described as ‘hand made clay tiles’ with Turkey listed as country of origin:

Date Receiving address Contents Declared value Actual purchase price
3 January 2011 Mardel 50 cuneiform tablets $250 $14,020
4 January 2011 Hobby Lobby 300 clay bullae $300 $84,120
4 January 2011 Crafts, Etc! 54 cuneiform tablets $285 $15,142
5 January 2011 Mardel 60 cuneiform tablets $300 $16,824
5 January 2011 Crafts, Etc! 50 cuneiform tablets $300 $16,544

The forfeiture complaint alleges the shipper knowingly falsified customs declarations as to value, description and country of origin.

The forfeiture agreement

On 16 May 2011 Hobby Lobby petitioned for the return of the seized material, submitting in support the provenance statement from ID3 claiming ownership of 5,513 artifacts and a further provenance statement from UAED (dated 1 May 2011) claiming ownership of 527 artifacts – the artifacts that had been seized. On 7 September 2011 Hobby Lobby further petitioned that the separate wire transfers were made to different people so that the original owners were paid directly (in apparent contradiction of the ownership claim made in the ID3 provenance statement).

In September 2011, months after the January seizures, Hobby Lobby received 1,000 clay bullae shipped by ID1 in Israel using international express post. The shipping label accurately described their contents but falsely stated country of origin to be Israel. (If these bullae were amongst those inspected in the UAE in July 2010, they must subsequently have been shipped back to Israel).

On the 5 July 2017 the US District Court Eastern District of New York filed the forfeiture complaint against ‘Approximately four hundred fifty (450) ancient cuneiform tablets; and approximately three thousand (3,000) ancient clay bullae’. The following day (6 July), the court filed the settlement agreement. Rick St. Hilaire has both documents on his blog. The main talking points of the settlement agreement are that:

  • Hobby Lobby agrees forfeiture of 3,000 bullae and 450 cuneiform tablets, together with a further 144 cylinder seals;
  • Hobby Lobby agrees forfeiture of $3 million;
  • Hobby Lobby agrees to implement an internal antiquities policy to govern its collection and future acquisitions of cultural property in compliance with either the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological material and Ancient Art (2013) or its Protocols for Safe Havens for Works of Cultural significance from Countries in Crisis. The policy also provides for training of responsible personnel (including a qualified customs broker) in customs regulations and procedures and the legal and ethical requirements of acquiring cultural property.

Continued in next post …