Add Lynne McKee to the chorus of critics casting doubt on Hobby Lobby’s claims of innocence after paying a $3 million fine to settle allegations of smuggling looted Iraqi artifacts into the country.
“I’m not feeling sorry for them,” said McKee, manager of the Benton County Fairgrounds and former head of the FBI’s international art theft section. “It’s like a little slap on the wrist.”
Headquartered in Oklahoma City, Hobby Lobby operates a chain of more than 600 arts and crafts stores around the country, including one in Albany’s Heritage Mall. The closely held firm has estimated sales of $4 billion a year.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York and the Homeland Security Department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement Division announced the settlement on Wednesday. A civil complaint filed in federal court outlines what the government claims was a scheme by the company to illegally import thousands of ancient clay tablets and other culturally significant objects that it knew or should have known were protected by law.
As part of the settlement, Hobby Lobby agreed to pay the $3 million fine and forfeit more than 5,500 artifacts the government alleges were looted from Iraq. The trove includes roughly 1,500 clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform writing from ancient Mesopotamia in present-day Iraq, as well as 500 cuneiform bricks, 3,000 bullae (balls of clay imprinted with seals), 35 clay envelope seals, 13 extra-large cuneiform tablets and 500 stone cylinder seals.
The company, which has been amassing a large collection of historic manuscripts and other materials related to the Bible since 2009, paid $1.6 million to five unnamed antiquities dealers who shipped the materials to the United States. According to the complaint, the dealers used a number of deceptive tactics to evade scrutiny by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents, including false declarations stating the objects originated from Turkey or Israel, bogus invoices that understated the shipments’ value and phony labels that described the contents as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample).”
Government attorneys described the whole arrangement as “fraught with red flags” and noted that Hobby Lobby executives apparently ignored warnings from an expert hired by the company who said there was a high likelihood the objects had been looted from Iraq and therefore could not be purchased legally.
Nevertheless, Hobby Lobby officials did not admit guilt as part of the settlement. Rather, the company issued a statement claiming it was more naïve than culpable.
“The company was new to the world of acquiring these items and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process,” the statement reads in part.
McKee, for one, isn’t buying it.
“Obviously, you know what you’re getting into,” she said. “If you’re spending $1.6 million on art, you know.”
McKee, a former museum curator who led the FBI’s international art theft unit from 1997 to 2005, was part of a team sent to the Middle East in 2003 to repatriate cultural artifacts stolen from Iraq during the turmoil that accompanied the U.S. invasion of the country. Gangs of professional art thieves stole thousands of ancient objects from the National Museum in Baghdad and pillaged archaeological sites throughout the country, often targeting clay tablets and seals like the ones in the Hobby Lobby case because they would be easier to sell on the black market than more unique and identifiable works of art.
“These are exactly the kinds of items that move on that market,” McKee said.
“This is not just Iraq history — this is biblical and cradle of civilization history,” she added. “So much came from the Middle East.”
Some of the buyers for stolen art are gullible or unscrupulous private collectors, but museums also help fuel the trade in illegal artifacts. Modern cultural patrimony laws are supposed to prevent institutions and individuals from importing protected objects, yet it continues to happen — as evidenced by the flood of Iraqi artifacts that poured out of the country after the war.
Hobby Lobby officials have not stated what they planned to do with the artifacts they purchased in this case and did not respond to a request for comment for this story. However, it appears likely that some if not all of the objects were intended for the Museum of the Bible, a 430,000-square-foot institution under construction in Washington, D.C.
Hobby Lobby President and CEO Steve Green, a devout Christian, is chairman of the museum’s board of directors, and his family has reportedly donated more than $800 million to the project.
In the formal statement issued Wednesday, the company claims it has implemented new acquisition policies based on standards set by the Association of Art Museum Directors. The statement also contains a personal pledge from Green.
“We have accepted responsibility and learned a great deal,” Green is quoted as saying. “Our entire team is committed to the highest standards for investigating and acquiring these items. Our passion for the Bible continues, and we will do all that we can to support the efforts to conserve items that will help illuminate and enhance our understanding of this Great Book.”
McKee said she hopes the company will live up to its promises, but she also points out that the only reason the trade in stolen artifacts exists is that there seems to be no shortage of buyers willing to look the other way.
“The problem with looting is that it’s market-driven — nobody’s going to steal this stuff if they can’t sell it,” she said.
“As long as there’s a market, people are going to steal it, and here in the United States we’re one of the major markets. We drive illegal art traffic worldwide.”