May 2, 2018 / 3:42 PM / 3 months ago

U.S. returns thousands of smuggled ancient artifacts to Iraq

(Reuters) - About 3,800 artifacts, including Sumerian cuneiform tablets dating to 2100 B.C., that were illegally smuggled to retailer Hobby Lobby Stores Inc were returned to Iraqi officials in Washington on Wednesday.

An ancient artifact that was illegally smuggled to retailer Hobby Lobby Stores Inc is shown during an event to return several thousand ancient artifacts to the Republic of Iraq, in this handout photo, in Washington, U.S., released May 2, 2018. Cori W. Bassett/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Handout via REUTERS

U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials signed over the artifacts to Iraqi Ambassador Fareed Yasseen at his Washington residence, with some of the artifacts laid out on a table.

“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,” said ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan.

Iraqi artifacts are on display as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hosts an event to return several thousand ancient artifacts to the Republic of Iraq at the Iraqi ambassador's residence in Washington, U.S., May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma City-based arts-and-crafts retailer, agreed in July to surrender the antiquities it received and pay $3 million to settle civil proceedings brought by the U.S. Justice Department. Shipping labels on the packages the artifacts arrived in described them as “tile samples,” federal prosecutors said.

The company had purchased more than 5,500 artifacts, according to court documents. It agreed that if it receives any of the remaining antiquities or learns where they are, it must notify the federal government, according to court documents.

Hobby Lobby’s president, Steve Green, is the founder of the Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington in 2016. Privately held Hobby Lobby has said the seized artifacts were not intended for the museum. It has not said what it planned to do with them.

The forfeited packages included tablets with cuneiform script, one of the earliest systems of writing in ancient Mesopotamia. Many of the tablets come from the ancient city of Irisagrig and date to 2100 B.C. through 1600 B.C. primarily, known as the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods.

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Justice Department officials have said Hobby Lobby’s 2010 purchase of $1.6 million in ancient artifacts through dealers in the United Arab Emirates and Israel was “fraught with red flags,” saying the company had ignored warnings that the items could have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.

When the company disclosed its settlement with the Justice Department in July, Green said Hobby Lobby should have “carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”

A representative of the company did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Hobby Lobby and the Green family drew headlines in 2014 when the Supreme Court ruled the craft store chain and Conestoga Wood Specialties of Pennsylvania could refuse to cover contraceptives in their employees’ health insurance due to its owners’ religious beliefs.

Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; editing by Scott Malone, Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis

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