U.S. federal prosecutors say arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby has agreed to turn over thousands of ancient artifacts from the Middle East after the company illegally smuggled them into the country.
In a civil complaint filed Wednesday, the prosecutors said in 2010 Hobby Lobby paid $1.6 million for 5,500 tablets and bricks featuring cuneiform, one of the earliest systems of writing, as well as other objects.
Those artifacts, and others purchased a year later, were sent to Hobby Lobby retail and corporate locations in shipments that falsely identified the contents as coming from Turkey and Israel. The shipping labels also said the packages contained "ceramic tiles" or "clay tiles."
Prosecutors said an expert warned the company that acquiring cultural property likely from Iraq brought the risk that the items were looted from archaeological sites.
"The protection of cultural heritage is a mission that [Homeland Security Investigations] and its partner U.S. Customs and Border Protection take very seriously as we recognize that while some may put a price on these artifacts, the people of Iraq consider them priceless," said HSI Special Agent-In-Charge Angel Melendez.
In addition to forfeiting the objects, Hobby Lobby also agreed to pay a $3 million fine.
Hobby Lobby President Steve Green said the company cooperated with the government and should have "more carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled."
"At no time did Hobby Lobby ever purchase items from dealers in Iraq or from anyone who indicated that they acquired items from that country," Green said in a statement. "Hobby Lobby condemns such conduct and has always acted with the intent to protect ancient items of cultural and historical importance."
The company agreed to adopt new practices on buying cultural property, and to submit regular reports to the government about such purchases for 18 months.
Hobby Lobby began assembling a collection of historical Bibles and other artifacts in 2009.
Green is the founder and chairman of a Bible museum under construction in Washington.
Hobby Lobby also won a prominent U.S. Supreme Court case in 2014 involving a government rule that company health plans were required to cover contraceptives. Hobby Lobby said such a rule went against the closely held religious beliefs of its ownership, and the court agreed in a narrow decision that under a religious freedom law the company should not be forced to provide the coverage.
Source: Voice of America