United States Returns Thousands of Ancient Artifacts To Iraq
Cuneiform Tablets, Clay Bullae and Cylinder Seals Were Smuggled from the Middle East to Hobby Lobby
Today, the United States will return approximately 3,800 Iraqi artifacts to the Republic of Iraq at a repatriation ceremony at the residence of the Republic of Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States in Washington, D.C. The artifacts were smuggled into the United States for delivery to Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (“Hobby Lobby”), a nationwide arts-and-crafts retailer based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and two of its corporate affiliates. Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit these artifacts and $3 million to resolve a civil forfeiture complaint and multi-year investigation by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Acting Director Thomas D. Homan and Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States Fareed Yasseen will sign the ceremonial certificates transferring ownership of the artifacts from the United States to Iraq. Richard P. Donoghue, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and Ian Saunders, Acting Assistant Commissioner, Office of International Affairs, U.S. Customs and Border Protection will also participate in the repatriation ceremony.
“The Republic of Iraq, standing on the land that was once home to the storied city-states and kingdoms of Mesopotamia, has a celebrated heritage as a cradle of civilization,” stated U.S. Attorney Donoghue. “We are proud to have played a role in removing these pieces of Iraq’s history from the black market of illegally obtained antiquities and restoring them to the Iraqi people.” U.S. Attorney Donoghue thanked Dr. Eckart Frahm of Yale University and Dr. Elizabeth C. Stone from Stony Brook University (SUNY) for their assistance.
“On behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and thanks to the hard work of the Office of the Special Agent in Charge in New York, it is a great honor for me to return so many priceless cultural artifacts to the people of Iraq,” stated ICE Acting Director Homan. “I would like to thank my colleagues at U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York for making this repatriation possible,” Homan added. “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. This ceremony should serve as a powerful reminder that nobody is above the law.”
In July 2010, Hobby Lobby’s president and a consultant traveled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to inspect a large number of cuneiform tablets and other antiquities being offered for sale. Following this trip, an expert on cultural property law warned Hobby Lobby that cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals were particularly likely to have been looted from Iraqi archaeological sites. Hobby Lobby proceeded to purchase a set of 5,548 artifacts in late 2010. Two-thirds of these artifacts were shipped in 2010 and 2011 by foreign antiquities dealers who made false statements on shipping labels, failed to file formal entry papers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and supplied fabricated provenances and sham invoices.
In July 2017, the government filed a civil forfeiture complaint and a stipulation of settlement in which Hobby Lobby consented to the forfeiture of approximately 3,500 ancient cuneiform and bullae that comprised part of the 2010 purchase, plus 144 cylinder seals and $3 million. Hobby Lobby also agreed to identify, turn over to the United States and forfeit any additional artifacts from the 2010 purchase that came to light. Hobby Lobby further agreed to adopt internal policies and procedures governing its importation and purchase of cultural property, provide appropriate training to its personnel, hire qualified outside customs counsel and customs brokers, and submit quarterly reports to the U.S. Attorney’s Office on any cultural property acquisitions for 18 months. In addition, Hobby Lobby stipulated to a statement of facts that related the history of its purchase of thousands of Iraqi artifacts in 2010, the red flags surrounding that acquisition, and the improper shipments of these artifacts.
In September 2017, pursuant to its obligations under the stipulation with the government, Hobby Lobby advised the government that it was in possession of 245 additional cylinder seals that were part of the 2010 purchase. In October 2017, Hobby Lobby shipped these cylinder seals to the United States and subsequently entered into a stipulation with the United States consenting to their forfeiture.
The Repatriated Antiquities
The antiquities being repatriated to Iraq at today’s ceremony consist of approximately:
- 450 cuneiform tablets
- 3,000 clay bullae
- 371 cylinder seals
Cuneiform is an ancient system of writing on clay tablets that was used in ancient Mesopotamia thousands of years ago. The names of people, places and months used on a number of the cuneiform tablets confirm that they originated in the area of modern-day Iraq. Clay bullae are balls of clay on which seals have been imprinted. Cylinder seals are small engraved stone cylinders. When rolled on wet clay, they create raised images in the clay that can include pictures and cuneiform writing.
All of the artifacts were civilly forfeited in the Eastern District of New York. Iraq’s petitions for their return were approved by the chief of the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section of the Department of Justice.
The government’s case was handled by Assistant United States Attorneys Karin Orenstein and Ameet Kabrawala.
E.D.N.Y. Docket No. 17-CV-3980 (LDH) (VMS)
 In February 2018, 18 of the 144 cylinder seals that Hobby Lobby delivered to the government in connection with the July 2017 settlement were determined to be Egyptian Scarabs and are not included in this repatriation.