Hobby Lobby's shame over antiquities smuggling: What you need to know

Hobby Lobby – a craft supplies company known for its evangelical ethos – has been fined $3million for illegally smuggling ancient artefacts from the Middle East into the US.

It has also agreed to forfeit some 5,500 items that originate from modern-day Iraq and were shipped out under false labels after a legal settlement on Wednesday.

Here is all you need to know about the affair.

The Christian owners of the giant Hobby Lobby chain were investigated for illegally importing ancient clay tablets from Iraq.DangApricot

What is Hobby Lobby?

Hobby Lobby Inc. is an American retail chain of arts and crafts stores first opened in Oklahoma City in 1972. One of its values is 'Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.' Twenty years later in 1992 the company, founded by devout Christian David Green, had grown to 50 stores across seven states and as of April 2015 the chain had 600 sites across the US.

The firm rose to national prominence in 2014 when it won a Supreme Court case that gave exemption from providing health insurance to employees for certain types of birth control, as required by Obama's Affordable Care Act. Crucial to the ruling was the religious liberty of the Greens' evangelical faith.

With a yearly revenue of around $3.7billion, according to Forbes, David Green and his son Steven, have turned their attention and wealth to other projects such as biblical films, Christian bookstores and sponsored trips to Israel.

Why are they interested in Middle Eastern artefacts?

One of the Greens' most extensive and time-consuming projects alongside Hobby Lobby is the Museum of the Bible. Steven Green is the board chair of the latter and president of the former and dedicates at least half his time to the Museum of the Bible, set to open in Washington this November.

So although these items, some of them 3,000 year-old artefacts, were purchased through Hobby Lobby, their final destination was display in the Museum.

A clay cuneiform tablet from ancient MesopotamiaReuters

How did this scandal emerge?

US Customs agents seized a shipment of up to 300 small clay tablets from ancient Assyria and Babylon – modern day Iraq – in 2011.

The total collection of artefacts for the Museum of the Bible was 40,000 strong and an investigation began after it emerged the valuable artefacts were falsely labelled in order to smuggle them out of the Middle East.

It was alleged Hobby Lobby might have bought the items from ISIS, although it later emerged the shipments predated the jihadist group's rise.

But it undoubtedly participated in the black market of looted and stolen ancient artefacts from which ISIS and other militant groups benefit.

Have they tried to justify it?

Initially it was suggested 'incomplete paperwork' was to blame. Now that is clearly untrue, Hobby Lobby has claimed it was new to the world of antiquities and 'did not understand the correct way to document and ship' items.

'We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,' Green said in a statement Wednesday.

'The Company was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process. This resulted in some regrettable mistakes.'

'We have accepted responsibility and learned a great deal,' Green added, saying that the company has now 'implemented acquisition policies and procedures based on the industry's highest standards.'

Is this believable?

Numerous experts have come out and said it is disingenuous to say Hobby Lobby didn't know what it was doing when it buying illegally.

'Ridiculous,' said Jerome Eisenberg, who has specialised in ancient art for more than 60 years, according to RNS.

'No dealer in his right mind would have been involved in this.'

Matthew Canepa, a professor of art and archaeology of the ancient Near East at the University of Minnesota added the claim was 'fatuous'.

'They have obviously created a track record of having a knowledge and at least an appreciation of the value of these things,' Canepa said. 'They're not just sort of a naive tourist kind of picking up a souvenir.'

On top of that it has emerged Hobby Lobby was warned by its own property lax expert that buying the looted items was 'fraught with red flags' but it ignored the advice.

What next for Hobby Lobby and Steven Green?

The fine of $3million won't make much of a dent in Hobby Lobby's funds.

The Museum of the Bible is, as yet, still set to open in November. Many of the items in it will not have come through Hobby Lobby. But many will have done and carry all the ethical baggage that comes with it.

Hobby Lobby has promised to form policies on the buying of cultural property, give training to its personnel, hire outside customs counsel and submit quarterly reports to the government on any cultural property it buys for the next eighteen months, according to the US Department of Justice.

But with revenue in excess of $3billion, the Greens' march continues.

Despite repeated pleas for transparency on where all their artefacts have come from, the Greens have not been forthcoming.

While it may be an issue of minor ethical discomfort for those visiting the Museum of the Bible, the reality is that without buyers like Hobby Lobby, the Middle East's black market in stolen artefacts, which funds so much extremism, would not exist.

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