US officials have returned more than 3,800 artefacts illegally obtained from suppliers in Iraq and sold to Hobby Lobby, the giant craft store chain owned by evangelical Christians.
The artefacts had been smuggled into the country and Hobby Lobby had bought them for the Museum of the Bible, which opened last year in Washington, DC. Hobby Lobby's founder Steve Green is the museum's chairman.
The items recovered include cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals, many of them from the ancient city of Irisagrig in Iraq. They date back to 2100-1600 BC, officials said.
The artefacts were imported into the US falsely labelled as tile samples. Hobby Lobby was ordered last year to forfeit them and fined $3 million. It said it had been naive in its approach to buying antiquities but denied it had deliberately set out to act illegally. Prosecutors said that the acquisition of the artefacts 'was fraught with red flags'. The company's president Steve Green said it cooperated with the government and 'should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled'.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement acting director Thomas Homan said it was 'a great honour for me to return so many priceless cultural artifacts to the people of Iraq'. He continued: '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.'
The artefacts returned were initially intercepted by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
'CBP is honoured to have played a role, together with ICE, in the return of these national treasures to their rightful owner, the Republic of Iraq. In doing so, we ensure the protection of this priceless cultural heritage and secure a precious, tangible link to the past for future generations,' said assistant commissioner Ian Saunders.
'These pieces are very important to us and they should be returned home to Iraq, to the rightful owner of these pieces,' said Ambassador of Iraq to the United States, Fareed Yasseen.