Stephanie Hallett
July 06, 2017 4:03 pm
Getty Images/Holly Hildreth

At the top of today’s WTF list we bring you this story, involving some ancient artifacts stolen from Iraq — and Hobby Lobby. Yup, the same Hobby Lobby that fought, tooth and nail, to deny its employees birth control coverage after the Obama administration enacted the Affordable Care Act. What’s next? Sales of illegal shark fin soup in the staff break roof?

But let’s back up for a second and provide some context. Hobby Lobby, for the uninitiated, is an arts-and-crafts retailer owned by an evangelical Christian family that’s long shown a commitment to promoting its religious interests.

It has created biblical videos, operated a chain of Christian bookstores, and yes, battled the federal government all the way to the Supreme Court to argue that providing birth control coverage to its employees violates its right to religious freedom (Hobby Lobby won, BTW).

Over the years, Hobby Lobby has amassed a collection of religious artifacts, including ancient Bibles, and about eight years ago it began looking into acquiring some rare cuneiform tablets — clay slabs covered with wedge-shaped writing that were originally created in Mesopotamia, aka modern-day Iraq — and other clay artifacts.

A cultural property lawyer warned Hobby Lobby that the artifacts may have been looted from historical sites in Iraq, but the company went ahead and acquired 5,500 cuneiform tablets and other artifacts anyway, paying out $1.6 million to dealers.

The artifacts were smuggled illegally through the United Arab Emirates and Israel in boxes labeled simply “tile samples” (red flag!), and sent to Hobby Lobby stores and corporate affiliates; the shippers falsely declared the artifacts’ country of origin as Turkey or Israel on customs declaration forms. It’s believed that Hobby Lobby was planning to exhibit the artifacts at its very own Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.

On Wednesday, federal prosecutors filed a civil complaint asking Hobby Lobby to forfeit the smuggled antiquities. The company agreed to the forfeiture, and also paid the federal government $3 million. It also said that it will “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 government on any cultural property acquisitions for the next 18 months,” according to a press release from the Justice Department.

Since the 1990s, thousands of cultural artifacts have been looted from sites across Iraq, and the penalty for smuggling these items into the U.S. high — clearly. We’re still shaking our heads over this one. Better luck (or just make better choices?) next time, Hobby Lobby.