The US Just Gave A Bunch Of Stuff Hobby Lobby Agreed To Forfeit Back To Iraq

The owners of the arts and crafts store got busted in 2017 for smuggling cuneiform tablets disguised as "clay tiles."

You see all these little doo-dads? They're actually just a few of the ancient artifacts that got returned to Iraq on Wednesday, after the owners of craft store chain Hobby Lobby brought them into the US.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

According to court documents, the Oklahoma City–based chain received several packages in 2010 and 2011 labeled as "hand-made clay tiles" that were made in Turkey. At least three of these packages made it to Hobby Lobby's headquarters or one of its stores.

They don't really look like much — Hobby Lobby listed their worth between $1 and $5 on US customs forms. But in actuality, the ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets* and cylinder seals* are worth hundreds of dollars each.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

According to federal prosecutors, there were a ton of "red flags" that the goods Hobby Lobby brought into the US were less than savory. One expert the company hired to advise them on its acquisitions warned that there was "considerable risk" associated with antiquities likely from Iraq.

US law prohibits the import of objects likely looted from Iraqi institutions or if a "reasonable suspicion" exists that they were snatched; Iraqi law, on the other hand, bans the export of antiquities and has restrictions on just who can own them.

(*Cuneiform is an ancient form of writing on clay tablets that was practiced in Mesopotamia; the seals were engraved dealies that when rolled on wet clay left pictures and cuneiform writing. Both are super important for understanding the culture of the time.)

Last July, Hobby Lobby agreed to give up the items to Iraq on top of paying a $3 million fine. Since nobody claimed them, the goods were transferred to the US government, who then provided them to the Iraqis.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

“We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” Hobby Lobby President Steve Green said in a statement to BuzzFeed News at the time. “Hobby Lobby has cooperated with the government throughout its investigation, and with the announcement of today’s settlement agreement, is pleased the matter has been resolved.”

Green is also the owner of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, which displays thousands of biblical artifacts. Around the time the museum was being built, Green traveled to the United Arab Emirates to inspect the goods that were later seized, according to federal investigators.

Several of the nearly 3,800 objects due to be returned were on hand Wednesday, when the US held a little transfer ceremony at the residence of the Iraqi Ambassador to the US in Washington.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

On deck for the ceremony: US Attorney Richard Donoghue and Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan, whose agency first intercepted some of the packages Hobby Lobby brought into the US.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

“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,” Donoghue said in a statement ahead of the handoff. “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.”

Iraqi Ambassador Fareed Yasseen thanked the US profusely for the return of the objects, which, according to ICE, came from the ancient city of Irisagrig and are up to 2,500 years old.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

"This is really important to us," Yasseen said. "You have to understand that in Iraq, memories are long, and so we really have a sense of kinship to these artifacts."

As for what happens once the items return to Iraq, the ideal situation is quite clear:

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