'Harder slap than usual': Punishment for importing stolen artifacts isn't severe enough, experts say

The case of ancient Iraqi artifacts and a major U.S. retailer accused of illegally bringing them into the country has antiquity smuggling back in the international spotlight, and critics say the punishment isn’t severe enough.

Illegal antiquities trade comes into clearer focus after $3M settlement with Hobby Lobby

Hobby Lobby, a U.S. arts and crafts chain, agreed to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit more than 5,500 artifacts the U.S. government says were intentionally mislabeled as 'clay tiles' from Turkey. (Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)

At first glance it appears impressive: a major U.S. retailer fined $3 million US and forced to return thousands of illegally imported Iraqi artifacts.

But experts say the punishment doesn't fit the crime, and it only scratches the surface of worldwide trafficking in antiquities.

Last week, Hobby Lobby, a U.S. arts and crafts store, agreed to pay the fine and forfeit more than 5,500 artifacts the government says were intentionally mislabeled as "clay tiles" from Turkey.

Hobby Lobby agreed to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit cuneiform tablets like this one. (U.S. Attorney's Office/Eastern District of New York)

In reality, the shipments sent in 2010 and 2011, were filled with clay cuneiform tablets. Cuneiform is an ancient writing style that dates back thousand of years and originates in Mesopotamia, what is now modern-day Iraq.

The company said in a statement that it was new to the world of acquiring these types of items and relied on dealers who did not understand how to properly document and ship the items.

The company's president, billionaire Steven Green, is a devout Christian who owns a large collection of religious artifacts and is opening a Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., in the fall. 

Donna Yates, a lecturer in antiquities trafficking at the University of Glasgow, says the company ignored the advice of an expert who said the 2009 deal to buy the items was fraught with red flags.

No punishment

The expert pointed out that an estimated 200,000-500,000 objects have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq since the early 1990s, and they need to be careful to verify the origin of anything they buy. 

Yates said the fact Hobby Lobby is paying a fine is rare. She says in most cases there is no punishment at all, and in very few cases does someone go to jail. 

"You can almost see it as a slap on the wrist, but a bit of a harder slap than usual," Yates said in an interview from Glasgow.

Hobby Lobby president Steve Green said July 5 his company made 'regrettable mistakes' when it started dealing in antiquities in 2009. (Brianna Bailey/Associated Press)

The import of Iraqi cultural objects to the U.S. has been restricted since 1990. Deborah Lehr of the Antiquities Coalition, says for the law to be an effective deterrent, the government needs to prosecute. She says too often the Department of Justice policy appears to be seize, forfeit and return the goods. 

"We were disappointed to see that for a sophisticated importer and exporter as Hobby Lobby is, that there wasn't some kind of criminal penalty," Lehr said. 

Her group is helping governments in the Middle East update laws around antiquities smuggling. She said companies like Hobby Lobby and its president can't plead ignorance.

Lehr says the one benefit here is that the case has cast the spotlight back on the shadowy world of trading in stolen artifacts and the thriving black market. Because of the illegal nature of the business, it's impossible to quantify how much the trade is worth.

One of the clay bullae that were mislabeled and shipped to Hobby Lobby stores. (U.S. Attorney's Office/Eastern District of New York)

The issue made headlines in 2015 when it was revealed the ISIS was looting sites in Iraq and Syria and selling the artifacts for millions to fund its terrorist activities.

While ISIS is just small piece of the overall black market, Yates says seizures like the one involving Hobby Lobby give a hint of the scope of the problem and the near-impossible challenge of tracking what's out there.

Materials taken from churches or museums can be tracked, she says, but it's harder when objects are plundered directly from archaeological sites. 

Lost context

"We have no real way to gauge that they're gone except maybe a hole in the ground, and there's a lot of holes in the ground," she said. 

Yates said ripping these artifacts from their original sites also robs them of their educational value to archaeologists.

"We've lost our ability to reconstruct how they were used, what else was around them, whether this was from a library, what kind of people wrote them, what they were used for. All of this stuff is gone."


Steven D'Souza

Senior Reporter

Steven D'Souza is a Senior Reporter based in Toronto. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.

With files from The Associated Press


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