Thousands of stolen artifacts forfeited by Hobby Lobby return to Iraq

Thousands of artifacts stolen from Iraq and smuggled out of the country have been returned to the Iraqi government, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.

A press release from the Department of Justice stated that approximately 3,800 artifacts were returned to the residence of Iraq's ambassador at a repatriation ceremony on Wednesday. The return of the artifacts comes after arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit the artifacts as well as $3 million in civil penalties over the company's role in the smuggling scheme.

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“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," said Richard Donaghue, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, in the press release.

Hobby Lobby executives claim that they had no knowledge the artifacts were stolen and that they were acquired in the early stages of the chain's attempts to get antiquities from Iraq by legal means.

But prosecutors argued that the chain was warned by its own antiquities expert that dealing in Iraqi artifacts carried significant risk due to the likelihood of stolen artifacts entering the legal trade.

“Early on, we were always trying to find the best experts we could to help us as we were acquiring antiquities,” Hobby Lobby President Steve Green told The Associated Press last year. 

“And so as mistakes are made, we learn from those mistakes and put processes and procedures in place to try to improve on that. ... There’s a lot of complexities in areas that I’m still a novice at. But we are engaging the best experts we can to advise and help us in that process.”

The Washington Post reports that the smuggled items largely include cuneiform tablets, bricks and other clay artifacts mostly stemming from the Sumerian city of Irisagrig. The artifacts, which were intended to be sold in Hobby Lobby stores, are dated around 2,000 years old.