By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice said on Wednesday it had reached a settlement with national arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby to forfeit thousands of ancient artifacts illegally smuggled into the country from the Middle East.
Under the terms of the settlement filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, New York, Hobby Lobby Stores has agreed to forfeit the antiquities, which originated from the region of modern-day Iraq, as well as $3 million, federal prosecutors said in a statement.
"The protection of cultural heritage is a mission that (Homeland Security Investigations) and its partner U.S. Customs and Border Protection take very seriously as we recognize that while some may put a price on these artifacts, the people of Iraq consider them priceless,” Angel Melendez, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in New York, said in the statement.
Representatives for privately-held Hobby Lobby Stores Inc could not immediately be reached by Reuters for comment.
The president of Hobby Lobby, Steve Green, is the chairman and founder of the Museum of the Bible, which is under construction in Washington, D.C., and on its website describes its collections as biblical objects and artifacts.
Prosecutors say that Hobby Lobby, which is based in Oklahoma City, began assembling a collection of historically significant manuscripts, antiquities and other cultural materials in 2009.
The following year an expert on cultural property law retained by Hobby Lobby cautioned company executives that artifacts from Iraq could have been looted from archaeological sites, advising the company to verify that those being sold had been obtained legally.
Despite that warning and other red flags, prosecutors say, Hobby Lobby in December 2010 spent $1.6 million to purchase more than 5,500 artifacts comprised of cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay bullae and cylinder seals. Cuneiform is an ancient system of writing on clay tablets.
A dealer based in the United Arab Emirates shipped packages containing the items to three different Hobby Lobby corporate addresses in Oklahoma City, bearing labels that falsely described their contents as "ceramic tiles" or "clay tiles" and the country of origin as Turkey.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Leslie Adler)