US ARTS and crafts retailer, Hobby Lobby, was recently found to have smuggled thousands of ancient artifacts out of Iraq between 2010 and 2011. The incident underscores the ongoing problem of cultural theft from the Middle East region.
Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based company, is owned by Steve Green and his family, well-known billionaires and evangelical Christians. Green began to collect antiquities from the Middle East in 2009, using Hobby Lobby as a means of shipping these items to the United States.
In July 2010, Green traveled to the UAE with two antiquities dealers from Israel, and one from the UAE to inspect a large cache of cuneiform tablets, among other artifacts. He later purchased over 5,500 of these artifacts from an unknown dealer for $1.6 million in December 2010. The items were shipped to the United States marked as clay tile samples. Green had been intending to display them at the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, which he bankrolled and is scheduled to open this coming November.
A civil complaint filed by federal prosecutors against Hobby Lobby will prevent the artifacts from being exhibited in the museum. After being accused of importing the artifacts illegally, Hobby Lobby signed a settlement agreement, which require it to pay $3 million in fines and forfeit thousands of the smuggled artifacts.
Green claimed ignorance of the artifacts’ origins, and insisted Hobby Lobby’s executives were unfamiliar with the acquisition process and misled by the shipping companies involved. Challenging his claims, one unnamed expert admitted to warning the Green family in 2010 that the cuneiform tablets were likely looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.
Though troubling on its own, this incident highlights a more systemic problem. As Yale Professor Joel Baden noted in conversation with NBC News, the Hobby Lobby case points to a deeper network of black market goods being smuggled from across the region.
Due to increased demand for art and artifacts in the Gulf, the UAE has become a black market hub for these items, facilitating Hobby Lobby’s transaction and potentially many more. According to an article in Al Jazeera, Israel’s ‘lax laws on the sale of antiquities’ have also made it easy to buy and sell artifacts, at least before the Israeli Antiquities Authority cracked down on the sale of these items in 2015. Before 2015, antiquities, which may have actually originated elsewhere, could be falsely labeled as having been uncovered inside Israel and, therefore, available for sale.
As the civil complaint against Hobby Lobby alleged, this is precisely what happened in 2011, when ‘the retailer received a package of 1,000 [clay tokens known as] bullae from the Israeli dealers with an Israeli export licence that falsely declared the items’ country of origin as Israel,’ according to Al Jazeera.
A recently-published opinion piece in The Washington Post underscored another dynamic at play in the Hobby Lobby case, noting that ‘the blithe willingness to buy unprovenanced artifacts emboldens a black market that robs countries of their heritage, often to the profit of those who do terrible violence.’ It is possible, in other words, that Hobby Lobby’s black market purchase of cuneiform tables from Iraq may have helped fund ISIS. According to an article in Romper, the terrorist organization has ‘a contemptible reputation for selling artifacts overseas, especially to American buyers.’
Whether or not Hobby Lobby’s deals have inadvertently funded ISIS, they have certainly helped further plunder a region already devastated by American callousness.
muftah.org, July 17. Fatima Mohie-Eldin is co-editor for Muftah’s Egypt and North Africa pages. She is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Near Eastern Studies at NYU’s Hagop Kevorkian Center. Fatima holds a BA in International Relations from Boston University where she studied Religion and Muslim Societies. Spurred by family ties, she has long held an interest in understanding the political, religious, and social structures of the Middle East, in general, and Egypt and Turkey, in particular.
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