Context for the Hobby Lobby antiquities forfeiture

An image of one of the cuneiform tablets which accompanied the government’s forfeiture complaint.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have announced  a civil forfeiture proceeding against 5,500 objects from Iraq. The current possessors of the objects have also quickly announced they will not contest the forfeiture, and have agreed to pay a $3 million fine.   The objects were imported by Hobby Lobby and its president, Steve Green, to create the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

The Museum of the Bible, set to open in November near the National Mall in Washington D.C., has been rapidly acquiring antiquities from the Middle east for the last several years. History shows this kind of rapid acquisition with generous financial backing will inevitably lead to buying objects which may be looted, illegally exported, stolen, or orphaned. The questions surrounding the quick acquisition of all these objects has generated speculation for many years that these objects would cause legal difficulties for the museum.

The government’s civil forfeiture complaint tells a fascinating story of how Green traveled to the United Arab Emirates in July of 2010 and agreed to purchase 5,548 objects, including “500 cuneiform bricks, 3,000 clay bullae, 35 clay envelope seals, 13 extra-large cuneiform tablets, and 500 stone cylinder seals”. These objects were then then shipped via Federal Express to Oklahoma City to various different addresses of Hobby Lobby and its subsidiaries. The complaint notes an important reality of customs—not every shipment raises suspicion. Only some of the shipments of this material were seized by customs agents. Five shipments which traveled through Memphis, Tennessee were seized between January 3-5 of 2011. Other shipments successfully reached their destination in Oklahoma City.

One of the violations alleged were the false declarations on the import documents, including vastly under-reporting the value of these objects, and fabricated nations of origin. These were the same laws used by federal prosecutors to assist Italy in securing the return of the ancient greek Phiale from Michael Steinhardt in an earlier antiquities forfeiture proceeding which helped set precedent for the government’s increasing use of forfeiture to police the illicit art trade. The customs law used to justify the Government’s forfeiture of these objects, 18 U.S.C. 542 makes it a crime to bring goods into the United States by means of false statements, and Section 545 makes it a crime to smuggle goods into the United States. Those crimes could have been used to prosecute individuals, but the government took the quicker case, with the added benefit of more favorable burdens of proof. In this case the prosecutors decided that going after the objects at issue, and eschewing prosecution of individuals at Hobby Lobby, including Green and the various dealers was not the best strategy.

This decision thus allows the government to declare a victory, but also allows the individuals responsible to avoid serious criminal sanctions. As a result, in a statement yesterday Hobby Lobby claimed that these mistakes were unintentional:

The Company was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process.  This resulted in some regrettable mistakes.  The Company imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items.

And the Department of Justice press release allowed Acting United States Attorney Bridget Rohde to argue:

American collectors and importers must ensure compliance with laws and regulations that require truthful declarations to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, so that Customs officers are able to scrutinize cultural property crossing our borders and prevent the inappropriate entry of such property . . . If they do not, and shippers use false declarations to try to clandestinely enter property into the United States, this Office and our law enforcement partners will discover the deceit and seize the property.

It is telling I think that the government does not mention the possibility of individual prosecution. It simply is not a policy tool that the government is willing or eager to implement at this time. Though perhaps it should be.

  1. Compl. United States v. Four Hundred Fifty Ancient Cuneiform Tablets, CV 17-3980 (E.D.N.Y. Jul. 5, 2017).
  2. Artifact Import Settlement, Hobby Lobby Newsroom, https://newsroom.hobbylobby.com/articles/artifact-import-settlement/ (last visited Jul 6, 2017).
  3. United States Files Civil Action To Forfeit Thousands Of Ancient Iraqi Artifacts Imported By Hobby Lobby, , https://www.justice.gov/usao-edny/pr/united-states-files-civil-action-forfeit-thousands-ancient-iraqi-artifacts-imported (last visited Jul 6, 2017).
  4. Alan Feuer, Hobby Lobby Agrees to Forfeit 5,500 Artifacts Smuggled Out of Iraq, The New York Times, July 5, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/05/nyregion/hobby-lobby-artifacts-smuggle-iraq.html (last visited Jul 6, 2017).
  5. A US retailer has been fined $3m for illegally smuggling ancient artefacts from Iraq, The Independent (2017), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/hobby-lobby-justice-department-fine-3-million-ancient-artefacts-iraq-antiquities-illegal-imports-a7826241.html (last visited Jul 6, 2017).
  6. Hobby Lobby To Forfeit Smuggled Iraqi Antiquities, NPR.org, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/05/535698988/hobby-lobby-to-forfeit-smuggled-iraqi-antiquities (last visited Jul 6, 2017).
  7. Emma Green, Hobby Lobby Purchased Thousands of Ancient Artifacts Smuggled Out of Iraq, The Atlantic, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/07/hobby-lobby-smuggled-thousands-of-ancient-artifacts-out-of-iraq/532743/.

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