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.

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The US initiated an extraterritorial civil forfeiture of antiquities

Last week, attorneys filed a civil forfeiture action on behalf of the United States for four antiquities allegedly being held as foreign assets of ISIL. The case marks a couple firsts. For one it is the first forfeiture action targeting foreign assets of ISIL of any kind. Second, it marks the first forfeiture initiated by the U.S. government of this kind, where the objects at issue have not been seized by the government, but rather only photographic and associated evidence of their possible introduction into the antiquities trade exists. As a consequence this is an extra-territorial forfeiture which shares many similarities with the efforts of Italian prosecutors to forfeit the Fano athlete/Getty Bronze.

The best overview of the forfeiture I’ve seen can be found at chasing aphrodite. There, Jason Felch was able to speak with Arvind Lal and Zia Faruqui in the U.S. Attorneys Office for the District of Colombia:

Where are the objects? Lal and Zia declined to say whether they knew where the objects were, citing the on-going investigation of the Abu Sayyaf material. But they said the complaint makes clear they are not currently in the United States.    

Why file the complaint now? Lal said that the time between the May 2015 raid and the forfeiture complaint was necessary to conduct a thorough investigation of the records seized from Abu Sayyaf, consult with experts on the objects depicted in those records, coordinate with other federal agencies (FBI, State, Treasury and “other government agencies”) and compile the complaint. “We feel like we’ve done our homework with respect to these four items,” Lal said, suggesting that additional items may be added to the complaint in the future.

The practical implication of this forfeiture will mean that the market for these four objects, and perhaps objects like them, has been sharply diminished. The forfeiture complaint also details the ways in which looting takes place. The traditional rationales for antiquities looting may be much messier than we have thought, with women and family members forced to loot the al-Salihiyyah archaeological site to prevent harm to a young family member, as the documents seized in the Abu Sayyaf raid which have been made public for the first time in this complaint seem to show.

  1. US files first case against ISIS to recover antiquities, http://ara.tv/m65yq (last visited Dec 20, 2016).
  2. UPDATED > Inside the ISIS Looting Operation: U.S. Lawsuit Reveals Terror Group’s Brutal Bureaucracy of Plunder, CHASING APHRODITE (2016), https://chasingaphrodite.com/2016/12/15/inside-the-isis-looting-operation-u-s-lawsuit-reveals-terror-groups-brutal-bureaucracy-of-plunder/ (last visited Dec 20, 2016).
  3. Brandi Buchman, U.S. on Hunt for Antiquities Trafficked by Islamic State Courthouse News Service (2016), https://courthousenews.com/u-s-on-hunt-for-antiquities-trafficked-by-islamic-state/ (last visited Dec 20, 2016).
  4. United States Files Complaint Seeking Forfeiture of Antiquities Associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), https://www.justice.gov/usao-dc/pr/united-states-files-complaint-seeking-forfeiture-antiquities-associated-islamic-state (last visited Dec 20, 2016).

Antiquities Trafficking Discussion at the SAA San Francisco, April 18

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I’ll be presenting a short paper on the Ka-Nefer-Nefer forfeiture case at the Society for American Archaeology Annual meeting this Saturday morning. Our panel is scheduled from 8-10.15 A.M. in the Golden Gate 4 room of the Hilton San Francisco Union Square.

Here are the other scheduled papers:

Antiquities, drugs, guns, diamonds, wildlife: toward a theory of transnational criminal markets in illicit goods
Simon Mackenzie*

The Kapoor Case: International collaboration on antiquities provenance research
Jason Felch

Alternative Strategies in Confronting Looting and Trafficking in Defense of Peruvian Portable Heritage
Alvaro Higueras

The Ka Nefer Nefer and Federal Intervention in the Illicit Antiquities Trade
Derek Fincham

Geospatial strategies for mapping large scale archaeological site destruction: The case from Egypt
Sarah Parcak

Bones of Contention: Further Investigation into the Online Trade in Archaeological and Ethnographic Human Remains
Duncan Chappell & Damien Huffer

The ruin of the Maya heartland: successes, failures, and consequences of four decades of antiquities trafficking regulation
Donna Yates

Syria: Cultural Property Protection Policy Failure?
Neil Brodie

Morag Kersel will also be presenting a paper on her project Follow the Pots