US to return thousands of smuggled ancient artifacts back to Iraq

(Wikimedia Commons/CyberXRef)A Hobby Lobby store located in Trexlertown, PA.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has announced on Wednesday that it will be returning nearly 4,000 ancient artifacts that were smuggled for arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby back to Iraq.

The artifacts, which include cuneiform tablets, clay bullae and cylinder seals, were bought by Hobby Lobby from a United Arab Emirates-based supplier and were smuggled to the U.S. as "tile samples."

The Oklahoma-based retail store had agreed to forfeit the artifacts and pay a $3 million fine in July following a civil lawsuit from the Justice Department.

According to CNN, many of the artifacts originated from the ancient city of Irisagrig. Some date from 2100 to 1600 B.C. while others are said to be around 500 years older.

"This is really important to us," Iraqi Ambassador to the US Fareed Yasseen said, as reported by CNN.

"You have to understand that in Iraq, memories are long, and so we really have a sense of kinship to these artifacts," he added.

Hobby Lobby reportedly purchased as many as 5,500 artifacts, but it had not received all of the pieces, NPR reported.

As part of the settlement with the Justice Department, the company agreed to notify the government if it learns about the location of the remaining pieces, and turn over any artifact that it receives.

The purchase was reportedly made after the company was warned by an expert that the artifacts could be stolen from archaeological sites in Iraq. The expert also advised the company to go through its collection to determine if any of the pieces originated from Iraq.

The DOJ stated that the "acquisition of the Artifacts was fraught with red flags." Hobby Lobby employees reportedly did not meet any of the dealers and only wired the payments to bank accounts that were not in the names of the owners of the artifacts.

Steve Green, the president of the company, said in a statement in July that more oversight should have been done before the purchases were made.

"Hobby Lobby has cooperated with the government throughout its investigation, and with the announcement of today's settlement agreement, is pleased the matter has been resolved," Green said, as reported by CNN.

The company has vowed to enact policies on acquiring cultural property and provide necessary training to its personnel, according to the DOJ.

The arts and crafts store has also agreed to hire qualified outside customs counsel and provide the government with quarterly reports on its purchases of cultural property for 18 months.

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