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Cultural Heritage Expert Explains Why Hobby Lobby Returned Iraqi Artifacts

May 10, 2018

When the Green family, the owners of the Oklahoma-based arts and craft store Hobby Lobby, purchased thousands of artifacts from dealers in the United Arab Emirates in 2010, it was believed many of the objects were looted from archaeological sites in Iraq. 

The items included ancient Mesopotamian artifacts like cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, and clay bullae. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a civil complaint, and after an investigation, Hobby Lobby agreed to relinquish nearly 4,000 items and paid a $3 million fine in 2017.

This month, the items were returned to the Iraqi government and will be displayed at the National Museum of Iraq.

Leila Amineddoleh, an art and cultural heritage attorney and professor of art crime at New York University, served as a legal expert on the case against Hobby Lobby.

Amineddoleh recently spoke with Where We Live host Lucy Nalpathanchil about how the company’s owners acquired the artifacts, where they went wrong, and how the items are finally going back home.

Interview Highlights

On why Hobby Lobby bought the items

The owners of Hobby Lobby, the Greens, have a collection of [biblical-era] art and artifacts. They had purchased thousands of artifacts over the years. They [are] collectors themselves. Although these objects were not intended for their museum, the Green family and Hobby Lobby did begin a museum, the Museum of the Bible, which opened in November.

Supposedly these objects were not intended for the museum. I’m not sure if that’s true, but that’s what their claim was. They’re collectors who are very interested in biblical-era objects and it’s just a personal interest.

On where Hobby Lobby went wrong

It seems like they knew what they were doing was wrong. They had consulted with one of the leading cultural heritage experts in 2010 prior to the purchase of these objects to get information on the process of buying these objects.

At the time, the cultural heritage expert, Patty Gerstenblith [told] the company that objects were taken from Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003, so it’s a strong likelihood that these objects were looted. However, they ignored her advice and went forward with the purchase. Eventually, they got caught doing this, especially after they had started importing these objects from the Middle East into the U.S. with false information on the customs forms.

The art market and antiquities are difficult places for people to buy objects. Besides looting, there are a lot of fakes on the market. There are a lot of forged goods, whether it’s fine art or antiquities, so collectors need to be mindful of authentication.

What Hobby Lobby did do, which was correct, is confer with experts in the field. Hobby Lobby did that and their expert told them there’s a likelihood these objects were looted. They just decided to ignore her advice, but they did take the correct first step, which is to confer with experts. The second step is to listen to the expert and not purchase these objects if you’re warned about them. That’s the same for forgeries as well. There is a lot of common sense. For example, if you’re looking at an object from Syria, that’s a red flag because Syria is a conflict zone.

On who did the looting in the first place

Often it’s locals on the ground. They’re people who want money from these objects. Often times, the people selling these objects don’t receive a ton of money. The people who dig them up will sell them to a middleman and these pieces might change hands a few times until they end up on the international market.

In many cases, they’re just poor locals who see these objects as natural resources. In this case, the objects were purchased for $1.6 million. I doubt that the actual individuals who found these objects saw anywhere near $1.6 million.

On where the items will go next

The works are intended to go on display in Iraq’s National Museum. The museum was heavily looted in 2003. That museum is going to reopen sometime in the very near future. The objects that were bought by Hobby Lobby are going to be returned to the museum.  

I think it’s wonderful this museum, which suffered such losses, is going to have a wonderful collection in Iraq. It’s a museum of the Iraqi people and it seems like the rightful home for the items. Of course, there’s always a risk in returning objects to an area that’s unstable, but really there are risks anywhere. But I think it’s going to its rightful home.

This is an edited interview from the May 7, 2018 episode of Where We Live. Where We Live airs every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 9:00 am and 7:00 pm.