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Earth Flatteners and Hobby-Lobby Iraqi Artifact Theft – 2. Hobby-Lobby Fined $3 million and Forced to Return 5,500 Stolen Iraqi Artifacts

July 8, 2017

This box of artifacts was on sale in a Baghdad market. Iraq National Museum identification numbers are visible on many cylinder seals inside the box.

A New York Times July 5, 2017 news story details how the toy manufacturer, Hobby Lobby, was taken to a federal court in Brooklyn for having knowingly bought 5,500 cultural artifacts stolen from the National Museum of Iraq during the March-April, 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The stolen items, purchased for $1.6 million from an unnamed antiquities dealer had been among the estimated 130,000 items looted from Iraq as a whole in the midst of the U.S.-led storming of Baghdad in which hundreds of looters in three waves savaged one of the world’s greatest archaeological collections.

The mostly U.S. led (or encouraged) wars which have wreaked havoc on Iraq since 1980 have not only done near-irreparable damage to Iraqi infrastructure, resulting, easily, not only in the death of a million people, but millions of people, the overwhelming majority of them civilian casualties. They have also produced an antiquities trafficking bonanza of unprecedented size and scope. In the vacuum created by war zone situations, looting – highly organized and targeted – has also resulted with pretty much everyone getting into the act, including ISIS, Daesh types who as part of their effort to purge the Middle East of all non-Salafist representations of religion have not only destroyed precious religious and other cultural artifacts, but have also sold tons of them on the black market to raise money for arms and other equipment. So ISIS, Daesh are not just destroying ancient artifacts, they are selling them! Strange as it seems, in its rush to buy up whatever antiquities it can get its hands on, Hobby Lobby is doing business – knowingly or not – with ISIS and like organizations.

As one researcher noted, it was not only the National Museum that was targeted. Other looted Iraqi cultural institutions included the National Library, the National Academy of Arts, institutes of music, dance, and art, and universities in Baghdad and elsewhere. Likewise, organized looting of archaeological sites, which had begun during the mid 1990s in the south of Iraq, resumed at a greatly increased rate while the invasion was taking place, and it continues unabated

Although the total figure will never be known, the number of items looted from the National Museum was estimated at 15,000 by different sources. As a Royal Ontario Museum commentary noted marking the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion and the museum looting:

The looting of Baghdad’s Iraq Museum in April 2003 during the Iraq war shocked the world. Priceless antiquities were stolen or destroyed, devastating one of the world’s most important museums of ancient culture. An extensive database, accessible to international researchers, had been developed and maintained by the museum. The destruction of these records was a great blow to world scholarship. Looting was not confined to this one prominent site. During the Iraq war, numerous of the country’s archaeological sites were ransacked with artifacts either stolen or destroyed.

Hobby Lobby Buying Up Antiquities for its “Museum of the Bible”

But the cultural tragedy of the Iraqi nation is little more than a cynical opportunity for profit and ideological  finagling for others. It is into this cultural cesspool that the president of Hobby Lobby, an ardent Donald Trump support, enthusiastically lunged, buying up as much of Iraq’s cultural heritage has he could. That a man didn’t know exactly what he was doing is something less than credible; he is an experienced antiquities collector who knows the field. His claims of ignorance as to the source of his Iraqi antiquities purchases was not credible to the U.S. Department of Justice which indicted him and found  him guilty of purchasing trafficked antiquities. Nor were the claims that the materials Hobby Lobby acquired were insignificant.

Among the stolen museum items that turned up in Hobby Lobby’s stash were a large number of rare cuneiform tablets “with wedge shaped writing that originated in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago. As a part of the settlement prosecutors required that all the items be returned to Iraq and that Hobby Lobby pay a fine of $3 million. In February 2015, the National Museum of Iraq reopened its doors after a thirteen year hiatus. By then about a third of the items stolen had been recovered, leaving a hefty ten thousand artifacts out in the antiquities markets and in private collections. The date of the museum’s reopening was advanced in response to an Islamic State (IS) video showing statues being destroyed in Mosul during the time the Islamic fundamentalists controlled the city.

Business Insider (online) reported that Hobby Lobby president Steve Green, an avowed Christian fundamentalist, has a long history of collecting ancient artifacts. What is known as “the Green Collection,” which the Hobby Lobby president and his father have grown substantially over the last five years, is the world’s largest private collection of biblical texts and artifacts, Fox News reported in May. How much of it comes from sources looted in war-torn Iraq and Syria, one has to wonder? The Iraqi looted antiquities in Hobby Lobby’s possession were slated to material for exposition at the Green-funded Museum of the Bible, a 430,000-square-foot museum costing an estimated cool $500 million, currently under construction in Washington, D.C. It is slated for opening in November 2017. The museum website boasts that “will provide guests with an immersive and personalized experience as they explore the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible. A New York Post article notes that “the museum’s five central exhibit floors will house 40,000 biblical and religious artifacts, including portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, bibles once belonging to Babe Ruth and Elvis Presley, and the Lunar Bible – the first bible to travel in space.” Who could ask for more?

According to the above cited Times article, the president of Hobby Lobby, Steve Green, visited the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.)along with a company-hired antiquities consultant to inspect a large number of number of rare cuneiform items there. In spite of the fact that an expert on cultural property law had warned company executives that the items might have been looted from historical sites in Iraq, Hobby Lobby continued to finalize the deal. The looted objects were smuggled into the United States both from the U.A.E. and Israel falsely labeled as “ceramics” and “samples,” shipping the them two Hobby Lobby corporate offices in the United States. This and a number of other hints led investigators at U.S. Customs and Border Protection to investigate the matter which was turned over to the Department of Justice for prosecution. The fact that the items had been falsely labeled by the U.A.E, and not Hobby Lobby, did not result in letting Hobby Lobby off the hook.

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Earth Flatteners and the Iraqi Antiquities Theft: Part One

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Thomas M. Rauch permalink
    July 9, 2017 2:30 am

    Rob, Isn’t it incredibly ironic that the president of Hobby Lobby, who is so opposed to his employees having contraception covered by their health insurance policies, has no moral qualms about purchasing looted antiquities for his museum celebrating the Bible? He must never have read those parts of the Bible that give us the words and deeds of the great Hebrew prophets and Jesus of Nazareth. Sadly, this moral hypocrisy and focus on sexual issues (which often stresses telling women what they can and can’t do as sexual persons) is typical of most conservative Christians, both leaders and followers. And these same people insist that the U.S.A. was founded as a Christian nation and should return to its roots if it is to find “salvation”. I’m still trying to find those biblical passages that justify slavery, the annihilation of native peoples and the seizure of their land, the violence of wars, racism, sexism, etc., etc.

    Tom Rauch

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  1. Flat Earthers and Hobby Lobby Iraqi Artifact Theft – 1 Background | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog

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