Hobby Lobby
One of the several thousand ancient artefacts that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement returned to Iraq. The artefacts were smuggled into the US in violation of federal law and shipped to Hobby Lobby locations. The shipping labels on these packages falsely described the cuneiform tablets as tile sample. (Photo by Keith Gardner, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

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A civil complaint filed last summer described how Hobby Lobby had agreed to purchase more than 5500 artefacts, many of which originated in the area of modern-day Iraq. Many of these objects were falsely labelled as clay tiles and were smuggled through Israel and the UAE into the US. Hobby Lobby consented to the forfeiture of the artefacts and the payment of a $3m fine.

A repatriation ceremony of 3800 objects took place at the Iraqi Embassy on Wednesday. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) returned cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, clay bullae and other artefacts.  

“Such efforts are to be noted. Not only do they enforce the law, they serve a sense of historic justice and they help in the fight against criminal and terrorist networks,” said HE Fareed Yasseen, Iraq’s ambassador to the US, in a statement published on the embassy’s website.

ICE acting director Thomas D Homan said: “We will continue to work together to prevent the looting of antiquities and ensure that those who would attempt to profit from this crime are held accountable. This ceremony should serve as a powerful reminder that nobody is above the law.”

Many of the tablets come from the ancient city of Irisagrig. Primarily from the Ur III and Old Babylonian period (2100-1600BC), the tablets are mostly legal and administrative documents, but also include an important collection of Early Dynastic incantations as well as a bilingual religious text from the Neo-Babylonian period.