Grifting for Jesus
When we last left Hobby Lobby in 2015, the Green Family, its owners, were reveling in the Supreme Court decision1 that allowed them, on religious grounds, to refuse to cover contraceptives and finalizing their plans to fit their unmarried female employees with chastity belts.
I made up that second part.
Nevertheless, with the gals tamed, the big retailer then went on a shopping spree. Let me just say, if you’ve ever been lurking around the United Arab Emirates, looking to loot and debase Iraqi antiquities for your own personal gain, you’ll meet the most interesting people.
NPR has learned the reason for the early Sunday morning arrests: Israel’s Antiquities Authority says the dealers were involved in sales of antiquities — including items that U.S. authorities determined were smuggled — to Hobby Lobby, the national U.S. arts and crafts chain.2
Even before this latest announcement, Hobby Lobby had already agreed to a settlement in this case with attorneys for the Eastern District of New York in the magnificently named The United States of America v. Approximately Four Hundred Fifty (450) Ancient Cuneiform Tablets; and Approximately Three Thousand (3,000) Ancient-Clay Bullae to pay more than $3 million for its part in acquiring, many nefariously, more than 5,500 artifacts from Iraq and the United Arab Emirates.
The Greens were not planning on featuring those items as part of their Back to School Blowout Sale, rather they were acquiring the pieces to fill their new $400,000,000, 430,000 square foot Museum of the Bible that’s scheduled to open in Washington, D.C., later this year.3 During 2010 and 2011, Hobby Lobby purchased the pieces, including these cuneiform tablets mentioned in the suit.
How seedy was this?
Law-enforcement officials report that in 2010, Hobby Lobby’s president, Steve Green, visited the United Arab Emirates with an antiquities consultant to inspect more than 5,548 artifacts. The objects — which were precious and collectively worth millions of dollars — “were displayed informally,” the complaint stated, “spread on the floor, arranged in layers on a coffee table, and packed loosely in cardboard boxes, in many instances with little or no protective material between them.” They included cuneiform tablets, which display writing used in ancient Mesopotamia, and clay bullae, or balls of clay printed with ancient seals.4
You’d think ancient tablets packed in a ratty cardboard box or under a week old Dubai News might have sent up a slew of red flags for the Green family, but apparently not, because once the purchases were made, the Oklahoma-based (so, so proud) retailer went out of its way to conceal the nature of the sale, the dealers involved, and its own possible culpability.
Hobby Lobby wired $1.6 million to seven different bank accounts associated with five different people to pay for the items. The artifacts were shipped to the United States in multiple packages falsely labeled “Tiles (Sample).” They were also sent to multiple locations. As the complaint notes, “The use of multiple shipping addresses for a single recipient is consistent with methods used by cultural property smugglers to avoid scrutiny by Customs.” On customs forms, the UAE dealer supplied false invoices that substantially undervalued the pieces, presumably as a way to avoid customs inspection.
One of those shipping addresses was to its store here in Tulsa.
Considering where these artifacts came from — considering, too, the dynamics of the region — what was actually worse than the acquisitions was that the money from those acquisitions, money from Hobby Lobby, may have found its way to ISIS, which not only murders Christians, but also desires a worldwide hegemonic caliphate without, among other western niceties, sprawling arts and craft stores. ISIS profits from the theft of such treasures — when not otherwise destroying them — by re-selling them through shady figures (like the ones Israel just arrested) to companies like Hobby Lobby, good Christian companies, which, if the price is right, will toss off the tenets of Christianity for a good deal on some first-century tiles for the Mesopotamian exhibit in the new museum digs.
And what did the Greens have to say about all this?
As for the smuggling allegations, Mr. Green said in the statement that Hobby Lobby was “new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process.” He added that “regrettable mistakes” were made and that he should have “exercised more oversight.”
Oh, for the love of Sylvia Burwell, really, that’s what you’re going with ? “ Regrettable mistakes”? Let’s try this: You rummaged around some shop in Abu Dhabi and bought ancient artifacts from Signor Ferrari from Casablanca who swore they were all from his family’s garage, then wired payments to different bank accounts to cover the transaction — never inquiring who was getting the money — and then changed the bills of lading, dickered with the invoice, and had the shipments sent to your stores in America, including Tulsa, where they, presumably, were hidden in the backroom underneath the plastic utility organizers and the fern ball topiaries. Your explanation is “Well, we’re kind of a new at buying antiques. Oops.”
If disingenuousness and obfuscation were birds, you’d be covered in white.
You knew about the discrepancies and still tried to get away with it.
According to the Justice Department complaint, an expert hired by Hobby Lobby’s in-house counsel warned in October of that year that such artifacts “may have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.”5
The company’s own expert told you this and still you proceeded.
So, while it looks like the antiques merchants are facing a decade in an Israeli hoosegow, Hobby Lobby President Steve Green, after receiving a fine that amounts to about .0069 percent of last year’s sales, was slapped on the wrist and told to return the merchandise.
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.6
Pleased? You’re the only one.
But wait, there’s more. Of course there’s more.
Our passion for the Bible continues, and we will do all that we can to support the efforts to conserve items that will help illuminate and enhance our understanding of this Great Book.
Let me give you a hand with this:
Thou shalt not steal.
Thou shalt not bear false witness.
Numbers 8 and 9 in your Commandments, which are in the Bible. The museum will probably have a copy. You can get one almost anywhere.