Ancient artifacts seized in Jerusalem in Hobby Lobby antiquities case

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JERUSALEM — Israeli police arrested five antiquities dealers in Jerusalem over the weekend, seizing gold coins, ancient weapons and more in an international investigation of smuggled Iraqi artifacts — some of which made their way into the United States, according to Israeli police and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Israeli tax and antiquities authorities learned of the sale only after US investigators uncovered details of it while looking into purchases made by the US-based arts-and-crafts retailer Hobby Lobby. Police then raided the homes and businesses of the dealers on suspicion of tax fraud, money laundering and forgery. The suspects have not been identified.

Hobby Lobby had purchased $1.6 million worth of Iraqi artifacts over the past seven years, including cuneiform tablets and clay tokens, from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The dealers who allegedly sold the artifacts were authorized Israeli dealers, but they falsified invoices and receipts, said Dr. Eitan Klein from the Israel Antiquities Authority’s department for preventing antiquities theft.

The artifacts never passed through Israel, Klein said; instead, they were shipped directly from the UAE to the United States with the Israeli dealers allegedly arranging the sale and coordinating the shipment.

In early July, Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit the artifacts and pay a $3 million fine to resolve a civil action brought by the Justice Department, according to court documents. Hobby Lobby said it has cooperated with the investigation.

“In 2009, Hobby Lobby began acquiring a variety of historical Bibles and other artifacts. Developing a collection of historically and religiously important books and artifacts about the Bible is consistent with the company’s mission and passion for the Bible,” Hobby Lobby said in a statement.

“We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” Hobby Lobby President Steve Green said in the July 5 statement. “Hobby Lobby has cooperated with the government throughout its investigation, and with the announcement of (July’s) settlement agreement, is pleased the matter has been resolved.”

The artifacts, shipped in small batches to different addresses, were labeled by the dealers as “ceramics” and “samples” to evade customs detection, according to the Department of Justice. Investigators eventually intercepted five such shipments with false invoices and receipts, US authorities said.

“A year ago, a special agent of Homeland Security came to Israel regarding the Hobby Lobby investigation,” said Klein, “and we actually opened a joint investigation, and we helped him to investigate the dealers who sold Hobby Lobby antiquities that they purchased in Dubai.”

From invoices and records of the purchases, Israeli authorities understood the scale of the deal, explained Klein, which expanded the investigation to include Israeli police and the tax authority.

In the ensuing raid, police seized a trove of bronze, silver, and gold coins, as well as ancient Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and Latin parchment, sculptures, pottery, and figurines. Police also seized luxury cars and the equivalent of $225,000 in local and foreign currency.

Some of the artifacts may have been stolen, Israel Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said. However, most of the antiquities seized were legally held, Klein said. Their value will be used to repay money the dealers owe to the state, as determined in court.

“If they can’t pay the money that they owe the state, they will take the value of the items and it will be used as a repayment for the money they have to give back,” Klein said.

The five antiquities dealers were brought before a Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on Sunday where a judge extended their custody.