Hobby Lobby settlement whitewashes cultural colonialism in Iraq

Hobby Lobby settlement whitewashes cultural colonialism in Iraq
Comment: Paying a fine and returning the looted antiquities is no compensation for a harmful sale that showed no concern for Iraqi historical and cultural autonomy, writes Ruqaya Izzidien.
8 min read
07 Jul, 2017
The trade of Iraqi and Arab cultural property must be addressed with fitting penalties [Getty]

On Wednesday 6 July, US federal prosecutors announced that arts and crafts retail chain, Hobby Lobby, had agreed to hand back thousands of ancient artefacts smuggled out of modern day Iraq, and pay a fine of $3 million.

While the fine, and seizure of 3,000 clay bullae (hollow ball-like clay 'envelopes') and 450 cuneiform script tablets conclude US federal procedures, this offers little resolution for Iraq, in a case that represents the continued plundering of Iraqi cultural property the perpetuation of colonialism.

Circumventing US customs

A statement on Hobby Lobby's website claims that that they relied on dealers and shippers to document and ship the items, and that at the time of the sale, the company "was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process". 

Details of the case suggest otherwise. Hobby Lobby is owned by the Green family whose large collection of biblical antiquities will be displayed at the Museum of the Bible, opening later this year in Washington, DC. Among the Green's possessions are a collection of the Dead Sea Scrolls, papyri from the lost Library of Alexandria and the world's only complete Block Bible.

Their collection appears devoid of Mesopotamian artefacts, but the Green family can hardly be considered newcomers to the world of proper artefact acquisition.

The shipping forms repeatedly mislabelled the artefacts as 'ceramic tiles'

Indeed, during the assessment and acquisition of these artefacts, Hobby Lobby consulted a cultural property law expert who highlighted in a memorandum the criminal risk involved in acquiring antiquities from Iraq.

The expert wrote that, "(a)ny object brought into the US and with Iraq declared as country of origin has a high chance of being detained by US Customs". Subsequently, the artefacts, which were posted to the US, were labelled as originating in Israel, Turkey, or the country of origin field was left blank on their shipping forms. 

Destruction caused by Islamic State in the UNESCO-listed ancient city of Hatra, south of Mosul, on April 27, 2017 [AFP]

The shipping forms additionally repeatedly mislabelled the artefacts as "ceramic tiles" and drastically underrepresented the value of the items in the package, with one package of 300 clay bullae valued at $300 when according to the invoice attached the purchase agreement, the value of the package contents was $84,120.

  Read more: US retailer Hobby Lobby fined millions over smuggled Iraqi artefacts

Hobby Lobby's pleading of ignorance is implausible, even if - as they claim - dealers and shippers were responsible for mislabelling.

The company wired the $1.6 million to seven different bank accounts. The artefacts were shipped to multiple locations in the US. The complaint document states that the "(u)se of multiple shipping addresses for a single recipient is consistent with methods used by cultural property smugglers to avoid scrutiny by Customs".

Cultural property

The penalties that Hobby Lobby faced were - from the perspective of the United States government - representative of the subterfuge involved in illegal importation to the US, but such penalties face ignore the repercussions of the trade on Iraqi autonomy.

According to the civil complaint documents, Hobby Lobby's cultural property law expert advised them of the criminal risks of the purchase, rather than any cultural, political or ethical qualms.

Such penalties face ignore the repercussions of the trade on Iraqi autonomy

They were consistently warned of the risk of facing custom checks, fines or prosecution.

It is striking that the question was never "should we do this", but "can we do this?"

Iraqi law prohibits individual ownership of antiquities and the trade of Iraqi cultural property; all antiquities found in Iraq are considered property of the state.

There is no assessment of the significance of this acquisition for Iraq - either as a state or a cultural collective. No prosecution of the buyers and sellers under Iraqi law, and no apparent restoration or reparation of the harm caused by this sale.

  Read more: British Museum training Iraqi experts to save Mosul heritage

The 3,000 clay bullae and 450 cuneiform tablets must be returned to Iraq. If the ethical and cultural cost of the illegal trade of Iraqi heritage were at the forefront of this settlement, then the $3 million would be put towards training Iraqi archaeologists and historians in the preservation and repair of antiquities, an enterprise set out by the British Museum.

All antiquities found in Iraq are considered property of the state

It bears mentioning that although Hobby Lobby purchased the 3,450 artefacts for $1.6 million, the company retained a consultant who believed the items could be appraised at around $11.8 million.

In light of this, a fine of £3 million does not represent an amount that is representative of the loss to the country of origin of these artefacts, nor the deception and possible profit that transporting them to the United States involved.

Perpetuating violence

The artefacts were purchased from three dealers from Israel and one from the UAE. One of the Israeli dealers provided Hobby Lobby with a provenance statement that indicated that the 5,513 artefacts were "legally acquired in the late 1960s by [Israeli Dealer #3's] father, from local markets".

That dealer later allegedly stored the items with a custodian in the United States, however the court papers suggest that the items were never actually stored with the custodian, and they accuse Hobby Lobby of never having met the custodian. The lack of an identifiable chain of custody makes it difficult to verify the legality of the purchases.

A ceremony to repatriate more than 60 Iraqi cultural items which had been smuggled into the US took
place at the Iraqi consulate in Washington, DC, on March 16, 2015 [Getty]

Indeed, their cultural property law expert cautioned against the acquisition, stating in a memorandum that, "I would regard the acquisition of any artefact likely from Iraq… as carrying considerable risk. An estimated 200-500,000 objects have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq since the early 1990s; particularly popular on the market and likely to have been looted are cylinder seals, cuneiform tablets."

Hobby Lobby's hired expert suggested items such as those they wished to procure were likely to have been looted. But still the trade went ahead, because Iraqi historical and cultural autonomy were of no concern. It was a profitable deal, the items were of significant cultural importance and the selling price was a steal, if you will. The trade disregarded Iraqi law and disregarded its probable crooked beginnings.

There is a general consensus that Islamic State profits from the looting and selling of historical artefacts

This is not the only risk that such trades run. Though there is no evidence to suggest that the artefacts Hobby Lobby purchased were connected with any terrorist group, there is a general consensus that Islamic State (IS) profits from the looting and selling of historical artefacts.

Dealing in smuggled goods, however legal their beginnings, drives up demand and acceptance of trading historical artefacts that are the cultural property of nations.

Estimates of the profits made by IS from selling antiquities vary greatly, from a few million to several billion. These are profits that can be traded for weapons and ammunition -  tools that perpetuate the violence in the countries of origin of these artefacts.

The sad result is that the loss for these nations is twofold: They lose the artefacts and historical property that belongs to their country while the illegal looting and trade risks arming IS and endangering lives. 

And while a country battles with violence, displacement and terrorism, the argument to keep their historical artefacts away from them - ostensibly out of danger - is conveniently bolstered.

Echoes of colonialism

But the argument that foreign - western - countries can care for artefacts in a way that home countries cannot doesn't always ring true.

In July 2010, the president of Hobby Lobby, Steve Green, travelled to the United Arab Emirates to inspect over 5,000 artefacts, which, according to the complaint, were "displayed informally - 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".

The right of the coloniser outranks the right of the colonised to their cultural and historical artefacts

Disregarding the lack of a paper trail, the false representation, and even Hobby Lobby’s acceptance of responsibility – though they did not admit any criminal wrongdoing – the purchase of Arab historical artefacts demonstrates a more perturbing ethical transgression, and one that smacks of colonialism: the right of white people to appropriate and steal the history of people of colour.

From the plundering of the Rosetta Stone and Nefertiti's Bust, to the remains of Babylon's Ishtar Gates displayed at the Berlin Museum, to - more recently- the appropriation of Jewish Iraqi papers from Saddam Hussein's basement during the US invasion, the right of the coloniser outranks the right of the colonised to their cultural and historical artefacts.

While the Hobby Lobby settlement marks a resolution for the US federal system, the true repercussions of this trade will be borne by the Iraqi people, who remain without financial, cultural or ethical restitution.

And until the trade of Iraqi and Arab cultural property is addressed with sufficient penalties, until self-confessed supporters of "the protection of the world's ancient heritage" stand against the appropriation of cultural artefacts, Iraq is doomed to lose thousands more.

Ruqaya Izzidien is a British-Iraqi freelance writer specializing in social and cultural affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera English, and her upcoming novel is entitled The Watermelon Boys.

Follow her on Twitter: @RuqayaIzzidien

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.