Iraqi Artifacts Once Bought by Hobby Lobby Will Return Home

WASHINGTON — The line of people snaked around the blue tablecloth, as government officials and archaeology scholars paused to admire the ancient clay tablets and seals lined in rows.

Here, in the backyard of the Iraqi ambassador’s home on Wednesday, was closure for these artifacts: a ceremonial transfer back to Iraq, where they had been looted from archaeological sites. Their coming return there will complete a long, circuitous voyage through Israel and the United Arab Emirates to Hobby Lobby, the arts and crafts chain, and eventually into the hands of the United States government.

The samples carefully lined on the table were just a small fraction of the thousands of smuggled artifacts that Immigration and Customs Enforcement formally returned on Wednesday.

“To have them in my residence is to underline that they’re coming home,” said Fareed Yasseen, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, speaking after he and Thomas D. Homan, the acting director of ICE, signed the ceremonial transfer. “We really have a sense of kinship to these artifacts.”

The artifacts, which are from the second and third millennium B.C., will eventually be taken to the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad to be studied and displayed. Several tablets are from the ancient city of Irisagrig and date to between 2100 and 1600 B.C.

Hobby Lobby, which is owned by evangelical Christians known for their interest in the biblical Middle East, originally bought the collection from an unnamed dealer for $1.6 million in December 2010. The purchase, prosecutors later said, was completed despite being “fraught with red flags,” including warnings from an expert on cultural property law hired by the company that the artifacts were possibly taken from archaeological sites in Iraq.

“Stealing a nation’s cultural property and antiquities is one of the oldest forms of organized transnational crime,” said Mr. Homan, who will soon retire from the agency. He said more than 1,200 items had been returned to Iraq since 2008.

The collection included cuneiform tablets, ancient clay tablets that probably served as administrative and legal documentation in ancient Mesopotamia, and clay bullae, seal impressions about the size of a coin that served as signatures and proof that an item had not been tampered with. More than a dozen packages were shipped from Israel and the United Arab Emirates in early 2011 under the guise of tile samples to Hobby Lobby and two corporate affiliates. Customs and Border Protection intercepted a few of them.

In July, the federal government brought a civil complaint against Hobby Lobby, which agreed to forfeit the items. The company also agreed to a $3 million fine, to hire qualified outside customs counsel and to submit quarterly reports on any cultural property acquisitions for 18 months.

“These artifacts are part of Iraq’s illustrious heritage and history,” said Richard P. Donoghue, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, “and we’re proud of our role in removing them from the black market in antiquities and returning them to their rightful owners.”

Hobby Lobby is known for its efforts to cultivate evangelical Christianity, including its owners’ heavy financial investment in the Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington late last year. In 2014, it was involved in the landmark Supreme Court case that found that family-owned corporations could claim religious exemptions to the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to pay for contraception coverage.

Hobby Lobby did not respond to requests for comment about the return of the artifacts. But at the time of the forfeiture in July, Steve Green, the company’s president, said the company was “new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process.”

Many of the officials mingling in the ambassador’s backyard with glasses of apple cider and hors d’oeuvres had been involved in the seizure and the return of the artifacts. Others were archaeologists and Middle East scholars who had come forward in support of the items’ return, collectively admiring the condition and the intricacy of the designs on the seals. They pointed to favorites: the seal with the dancing animals, the etching of what appeared to be a god or a king on a throne.

“Stunning,” one woman whispered, her hands clasped over her chest as she leaned over to get a closer look at the clay cylinders resting in indigo velvet. An archaeologist reached out to carefully straighten one small tablet in line with the others.

“This is a piece of you,” said Safaa Yaseen, the third secretary for the embassy, who helped unpack the artifacts in the ambassador’s residence. “It’s an indescribable feeling.”

The demand for stolen antiquities “always seems to be there,” said Katharyn Hanson, the executive director of the Academic Research Institute in Iraq. “It’s really nice to have these moments.”

After Mr. Yasseen and Mr. Homan signed the transfer, the flourish of their pens audible, the pair shook hands. Mr. Yasseen offered Mr. Homan a gold-wrapped package — a book, he said later, about the renowned Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid.

“A small token of our appreciation,” he said, pointing to the package.

Mr. Homan threw his hands wide and gestured to the table of artifacts behind him.

“This,” he said, “is a small token of our appreciation.”