NEW YORK -- Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts and craft stores, has agreed to, and give up thousands of ancient religious artifacts it smuggled into the U.S. The development comes after a six-year investigation.
Hobby Lobby illegally imported more than 5,500 ancient religious artifacts from Iraq. The company's president owns one of the largest collections of artifacts in the world.
The company paid $1.6 million for the items in 2010 in a deal that prosecutors say was "fraught with red flags."
For example, valuable tablets covered in cuneiform -- an ancient system of writing -- were falsely labeled as "samples" and "clay tiles." Countries of origin were often falsified.
In a statement, Hobby Lobby said it "was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not appreciate the complexities of the acquisition process. This resulted in some regrettable mistakes."
Archaeologist Amr Al-Azm, a professor at Shawnee State University, says Hobby Lobby got away with a slap on the wrist.
"It was a civil case, which is quite shocking considering the amount of material that was basically looted," Al-Azm said. "The fact that it was very clear they knew what they were doing."
Al-Azm says there's an even greater concern.
"When you're buying looted antiquities, particularly from a conflict zone like Iraq or Syria," he explained, "you are most likely aiding and abetting or allowing funds to reach terrorist organizations like, like al-Qaeda."
Prosecutors say that before Hobby Lobby's owners purchased the Iraqi artifacts, they consulted with an expert who warned that the items might have been looted from ancient archeological sites. The warning was, apparently, rejected.
Hobby Lobby's owners are evangelical Christians and this is not the first time they've made religious headlines. In 2012 the company, arguing that its religious rights were violated by the Affordable Care Act's requirement that businesses provide employees with certain types of birth control. The ruled in Hobby Lobby's favor.
And Hobby Lobby president Steve Green plans to open a massive "" this fall, just three blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
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