Israeli Authorities Arrest Antiquities Dealers In Connection With Hobby Lobby Scandal – NPR

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Hobby Lobby agreed earlier this month to a forfeiture of smuggled artifacts.

Holly Hildreth /Moment Editorial/Getty Images


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Holly Hildreth /Moment Editorial/Getty Images

Hobby Lobby agreed earlier this month to a forfeiture of smuggled artifacts.

Holly Hildreth /Moment Editorial/Getty Images

At 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, Israeli police say, authorities arrested five Palestinian antiquities dealers in Jerusalem and confiscated items dating back thousands of years from their homes and shops: papyrus fragments from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the bust of an Etruscan woman, a fresco from Pompeii depicting swimming fish. They also seized more modern objects — two black luxury Audi vehicles — and more than $200,000 in cash.


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.

The arrests could have a chilling effect on Jerusalem’s storied antiquities market, making it harder for pilgrims, tourists and high-end collectors to legally own a piece of history from the land of the Bible.

Police say the dealers’ total antiquities sales to Hobby Lobby president Steve Green took place from 2010 to 2014 and added up to some $20 million.

Cuneiform tablets that likely originated in Iraq were smuggled into the U.S. and shipped to Hobby Lobby. The labels on the packages “falsely described cuneiform tablets as tile ‘samples,'” according to the Justice Department.

United States Department of Justice


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United States Department of Justice

Cuneiform tablets that likely originated in Iraq were smuggled into the U.S. and shipped to Hobby Lobby. The labels on the packages “falsely described cuneiform tablets as tile ‘samples,'” according to the Justice Department.

United States Department of Justice

On Sunday, Israeli police and tax authorities issued a statement saying the dealers provided fictitious invoices for the sales and an American allegedly used the invoices to receive large-scale tax breaks — and paid dealers kickbacks in return. They declined to name the American.

But later in the day, in a court hearing, Israeli police said the arrested Jerusalem antiquities dealers are suspected of tax evasion for failing to report the $20 million in earnings to Israel’s tax authority — and are also suspected of money laundering for an alleged scheme in which fictitious receipts and invoices were issued for antiquities sold to Green.

A spokesperson for the Hobby Lobby and lawyers for the dealers have not yet responded to NPR’s request for comment. The United States Attorney’s Office in the Department of Justice declined comment.

Israel is the only country in the Middle East that has a legal antiquities trade for export, allowing the sale of items not deemed to be exceedingly rare — like 2,000-year-old coins from the time of Jesus, ancient oil lamps and Roman glass vessels.

Authorities arrested five Palestinian antiquities dealers in Jerusalem and confiscated more than $200,000 in cash as well as items dating back thousands of years.

Israel Police


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Israel Police

Authorities arrested five Palestinian antiquities dealers in Jerusalem and confiscated more than $200,000 in cash as well as items dating back thousands of years.

Israel Police

But Israel’s Antiquities Authority has been tightening its regulation of licensed antiquities sellers in recent years to prevent trafficking of looted objects, and Sunday’s arrests appear to up the ante.

“This looks to me like the beginning of the end of the legal business in Israel,” said David Hendin, a biblical coin expert and vice president of the American Numismatic Society. “It’s the biggest step yet in the shutting down of what’s left of the legal trade.”

The arrested dealers, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, come from some of the most important pillars of Jerusalem’s antiquities market. The suspects, according to a court document, include a scion of the Baidun family, a dominant figure in the market trading in ancient artifacts for some 80 years. Other suspects are from the Hroub and Barakat families, also giants in the local market.

The arrests send a clear message to Israel’s antiquities dealers, who are licensed by the government, that they will be closely monitored, Hendin says. The message from the authorities, he says, amounts to this: “We’re not only going after you for the antiquities. We are watching your checkbooks. We are going to go after you guys, where you work and where you live.”

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