A federal court in New York has ordered Hobby Lobby to hand over an ancient Gilgamesh artifact purchased at auction for $1.6 million in 2014.
Officials said the artifact was looted from Iraq after the first Gulf War and illegally imported to the United States, after it was sold to a US dealer in London in 2003.
The 3,500-year-old clay tablet with a sequence from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which once stood in the Museum of the Bible in Washington, was seized by the United States Department of Justice in 2019.
The 3,500-year-old clay tablet (pictured) featuring a sequence from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which once stood in the Museum of the Bible in Washington, was seized by the United States Department of Justice
The rare fragment, which narrates a dream sequence from the epic in Akkadian cuneiform, is one of many ancient Middle Eastern artifacts collected by David Green, the billionaire owner of the Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts stores.
Green chairs and funds the museum, which is plagued by controversies over its collection.
It was seized by the United States Department of Justice in 2019, two years after Green opened the museum dedicated to ancient Christian history in downtown Washington.
The tablet was just one of thousands of artifacts of Iraqi origin, mostly 3,000- to 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablets and seals, seized by Hobby Lobby and the Bible Museum for repatriation to Iraq.
The Justice Department said they were looted in Iraq and illegally traded by dealers in Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
According to the Department of Justice, Hobby Lobby bought the six-by-five-inch (15.2 by 12.7 centimeters) tablet from a prominent auction house in 2014 for $1.67 million.
Last year, Hobby Lobby sues Christie’s auction house, claiming that Christie’s and the tablet’s previous owner obscured the true story of the artifact’s origin with a fabricated version of its history.
The tablet is one of several ancient Middle Eastern artifacts collected by David Green, the billionaire owner of the Hobby Lobby (photo, file photo) chain of arts and crafts stores
It was originally brought to the United States illegally in 2003 by a dealer, who bought it in London from a well-known Jordanian dealer of Middle Eastern antiquities.
It was then traded several times with fake provenance letters to assure buyers that it was obtained legally, rather than a product of the underground antiquities trade.
In 2014, Hobby Lobby arranged the purchase of the tablet in New York, but executed the transaction in Oklahoma to evade sales taxes, the Justice Department said.
The 3,500-year-old clay tablet with a sequence from the Epic of Gilgamesh (depicted in a statue in the Louvre
The company then donated it to the collection of the Museum of the Bible.
Since the tablet was seized in 2019, the Department of Justice has formally pursued ownership through forfeiture laws in order to return it to its rightful owners.
“This confiscation is an important milestone in the return of this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin,” said acting US attorney Jacquelyn Kasulis of New York’s Eastern District.
“This agency is committed to combating the black market sale of cultural goods and the smuggling of looted art objects,” she said in a statement.
Hobby Lobby agreed to the forfeiture, officials added.
In a statement to the DailyMail.com, Christie’s denied knowledge of the tablet’s origin when it was sold to Hobby Lobby in 2014.
“Christie’s takes property questions very seriously and we would never sell anything that we know or have reason to believe has been stolen. We spend a lot of time and money examining the objects entrusted to our care,” the statement said.
All items are checked for academic, police, civil, national and international lists of stolen or missing works prior to sale and when we publish our catalogs for items sold at auction, we welcome scrutiny as well as any new scholarship or information that could help us ensure that our information is correct.
“In relation to this item, a previous owner of the tablet, who was not our sender, admitted to lying repeatedly about his purchase of the Gilgamesh tablet in 2003 to cover up his criminal behavior.”
The United States will return some 17,000 archaeological treasures to Iraq that are 4,000 years old and looted in recent decades, an “unprecedented” return, Baghdad’s culture minister said Wednesday.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi is said to be taking back the artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia on his plane when he returns Thursday from Washington, where he met US President Joe Biden.
“This is the biggest return of antiquities to Iraq,” Iraqi Culture Minister Hassan Nazim said, calling it “the result of months of efforts by the Iraqi authorities in conjunction with their embassy in Washington.”
Most of the ancient records document “the commercial exchanges during the Sumerian period,” his ministry said in a statement.
The tablet once stood at the Museum of the Bible in Washington (pictured) before it was seized by the US Department of Justice in 2019 after it was illegally looted from Iran
The antiquities of Iraq have been widely looted during decades of war and insurgency, often by organized crime groups, since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
“It is impossible to quantify the number of pieces stolen from archaeological sites,” Qahtan al-Obaid, director of antiquities and heritage at the Basra Museum, told AFP news agency.
Archaeological sites across the country have been badly damaged and neglected, and museums looted, with some 15,000 pieces stolen from Iraq’s only national museum in Baghdad.
“I hope we can find the rest of our goods in the near future, especially in Europe,” Nazim said in his statement.