The Department of Justice on Tuesday ordered the forfeiture of a tablet containing a portion of the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” one of the oldest known works of literature. The forfeiture is part of an ongoing process to return thousands of clay tablets and bullae that were illegally smuggled out of Iraq and purchased by Hobby Lobby.
The DOJ alleges that the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was illegally shipped to the U.S. from London by an antique dealer and cuneiform expert in 2003. Once in the U.S., the tablet was cleaned and experts were able to identify the cuneiform writing as part of the Gilgamesh epic, written in Akkadian. The tablet was then sold in 2007 with a “false letter of provenance,” the DOJ claims, which accompanied the tablet as it was sold several times over the next few years, eventually landing at an auction house back in London. In 2014, the auction house sold the tablet to Hobby Lobby for $1.6 million.
Hobby Lobby purchased the tablet and thousands of others like it with the intent of displaying some of them in the Museum of the Bible, which is funded by the family of the arts and crafts chain’s founder, David Green. The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was seized by law enforcement officers in 2019, according to the DOJ, and Hobby Lobby agreed to its forfeiture.
“This forfeiture represents an important milestone on the path to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin,” said Jacquelyn Kasulis, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “This office is committed to combating the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artifacts.”
Hobby Lobby had previously agreed to returnit had purchased that were illegally smuggled out of Iraq through the United Arab Emirates and Israel and pay a $3 million fine.
“The Company was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process. This resulted in some regrettable mistakes,” Hobby Lobby said in a statement in 2017. “The Company imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items. However, since learning of these errors, the Company has been an active participant with the government’s investigation and supports its efforts to protect the world’s ancient heritage.”