US orders return of ancient tablet bought by Hobby Lobby
An ancient tablet carved with what is believed to be one of the world’s oldest works of literature should be returned to Iraq, federal investigators announced this week.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations division found that the tablet was obtained contrary to U.S. law.
The so-called Gilgamesh Dream Tablet is inscribed with a portion of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, and was previously housed at Washington, D.C.’s Museum of the Bible after Hobby Lobby bought it at auction for $1.6 million in 2014, according to NBC News. The tablet was surrendered to federal authorities last September.
The museum’s chairman is Hobby Lobby President Steve Green.
The Oklahoma-based craft retailer was fined $3 million in 2017 after federal authorities alleged it bought thousands of historical artifacts that were smuggled out of Iraq.
In court documents filed Monday, federal officials said Hobby Lobby bought the tablet, discovered in northern Iraq in 1853, from an unidentified auction house that claimed it was acquired in San Francisco sometime before 1981, when in fact it was bought in 2003 from the family of the ex-head of the Jordanian Antiquities Association.
The official, Ghassan Rihani, allegedly sold artifacts stolen by Iraqi forces during the 1991 occupation of Iraq, according to a lawsuit cited by The New York Times, although Rihani’s son said his father only sold legitimately-acquired pieces.
A curator at the Museum of the Bible discovered the origin of the tablets during 2017 research, according to NBC.
“The museum, before displaying the item, informed the Embassy of Iraq on Nov. 13, 2017, that it had the item in its possession but extensive research would be required to establish provenance,” the museum said in a statement.
“We are proud of our investigation that led to this reclaiming of a piece of Iraq’s cultural history. This rare tablet was pillaged from Iraq and years later sold at a major auction house, with a questionable and unsupported provenance,” Peter Fitzhugh, special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) New York, said in a statement.
“HSI New York’s Cultural Property, Arts and Antiquity Investigations program will continue to work with prosecutors to combat the looting of antiquities and ensure those who would attempt to profit from this crime are held accountable,” he added.
–Updated 10:08 a.m.