US seizes $1.6 million ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ tablet from Hobby Lobby
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A 3,500-year-old clay tablet that bears the text of one of the world’s oldest works of literature and was purchased by Hobby Lobby in 2014 for $1.6 million has been forfeited to the United States, the feds announced.
The tablet, which contains a portion of the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” came from the area of modern-day Iraq and was illegally shipped to the US in 2003, the Department of Justice alleged.
The tablet, known as the “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet” because it contains a portion of the poem in which the protagonist describes his dreams to his mother, was sold several times with a “false letter of provenance,” according to the DOJ, before Hobby Lobby purchased it at auction for $1.6 million.
Hobby Lobby purchased the tablet to be displayed at the Washington, DC-based Museum of the Bible, which is funded by the family of the arts and crafts chain’s founder, David Green.
In a complaint filed in May 2020, prosecutors said the 5-by-6-inch tablet is the property of the Iraqi government and should be returned. Hobby Lobby cooperated with the investigation, the DOJ said.
“This forfeiture represents an important milestone on the path to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin,” acting Brooklyn US Attorney Jacquelyn Kasulis said in a statement Tuesday. “This Office is committed to combating the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artifacts.”
In April 2003, an unnamed antiquities dealer purchased the rare cuneiform tablet along with a number of other items from another dealer in London, prosecutors said.
In 2007, that dealer sold the tablet for $50,000 to another buyer, and allegedly provided a fake provenance letter, falsely claiming it had been legitimately obtained at an auction in 1981 before laws were passed restricting the importation of Iraqi artifacts.
The tablet was later sold by an unnamed international auction house to Hobby Lobby in 2014 for an eye-popping $1,674,000 to be displayed at the Museum of the Bible.
Three years later, a museum curator contacted the auction to clear up some contradictory information about the item’s origins.
Despite inquiries from the museum and Hobby Lobby, the auction house failed to disclose details about how they had obtained the artifact and withheld the false provenance letter, which it knew would not hold up to “scrutiny in a public auction,” prosecutors wrote in court papers.
It’s unclear whether the museum, which cooperated with the investigation, alerted federal authorities to the suspected theft.
Hundreds of thousands of artifacts have been looted from archaeological sites throughout Iraq since the early 1990s and sold on the black market, officials said.
It’s unclear if Hobby Lobby will recoup any or all of the money it paid for the tablet.
Representatives for Hobby Lobby and for the Museum of the Bible did not return The Post’s requests for comment.
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