Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue filed a civil complaint in the US District Court of the Eastern District of New York asking for the return of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet currently on display in the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC to Iraq. The six by five-inch clay tablet, purchased by Hobby Lobby in 2014 for $1.67 million, contains a Sumerian epic poem written in cuneiform detailing a part of the Gilgamesh Epic. It is considered one of the world’s oldest works of epic literature.
“Whenever looted cultural property is found in this country, the United States government will do all it can to preserve heritage by returning such artifacts where they belong,” said Donoghue in a statement.
The Gilgamesh Epic is a 3,000-year-old epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia that predates the Bible and relates a story similar to the Biblical story of the flood in the time of Noah. Only a few tablets of the Gilgamesh Epic have survived.
Prosecutors say an antiquities dealer purchased the tablet from a dealer in London in 2003. The dealer then sold the tablet to a buyer for $50,000 and allegedly provided a fake letter of provenance claiming its authenticity. The letter falsely claimed the tablet was legally obtained at an auction in 1981. An unnamed international auction house later sold the tablet to Hobby Lobby Stores in 2014 for more than $1.67 million for display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC.
Department of Homeland Security agents seized the tablet in 2019, placing it in a US Customs and Border Protection facility in Queens, New York. Stolen Iraqi artifacts are a serious problem as nine of the country’s 13 regional museums were looted in 1991 during the Gulf War. In April, the Museum of the Bible announced it would return 11,500 other clay seals and fragments of papyrus to the Iraqi and Egyptian governments because they did not have complete documentation and may have been looted. A year ago, the museum agreed to return 13 Egyptian papyrus fragments that were stolen from the University of Oxford. And in 2017, the federal government fined Hobby Lobby and ordered it to return thousands of cuneiform tablets and other objects that were illegally taken from war-torn Iraq and brought into the US by a United Arab Emirates-based dealer who falsely labeled the shipments as ceramic tiles.
In March, officials at the Museum of the Bible announced that all 16 of the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls on display that were also donated by Hobby Lobby were forgeries.
“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,” Charlotte Clay, a spokeswoman for the museum, said in a statement.
The museum said Hobby Lobby will sue Christie’s, the British auction house that sold it the tablet.