Authorities seek forfeiture of ancient Gilgamesh tablet from Hobby Lobby

By Johnny Diaz
The New York Times Company

Federal prosecutors moved Monday to formally confiscate a rare cuneiform tablet that bears part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s oldest works of literature, from a Bible-themed museum founded in part by the president of crafts retailer Hobby Lobby.

The 3,600-year-old clay artifact, known as the “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet,” originated in the area that is today Iraq and was imported illegally to the United States in the 2000s, the office of the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York said.

An international auction house sold the tablet in 2014 to Hobby Lobby for display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, according to a civil complaint filed by prosecutors seeking the artifact’s forfeit. Despite inquiries from the retailer and the museum, the auction house withheld information about the tablet’s provenance, authorities said.

The museum has cooperated with the investigation, prosecutors said. Charlotte Clay, a spokeswoman for the museum, said Tuesday it supported efforts “to return this Gilgamesh fragment to Iraq.”

Hobby Lobby has repeatedly had problems with the provenance of its rare acquisitions since 2017, when the company agreed to forfeit 5,500 artifacts and pay a $3 million fine over a collection of ancient clay cuneiform tablets that prosecutors said had been smuggled into the United States from Iraq. Those items, bought from a dealer in 2010, were eventually turned over to the Iraqi authorities.

After the Persian Gulf War of 1991, hundreds of thousands of objects, including many cuneiform tablets, are believed to have been looted from archaeological sites across Iraq.

“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,” U.S. Attorney Richard P. Donoghue said.

“In this case, a major auction house failed to meet its obligations by minimizing its concerns that the provenance of an important Iraqi artifact was fabricated, and withheld from the buyer information that undermined the provenance’s reliability,” he said.