The United States Department of Justice has ordered the forfeiture of a rare cuneiform tablet, seized from Hobby Lobby’s controversial Museum of the
The United States Department of Justice has ordered the forfeiture of a rare cuneiform tablet, seized from Hobby Lobby’s controversial Museum of the Bible back in 2019. The 3,000-year-old Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet, believed to have originated in Iraq, is known as the “ Gilgamesh Dream Tablet” because it is inscribed with a piece of the legendary Epic of Gilgamesh .
The ancient epic is regarded as the earliest written story ever discovered. Now, a Brooklyn federal court in New York has argued that the tablet was brought into the U.S. “illegally.” Therefore, the Museum of the Bible, a Bible-themed museum in Washington D.C. owned by Hobby Lobby stores, will not be able to reclaim the ancient clay tablet at the center of the smuggling scandal.
The Museum of the Bible bought the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet artifact which has been deemed of dubious provenance. ( U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York )
The Museum of the Bible and the Scandalous Sale
The so-called “Hobby Lobby smuggling scandal” kicked off in 2009 when executives from the craft store giant received a shipment of ancient clay artifacts from the ancient Near East. Intended for exhibition, the controversial Museum of the Bible acquired the tablets in a private sale. Why controversial? Because it is owned and funded by the Evangelical Christian Green family who, according to The Washington Post , decided to buy illegal artifacts even after numerous staff highlighted their “dubious provenance.”
Iraqi history started being looted and shipped all over the world after the first Gulf War in 1991. Since then, many thousands of cuneiform tablets have been ripped out of archaeological sites in Iraq, explains a NBC News report. In this case, the victim measures approximately 6 inches by 5 inches and is written in the Akkadian language.
In 2013, U.S. prosecutors stated that an American antiquities dealer had originally bought the tablet from the family of a London coin dealer. According to a report in Forbes the stolen tablet was subsequently sold “with a fake provenance letter stating that the tablet was found inside a box of bronze fragments purchased in 1981.”
The Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C., at the center of the scandal. (Farragutful / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
It Came To, “Hand It over, or you go to jail”
The false letter accompanying the tablet was given by a later owner of the tablet to a London auction house and investigators determined that the tablet was resold several times before Hobby Lobby finally bought it, privately, in 2014. The stolen artifact was eventually confiscated from the Museum of the Bible by federal agents in 2019.
According to justice.gov Jacquelyn Kasulis, the acting U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, the seizure of the stolen tablet represents “an important milestone on the path to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin.”
Kenneth A. Polite Jr., Assistant Attorney General, confirmed in the official court press conference that Federal authorities declared that the forfeiture of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, “demonstrates the Department’s continued commitment to eliminating smuggled cultural property from the U.S. art market.” Polite added that by “thwarting trade in smuggled goods by seizing and forfeiting an ancient artifact shows the department’s dedication to using all available tools, including forfeiture, to ensure justice.”
In 2017 the Department of Justice announced a civil action to forfeit thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts imported by Hobby Lobby for its Museum of the Bible, including this cuneiform tablet. ( Department of Justice )
What Is a Million to Billionaire? Nada
The Hill reminds us that only in 2017 Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million after they were found to have procured “thousands of historical artifacts that had been smuggled out of Iraq.” But considering the Museum of the Bible holds $500 million (£358 million) in archaeological stock, it must have sniffed at a comparatively meagre $3 million (£2.1 million) fine.
Top image: Cuneiform tablet bearing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh was seized from Hobby Lobby’s Museum of the Bible in 2019 by federal agents. Source: Immigration and Customs Enforcement
By Ashley Cowie