A cuneiform tablet engraved with a passage of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian poem that is considered one of the oldest examples of literature, has been forfeited to the United States after it was sold to the arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby under false pretenses, announced the US Department of Justice in an eye-popping statement on Tuesday.
Known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, the rare artifact dates back some 3,500 years to ancient Mesopotamia, which is modern-day Iraq, and is considered “stolen Iraqi property” according to a DOJ complaint filed in 2019. The ancient tablet is named after the dreams that Gilgamesh describes to his mother, which she interprets as a portent of the arrival of his friend, Enkidu, telling her son: “You will see him and your heart will laugh.”
“This forfeiture represents an important milestone on the path to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin,” said Jacquelyn M. Kasulis, Acting US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, in a statement. “This office is committed to combating the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artifacts.”
The artifact first entered the modern antiquities market in 2003, after an unnamed American dealer purchased several tablets that were encrusted with dirt, making them unreadable, from the family of Jordanian dealer Ghassan Rihani. The dealer bought the artifacts, including the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, for about $50,000 USD, then shipped them from Rihani’s London apartment to the United States without declaring the contents as required by law.
An unnamed cuneiform expert was able to determine the content of the engraving, and the tablet was sold again in 2007 with a fabricated provenance letter that stated it was purchased at a 1981 Butterfield & Butterfield auction in San Francisco as part of lot 1503. The tablet, which measures five by six inches, was sold several times until it was eventually acquired by Hobby Lobby in 2014 as part of a private sale for $1,674,000.
Hobby Lobby, a company founded by Evangelical activist David Green, put the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, an institution that Green funded at $500 million. For years, the museum and the company have been enmeshed in a smuggling scandal involving thousands of artifacts, which Hobby Lobby has been forced to forfeit to Iraq because they were illegally obtained.
The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was seized from the Museum of the Bible in 2019 after DOJ investigations revealed its false provenance. Hobby Lobby has consented to the forfeiture of the valuable artifact, which is also intended to be ultimately returned to Iraq.
“Forfeiture of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet demonstrates the Department’s continued commitment to eliminating smuggled cultural property from the US art market,” said Kenneth A. Polite Jr., Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, in the Tuesday statement.
“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,” he concluded.