Middle East

Ancient Gilgamesh tablet seized from Hobby Lobby by US authorities


A rare and ancient tablet showing part of the epic of Gilgamesh, which had been acquired by Christian arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby for display in its museum of biblical artefacts, has been seized by the US government.

The Department of Justice (DoJ) alleges that the 3,600-year-old “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet”, which originated in a region that is now part of Iraq, was acquired in 2003 by an American antiquities dealer, “encrusted with dirt and unreadable”, from the family member of a London coin dealer. Once it had arrived in the US, and been cleaned, experts realised that it showed a portion of the Gilgamesh epic, one of the world’s oldest works of literature, in the Akkadian language.

The DoJ alleges that the dealer then sold the tablet with a “false provenance letter”, saying that it had been inside a box of ancient bronze fragments purchased in a 1981 auction. It was then sold several times before Hobby Lobby bought it from a London auction house in 2014, and put it on display in the Museum of the Bible. The museum was conceived by evangelical Christian Steve Green, the billionaire president of Hobby Lobby.

The tablet was seized from the museum by law enforcement agents in 2019, and New York’s eastern district court ordered its forfeiture on Tuesday. The DoJ said that Hobby Lobby had consented to the forfeiture, “based on the tablet’s illegal importations into the United States in 2003 and 2014”.

“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 acting US attorney Jacquelyn M Kasulis. “This office is committed to combatting the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artefacts.”

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The forfeiture is part of efforts to return thousands of smuggled ancient Iraqi artefacts that were purchased by Hobby Lobby. In 2017, Hobby Lobby agreed to pay a $3m fine and forfeit thousands of artefacts. In a statement at the time, Green said the company had cooperated with the government and “should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled”.

In March 2020, Green said in a statement that the museum had identified a further 5,000 papyri fragments and 6,500 clay objects with “insufficient provenance”, and that it was working to deliver them to officials in Egypt and Iraq respectively. “My goal was always to protect, preserve, study, and share cultural property with the world. That goal has not changed, but after some early missteps, I made the decision many years ago that, moving forward, I would only acquire items with reliable, documented provenance. Furthermore, if I learn of other items in the collection for which another person or entity has a better claim, I will continue to do the right thing with those items,” said Green at the time.



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