Looted Gligamesh tablet repatriated to Iraq


A US District Court in New York on July 27 ordered craft chain Hobby Lobby to cede its claim to the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a rare cuneiform text from ancient Mesopotamia that was smuggled into the United States from Iraq, so that it may be repatriated. The company’s founder and president, Steve Green, bought the 3,500-year-old Akkadian artifact in 2014, intending to display it in his Museum of the Bible, in Washington DC. The tablet is one of approximately 17,000 looted artifacts that Washington has agreed to return to Iraq.

“This forfeiture represents an important milestone on the path to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin,” acting US Attorney Jacquelyn M. Kasulis for the Eastern District of New York said in a statement. “This office is committed to combating the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artifacts.”

The tablet contains a segment from the Epic of Gilgamesh, one the world’s oldest religious texts, in which the poem’s titular hero recounts his dreams to his mother. The poem was of interest to the Museum of the Bible because it also speaks of a great flood, similar to the story of Noah’s ark in Genesis.

The repatriation is the “result of months of efforts by the Iraqi authorities in conjunction with their embassy in Washington,” Iraqi Culture Minister Hassan Nazim said in a press conference, acording to Agence France Presse. “This is the largest return of antiquities to Iraq.”

The bulk of the objects were to fly with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi when he left Washington last week, following a visit with President Joe Biden.

Christie’s auction house brokered the $1.67 million private sale of the artifact to Green. The seller was an art dealer who offered as provenance a letter stating the work had been purchased at San Francisco’s Butterfield & Butterfield auction house (today Bonham’s) in 1981, included in a box of ancient fragments that had been deaccessioned by a small museum. Authorities have now determined the work was sold in London by Jordanian antiquities dealer Ghassan Rihani for just over $50,000 in 2003. An unidentified dealer smuggled the objects to the US, and contrived the bogus provenance, falsifying the auction records. Green has now launched suit against Christie’s, accusing it of covering up the scam in its marketing of the artifact.

Importation of the tablet was in violation of the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act, passed by Congress in 2004 to stem the flow of looted artifacts into the country. Last year, the Iraqi Ministry of Culture announced an investigation of the theft of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, and found that it was likely stolen from a regional museum following Operation Desert Storm in 1991. While there was a notorious wave of museum looting that won world headlines during the US invasion of 2003, there was also similar looting after the 1991 war. The Saddam Hussein regime lost control of parts of Iraq in the aftermath of Desert Storm, and at least nine of the country’s 13 regional museums were looted in the turmoil.

The US government initiated forfeiture of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet in September 2019, with the Department of Justice labelling it “stolen Iraqi property” in a legal complaint. It was at that time seized by US Homeland Security Investigations agents, which stored it in a warehouse in New York City. With the new court order, forfeiture of the property becomes official, allowing the tablet to be repatriated.

Hobby Lobby has already been forced to return over 11,000 artifacts—mostly papyrus fragments, cuneiform tablets, and clay seals—to Egypt and Iraq. In 2017, company paid $3 million to the federal government settle a lawsuit over false labeling of cuneiform tablets. (ArtNet News, ArsTechnica, BBC News, NPR, Daily Beast, Smithsonian Magazine)

Photo: ICE via ArtNet News