Evangelical US retailer forfeits Gilgamesh relic from modern-day Iraq

Tablet of Sumerian saga was destined for Hobby Lobby’s Museum of the Bible

‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet. Courtesy Berlin State Museums
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The American arts-and-crafts store Hobby Lobby has been ordered to forfeit a rare antique tablet from modern-day Iraq bearing a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh that was smuggled into the US.

A New York district court has ruled that the retailer cannot keep the rare cuneiform relic, known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, which bears parts of the ancient Sumerian poem, the US Justice Department said on Tuesday.

The Oklahoma-based firm has been forced to forfeit thousands of illegally imported ancient Middle Eastern artefacts in recent years, many of which were planned as exhibits for its Museum of the Bible in Washington.

“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 Kasulis.

“This office is committed to combating the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artefacts.”

A US antique dealer purchased the dirt-encrusted tablet from the family of a London coin dealer in 2003 and shipped it to the US without declaring what was inside, as is required under US law, officials said.

The dealer sold the tablet in 2007 with a false letter about its origins. The 15 X 12-centimetre tablet changed hands several times before being purchased by Hobby Lobby in 2014 in a private sale and reimported to the US.

It features text in the Akkadian language from the epic poem about Gilgamesh, a hero in ancient Mesopotamian mythology, using the cuneiform system of writing.

It was set to appear in the Museum of the Bible, of which Hobby Lobby’s evangelical president, Steve Green, is the chairman and founder. Officers seized the tablet in 2019 and the company has consented to the forfeiture.

Peter Fitzhugh, the Homeland Security Investigations agent on the case, said antique trafficking was a “lucrative criminal enterprise” carried out by international gangs who cared little about the impact of losses on countries of origin.

Museums and archaeological sites across Iraq have been plundered and thousands of antiques have been smuggled overseas amid conflict and instability there since the early 1990s, heritage experts have estimated.

US authorities seek to “ensure looted pieces are no longer trafficked through commerce for an illicit profit because the cultural value of this tablet that travelled the world under false provenance exceeds any monetary value,” said Mr Fitzhugh.

Forfeited antiques can be returned to their rightful owners upon request.

Hobby Lobby has said it was new to the world of antiquities when it began acquiring historical items in 2009 and made mistakes in relying on dealers and shippers who did not follow US anti-smuggling importation rules.

The company has previously forfeited thousands of cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay bullae and cylinder seals that originated from the region of modern-day Iraq and were shipped under false labels.

Updated: July 27, 2021, 9:39 PM