In 2014, Hobby Lobby — an arts and crafts retailer — purchased a 3,600-year-old Iraqi tablet bearing original text from the Epic of Gilgamesh, one the world’s oldest works of literature, from an auction house in the United States. Hobby Lobby purchased the artifact for display in the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, which was founded by Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green.
According to a statement by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, the artifact was stolen from Iraq. The New York Times reported that after the Persian Gulf War of 1991, hundreds of thousands of artifacts were looted from archaeological sites in Iraq. The Gilgamesh tablet could be one of them.
The federal government is alleging that the auction house withheld information about the tablet’s origins. According to the inquiry by Homeland Security Investigations, in 2003, a US antiquities dealer purchased the tablet from a Jordanian antiquities dealer in London and brought it to the US where it was then sold with a false provenance letter. A later owner provided the provenance letter to the auction house, which allegedly, against advice from the antiquities dealer, used it for its sale to Hobby Lobby. Court records indicate that Hobby Lobby purchased the tablet in 2014 for $1,674,000.
When the curator of the Museum of the Bible sought to obtain more information about the tablet, the auction house did not provide details as to its dubious provenance. Before displaying the item, the museum contacted Iraqi officials to explain what they had in their possession.
Hobby Lobby filed a lawsuit against auction house Christie’s in connection with the tablet.
In a statement, Richard P. Donoghue, US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said, “Whenever looted cultural property is found in this country, the United States government will do all it can to preserve heritage by returning such artifacts where they belong. In this case, a major auction house failed to meet its obligations by minimizing its concerns that the provenance of an important Iraqi artifact was fabricated, and withheld from the buyer information that undermined the provenance’s reliability.”
The Department of Homeland Security seized the tablet from the museum in September 2019 and took formal possession of the artifact on Monday, May 18, 2020.
Iraq has filed a petition for the recovery of the tablet.