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Ancient Gilgamesh tablet taken from Iraq and bought by Hobby Lobby is returned

The "Gilgamesh Dream Tablet" was illegally taken from Iraq. It contains part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest pieces of storytelling poetry.

An ancient tablet containing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh that was taken from Iraq and sold to Hobby Lobby under false pretenses was returned to that country Thursday.

The arts and crafts chain bought the 3,600-year-old cuneiform artifact known as the "Gilgamesh Dream Tablet" in 2014 to display at the Museum of the Bible, but the sale was predicated on a false assurance of its provenance, officials said.

The Justice Department said it hopes the repatriation sends a message that the U.S. will take action to seize and return looted artifacts.

The Gilgamesh tablet on display at a repatriation ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian in Washington on Sept. 23, 2021.Michael Reynolds / EPA

Audrey Azoulay, director-general of the United Nations agency UNESCO, said the return was "a major victory over those who mutilate heritage."

The U.N. agency says it was taken from an Iraqi museum after the start of the first Gulf War. Hundreds of thousands of objects are estimated to have been looted from Iraq since the early 1990s, according to the Justice Department.

The U.S. signed over the tablet to Iraqi officials at a ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of the American Indian in Washington.

Fareed Yasseen, Iraq's ambassador to the U.S., spoke of the despair at the looting of Iraq's artifacts and said the country's history is deeply felt by Iraqis.

"The real core of what happened, though, is that people, individual people, did the right thing," Yasseen said.

"I have to tell you, there's a lot that needs to be done. Artifacts are being stolen. They're being smuggled out," he said, adding that the theft and illegal sale of relics are increasingly being done through the internet.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Sumerian poem that is considered one of the earliest works of narrative poetry in the world. The 6-inch-by-5-inch tablet is written in Akkadian, an ancient Mesopotamian language.

Hobby Lobby, whose owners established the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., bought the tablet for $1.6 million in a private sale from an auction house, according to court documents.

An antiques dealer created a false letter or provenance in a 2007 sale, and the tablet changed hands several times before it was eventually sold to a London auction house, which sold it to Hobby Lobby in a private sale, the Justice Department said.

The problems with the story were uncovered after a curator at the Museum of the Bible doing research asked for a copy of the provenance letter and more details about its previous owners, court documents say.

U.S. law enforcement seized the tablet in 2019. The museum supported the tablet's return to Iraq, a spokeswoman has said.

In 2017, Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million after federal authorities said it bought thousands of artifacts that had been smuggled out of Iraq for the museum.

Hobby Lobby President Steve Green acknowledged "regrettable mistakes," which he chalked up to inexperience. He said the company should have exercised more oversight and questioned how the acquisitions were handled. Green said the company did not know they were from Iraq and has put safeguards in place.