The Justice Department announced Tuesday that it had seized a rare, ancient tablet that was sold to Hobby Lobby through an auction house under false pretenses.
A federal court in Brooklyn, New York, ordered the forfeiture of a rare cuneiform tablet bearing a portion of the "Epic of Gilgamesh," a historic poem with roots in ancient Mesopotamia. The cuneiform tablet is roughly 3,600 years old and originated in an area that’s now part of Iraq. It's believed to be one of the earliest pieces of storytelling poetry.
The federal court argued that the tablet was brought into the U.S. illegally and therefore the Museum of the Bible, established by the owners of the Hobby Lobby stores, cannot get back the ancient clay tablet. After the first Gulf War in 1991, thousands of objects were looted, including many cuneiform tablets, from archeological sites in Iraq, prosecutors explained.
In 2013, prosecutors said, an American antiquities dealer bought the tablet, covered with dirt and unreadable, from the family of a London coin dealer. The tablet measures approximately 6 inches by 5 inches and is written in the Akkadian language, prosecutors said. The U.S. dealer, prosecutors said, then sold the tablet with a letter of false provenance, stating the tablet had been inside a box of miscellaneous ancient bronze fragments purchased in an auction in 1981.
The false letter describing its erroneous origins then traveled with the tablet as it was sold several times in different countries, officials said. A later owner provided the false letter to an auction house in London. It was resold several times again before Hobby Lobby bought it in a private sale in 2014. Federal agents seized it from the store's museum in 2019, and it’s been held by the Department of Homeland Security since.
“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 Jacquelyn Kasulis, the acting U.S. attorney in Brooklyn. “This office is committed to combating the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artifacts.”