At Large  May 20, 2020  Charlie Pogacar

Hobby Lobby Forced to Forfeit Gilgamesh Tablet

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet

A priceless cuneiform tablet owned by Hobby Lobby is one step closer to being returned to its native country this week. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division filed an official complaint this week alleging that the company behind the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. bought the artifact from an unnamed international auction house who knowingly presented falsified provenance documents.

Hobby Lobby purchased the tablet in 2014, with documents stating that the object had been sold with a group of bronze fragments at an auction in 1981. The auction house had previously acquired the tablet from an antiquities dealer who informed them that this story could not be verified.

In fact, the clay tablet had been bought by an American antiques dealer in London in 2003 from a Middle Eastern antiquities dealer. The tablet had never been sold at auction before was still dirt-encrusted. Experts believe it was found in modern-day Iraq and that this false provenance was used to bring the tablet into the U.S. illegally.

wikimedia commons

Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh, held by the Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq

Once it was imported and cleaned, its cuneiform text was translated and recognized as a passage from the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian epic poem considered one of the world’s oldest works of literature. The passage describes the story’s hero telling his mother about a dream he’s had. His mother interprets the dream as predicting the arrival of a new friend, telling him, “You will see him and your heart will laugh.”

Now called the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, law enforcement seized the tablet from the Museum of the Bible in September 2019.

The complaint alleges intentional illegal activity by the auction house. Peter C. Fitzhugh, special agent in charge for HSI New York said in a statement, “We are proud of our investigation that led to this reclaiming of a piece of Iraq’s cultural history. This rare tablet was pillaged from Iraq and years later sold at a major auction house, with a questionable and unsupported provenance.”

department of justice

This is the latest in a long string of legal battles that Hobby Lobby and its Museum of the Bible have faced. Hobby Lobby president Steve Green recently acknowledged criticism over the way he had obtained artifacts for his Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C., and committed to returning 11,500 artifacts to their rightful homes in Iraq and Egypt.

The objects—5,000 of which are described as ancient papyrus fragments, and 6,500 of which are clay—lack proper paperwork to document their provenance, which means they could be stolen. The items will now be given to the respective governments of Iraq and Egypt. 

Green had previously been bullish about his museum’s ownership of the objects, but recently admitted his ever-evolving understanding of the world of artifact collecting has been turned on its head during this process. 

“One area where I fell short was not appreciating the importance of the provenance of the items I purchased,” Green told the Washington Post last week. He admitted that when his collecting career began in 2009, he “knew little about the world of collecting… the criticism of the museum resulting from my mistakes was justified.”

department of justice

The items were allegedly purchased by Green from three dealers representing an Israeli family in a 2010 deal that took place in the United Arab Emirates. It happened despite an artifacts expert the Hobby Lobby president retained cautioning against the vague origin story provided by the dealers at the time. 

Sitting just two blocks away from the National Mall, the Museum of the Bible opened in November 2017. It was a $500 million construction project, and the latest news isn’t the only time the private organization has been in the museum community’s crosshairs: In 2018, it was revealed that several documents purported to be Dead Sea Scrolls were, in fact, forgeries. Then there was the case of the 13 biblical fragments the Green family obtained from an Oxford professor that were later determined to have been stolen from the University’s Oxyrhynchus Collection. Those fragments were returned in 2019.

courtesy Museum of the Bible

Museum of the Bible, Washington, D.C.

The latest story of the artifacts that will be returned to Iraq and Egypt first came to light just months prior to the museum’s opening, when in July 2017 it was reported that Hobby Lobby paid $3 million to settle a lawsuit brought on by the U.S. government that stated the retail giant had illegally smuggled several thousand ancient Iraqi artifacts into the U.S. after labeling them “ceramic tile samples.” 

Of the pieces being returned, it is said the only one of them was ever on display at the Museum of the Bible.

Interpol

Pre-Columbian Tumaco mask

The global trafficking of antiquities continues to rise, as COVID-19 has hampered authorities. Prior to the pandemic, looters around the world were already taking advantage of the chaos of war to plunder historic sites.

This week Interpol announced a major coup in its efforts to stop thieves. In a coordinated effort with agencies around the globe, they recovered more than 19,000 stolen artifacts in 2019. Three hundred investigations led to 101 arrests. Raids at airports resulted in saving a slew of rare coins, fossils, clay objects, artworks and antiques, including a stunning rare Pre-Columbian Tumaco gold mask recovered by the Spanish National Police.

Online markets including Facebook have given organized crime and lowly thieves ample opportunities to sell their pilfered wares. Coupled with increased global instability, it seems that law enforcement will continue to have its work cut out for them.

About the Author

Charlie Pogacar

Charlie Pogacar is the Custom Content Associate Editor at Journalistic, Inc. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Abby, and boxer pup, Frankie.

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