A rare and ancient tablet containing one of the world’s oldest works of literature should be in Iraq and not owned by a U.S. arts and craft store, the U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday.
In 2014, Hobby Lobby purchased the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet for over $1.6 million. The Justice Department announced the store needed to return the artifact after discovering the auction house that sold it did so under false pretenses.
The artifact, known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, originated from now modern-day Iraq and features the Sumerian poem of Gilgamesh. The poem is one of the world’s oldest works of literature. Hobby Lobby planned to display the tablet in its Museum of the Bible, a museum founded by owners of the craft store chain, Steve and Jackie Green.
What the auction house didn’t admit was that the dealer who sold the artifact, Jordanian Antiquities Association, had the tablet shipped to the U.S. in 2003 without declaring the contents as required. They also wrongfully claimed they discovered it in a box of miscellaneous fragments in 1981, according to the release.
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Before purchasing the tablet, Hobby Lobby and the museum asked the auction house about the tablet’s history. The Justice Department confirmed that the auction house withheld information and lied.
“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 M. Kasulis, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, in the release. “This office is committed to combating the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artifacts.”
Christie’s, the international auction house from which Hobby Lobby bought the item, said “any suggestion that Christie’s had knowledge of the original fraud or illegal importation is unsubstantiated,” CNN reported.
In 2017, Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million after authorities alleged the company had bought thousands of historical artifacts that had been smuggled out of Iraq.
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