The artifact – known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet – is inscribed with a section of “Gilgamesh”, an epic poem considered one of the world’s oldest literary works. In 2014, Hobby Lobby, a privately held craft dealer whose president also chairs the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, purchased the clay exhibit at the museum from an international auction house for $ 1,674,000.
The museum and Hobby Lobby both asked the auction house about the tablet’s origins, but the auction house withheld this information and lied, saying the antiques dealer had confirmed the details of origin, according to the Justice Department, which has tried to return the artifact to Iraq. Law enforcement agents seized the tablet from the museum in 2019.
Christie’s, the international auction house from which Hobby Lobby purchased the item, previously told CNN that “any suggestion that Christies had knowledge of the original fraud or illegal import is unfounded.”
Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite said in a statement Tuesday that “countering the trade in smuggled goods by seizing and forfeiting an ancient artifact shows the department’s dedication to using all available tools, including forfeiture, to ensure justice.”
This statement was repeated by Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Jacquelyn Kasulis, who said the loss represents “an important milestone on the road to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin.”
Hobby Lobby previously agreed to forfeit thousands of artifacts from Iraq and pay a $ 3 million fine in 2017 to settle a civil lawsuit filed by the Justice Department against it.
In 2018, those 3,800 old artifacts, including cuneiform tablets, were returned to Iraq after being mistakenly labeled as “tile samples” and illegally smuggled into the Hobby Lobby, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Justice Department.