Federal authorities announced the forfeiture Monday of an ancient tablet inscribed with part of the Epic of Gilgamesh from a museum backed by the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby.
The piece, known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, bearing a version of what’s considered perhaps the world’s oldest work of literature, was featured at the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. Hobby Lobby bought it in 2014 for $1.6 million from an auction house that was later found to have lied about its origins, federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York said.
Hobby Lobby, based in Oklahoma, was fined $3 million in 2017 after federal authorities said it bought thousands of artifacts that had been smuggled out of Iraq for the museum. The company opened the $500 million museum in November 2017.
The museum’s chairman, Steve Green, is the president of Hobby Lobby, which won a Supreme Court case in 2014 over the Affordable Care Act’s birth control requirements.
Court documents filed Monday assert that the cuneiform tablet — one of 12 inscribed with the Gilgamesh tale — was discovered in 1853 in Assyrian ruins in northern Iraq.
The documents say Hobby Lobby bought it from an unidentified auction house, which told the company the piece was acquired in San Francisco “well before” 1981. However, the tablet was, in fact, purchased by an unidentified antiquities dealer in 2003 from the family of the former head of the Jordanian Antiquities Association, The New York Times reported.
A lawsuit cited by The Times alleged that the official, Ghassan Rihani, sold items plundered by Iraqi soldiers during their occupation of Kuwait in 1991. Rihani’s son told the newspaper that his father dealt only in legitimate artifacts.
The false story of the tablet’s provenance was discovered after a curator at the Museum of the Bible began conducting due diligence research in 2017.
A spokeswoman for the museum said it supported the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to return this Gilgamesh fragment to Iraq. “The museum, before displaying the item, informed the Embassy of Iraq on Nov. 13, 2017, that it had the item in its possession but extensive research would be required to establish provenance,” the museum said in a statement.
After the 2017 settlement, Green called the purchases a “regrettable” mistake and said the company should have “exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”
In a statement in March, he said the museum had identified 5,000 papyrus fragments and 6,500 clay objects with insufficient provenance that were being returned to Egypt and Iraq.