Rare Cuneiform Tablet Bearing Portion of Epic of Gilgamesh Forfeited to United States
Auction House Sold the “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet” to Hobby Lobby Using a False Provenance
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ordered the forfeiture of a rare cuneiform tablet bearing a portion of the epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian poem considered one of the world’s oldest works of literature.
Known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, it originated in the area of modern-day Iraq and entered the United States contrary to federal law. An international auction house (the Auction House) later sold the tablet to Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. (Hobby Lobby), a prominent arts-and-crafts retailer based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for display at the Museum of the Bible (the Museum). Law enforcement agents seized the tablet from the Museum in September 2019.
“Forfeiture of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet demonstrates the department’s continued commitment to eliminating smuggled cultural property from the U.S. art market,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “Thwarting 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 forfeiture represents an important milestone on the path to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Jacquelyn M. Kasulis for the Eastern District of New York. “This office is committed to combating the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artifacts.”
“The trafficking of cultural property and art is a lucrative criminal enterprise that transnational criminal organizations exploit to make a profit, regardless of its destructive consequence to cultures around the globe,” said Special Agent in Charge Peter C. Fitzhugh of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), New York. “HSI continues to partner in art and antiquities investigations to ensure looted pieces are no longer trafficked through commerce for an illicit profit, because the cultural value of this tablet that travelled the world under false provenance exceeds any monetary value.”
As alleged in the government’s amended complaint, in 2003, a U.S. antiquities dealer (the Antiquities Dealer) purchased the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, encrusted with dirt and unreadable, from the family member of a London coin dealer. The Antiquities Dealer and a U.S. cuneiform expert shipped the tablet into the United States by international post without declaring the contents as required. After the tablet was imported and cleaned, experts in cuneiform recognized it as bearing a portion of the Gilgamesh epic. The tablet measures approximately 6 inches by 5 inches and is written in the Akkadian language.
The amended complaint further alleged that, in 2007, the Antiquities Dealer sold the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet with a false provenance letter stating that the tablet had been inside a box of miscellaneous ancient bronze fragments purchased in a 1981 auction. This false letter traveled with the tablet as it was sold several times in different countries, and a later owner provided the letter to the Auction House in London. In 2014, the Auction House sold the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to Hobby Lobby in a private sale and an Auction House employee carried it on a flight from London to the United States and then transferred it to New York. Hobby Lobby consented to the tablet’s forfeiture based on the tablet’s illegal importations into the United States in 2003 and 2014.
HSI’s Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Unit is investigating the case.
Trial Attorney Ann Brickley of the Criminal Division’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (MLARS) and Assistant U.S. Attorney Sylvia Shweder of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York handled this matter.
The Department of Justice has a remission process for judicially forfeited property. An interested party may submit a petition to the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. The U.S. Attorney then will forward a package to MLARS containing the petition, the seizing agency’s report and recommendation, and its own recommendation as to how MLARS should proceed. MLARS makes a determination about the petitions based on the papers received, and in accordance with the governing law and department policies.