Rare Cuneiform Tablet Bearing Portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh Forfeited to the United States
Auction House Sold the “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet” to Hobby Lobby Using a False Provenance
United States District Judge Ann M. Donnelly entered an order yesterday forfeiting 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.
Jacquelyn M. Kasulis, Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Kenneth A. Polite, Jr., Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, and Peter C. Fitzhugh, Special Agent-in-Charge, Homeland Security Investigations, New York (HSI), announced the forfeiture decree.
“This forfeiture represents an important milestone on the path to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin,” stated Acting U.S. Attorney Kasulis. “This Office is committed to combating the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artifacts.”
“Forfeiture of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet demonstrates the Department’s continued commitment to eliminating smuggled cultural property from the U.S. art market,” stated Assistant Attorney General Polite. “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.”
“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,” stated HSI Special Agent-in-Charge Fitzhugh. “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.”
A 12-tablet Babylonian version of the Gilgamesh epic, written in Akkadian, was discovered in 1853 in the ruins of the library of the Assyrian King Assur Banipal in Nineveh (located in modern-day northern Iraq). The events in the epic revolve around King Gilgamesh of Uruk (located in modern-day southern Iraq).
The government’s investigation showed that in 2003, a U.S. antiquities dealer (the “Antiquities Dealer”) purchased the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, encrusted with dirt and unreadable, from a family member of a coin dealer in London. The Antiquities Dealer and a U.S. cuneiform expert shipped the tablet into the United States by international post without declaring formal entry. After the tablet was imported and cleaned, experts in cuneiform recognized it as bearing a portion of the Gilgamesh epic in which the protagonist describes his dreams to his mother. The protagonist’s mother interprets the dreams as foretelling the arrival of a new friend. She tells her son, “You will see him and your heart will laugh.” The names of the hero, Gilgamesh, and the character who becomes his friend, Enkidu, are replaced in this tablet with the names of deities Sin and Ea. The tablet measures approximately 6-inches by 5-inches and is written in the Akkadian language.
As alleged in the government’s amended complaint, in 2007, the Antiquities Dealer sold the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet with a false provenance letter that stated the tablet had been inside a box of miscellaneous ancient bronze fragments purchased in an auction in 1981. 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.
The government’s case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Sylvia Shweder and Trial Attorney Ann Brickley of the Department of Justice’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (MLARS).
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.
E.D.N.Y. Docket No.: 20-CV-2222 (AMD)