Earlier today, the United States filed a civil complaint to forfeit a rare cuneiform tablet bearing a portion of the epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian epic poem considered one 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. The tablet was later sold by an international auction house (the “Auction House”) 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”). Despite inquiries from the Museum and Hobby Lobby, the Auction House withheld information about the tablet’s provenance. The tablet was seized from the Museum by law enforcement agents in September 2019.
Richard P. Donoghue, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and Peter C. Fitzhugh, Special Agent-in-Charge, Homeland Security Investigations, New York (HSI), announced the civil action and stipulation.
“Whenever looted cultural property is found in this country, the United States government will do all it can to preserve heritage by returning such artifacts where they belong,” stated United States Attorney Donoghue. “In this case, a major auction house failed to meet its obligations by minimizing its concerns that the provenance of an important Iraqi artifact was fabricated, and withheld from the buyer information that undermined the provenance’s reliability.” Mr. Donoghue thanked the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and the Justice Department’s Money Laundering and Asset Forfeiture Section (MLARS) for their assistance.
“We are proud of our investigation that led to this reclaiming of a piece of Iraq’s cultural history. This rare tablet was pillaged from Iraq and years later sold at a major auction house, with a questionable and unsupported provenance,” stated HSI Special Agent-in-Charge Fitzhugh. “HSI New York’s Cultural Property, Arts and Antiquity Investigations program will continue to work with prosecutors to combat the looting of antiquities and ensure those who would attempt to profit from this crime are held accountable.”
The government’s investigation revealed that in 2003, a U.S. antiquities dealer (the “Antiquities Dealer”) purchased an encrusted cuneiform tablet from a Middle Eastern antiquities dealer in London. After the tablet was imported and cleaned, experts in cuneiform recognized it as a portion of the Gilgamesh epic in which the protagonist describes his dreams to his mother (hence, the “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet”). 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.”
As alleged in the 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 bronze fragments purchased in a 1981 auction. This false provenance letter traveled with the tablet and was provided to the Auction House by a later owner. As part of its due diligence, the Auction House’s antiquities director spoke with the Antiquities Dealer. The Antiquities Dealer advised the Auction House that the provenance would not withstand scrutiny and should not be used in connection with a public sale. The Auction House nevertheless represented to Hobby Lobby that the tablet was purchased in the 1981 auction. Hobby Lobby purchased the tablet in a private sale in 2014. In response to Hobby Lobby’s request for more details in connection with the purchase and the Museum’s expression of discomfort with the provenance in 2017, the Auction House advised both that the Antiquities Dealer had confirmed the details of the provenance. However, the Auction House withheld the false provenance letter and the Antiquities Dealer’s name from Hobby Lobby and the Museum.
The Museum cooperated with the government’s investigation.
The government’s case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney and Cultural Property Coordinator Karin Orenstein of the Office’s Civil Division, with assistance from Trial Attorney Ann Brickley of MLARS and Assistant U.S. Attorney Zia Faruqui of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.
E.D.N.Y. Docket No. 20-CV-2222 (AMD)