A 3,500-year-old clay tablet bought by the Hobby Lobby for display in the Museum of the Bible should be returned to Iraq, US federal prosecutors said in a civil complaint Monday. The cuneiform tablet is inscribed with a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh, hence, its name: the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet. NBC News reports Hobby Lobby purchased it for $1.6 million in 2014 by a major auction house that is unnamed in the complaint. That auction house allegedly told Hobby Lobby the tablet, one of 12 bearing the creation story, was acquired in San Francisco prior to 1981. The complaint details a different backstory. One part of it, per NPR: In 2013, the person who possessed the tablet at the time allegedly got in touch with the auction house's London office with an offer to sell it.
But the auction house's antiquities department head was reportedly told the tablet's provenance was not iron-clad, meaning a public auction wouldn't be possible. Hobby Lobby acquired it in a private sale that next year. Three years later, in July 2017, the company agreed to pay a $3 million fine over thousands of artifacts it acquired without verifying their provenance; federal authorities said they had been smuggled out of Iraq. In October 2017, a Museum of the Bible curator doing provenance research on the Gilgamesh tablet reached out to the auction house. A press release from Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations division notes "the Auction House withheld information about the tablet’s provenance," leading the museum to realize something was amiss. Agents from the HSI division seized the tablet last year. (Read more Hobby Lobby stories.)