Update: A 3,500-year-old clay tablet looted from an Iraqi museum 30 years ago and bought by Hobby Lobby in 2014 is now officially Iraq's property again. The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was formally returned at a repatriation ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution Thursday, CNN reports. Fareed Yasseen, Iraq's ambassador to the US, told the ceremony that Iraqis are deeply attached to their ancient artifacts. "Our history is what makes us. We're an old country," he said. Our original story from July 27 follows:
Hobby Lobby has agreed to forfeit a 3,500-year-old clay tablet considered the property of the Iraqi government, which it bought for $1.6 million in 2014. The retail chain purchased the 5-by-6-inch rare cuneiform tablet from a London auction house, which offered up a provenance letter claiming the tablet was found in a box of ancient bronze fragments purchased in an auction in 1981. That same letter had been used to sell the so-called Gilgamesh Dream Tablet—one of 12 tablets found in the ruined library of an Assyrian king in Nineveh, northern Iraq, in 1853—at other times. It was also fake. The uncleaned tablet had in fact been illegally imported to the US by an antiquities dealer in 2003, reports CNBC. After realizing what he had, the dealer sold the tablet with the false provenance letter in 2007.
Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit the tablet—written in Akkadian, and bearing a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh, among the oldest known works of literature—which it had purchased in 2014. US authorities had seized it from Washington, DC's Museum of the Bible, funded by the family of Hobby Lobby founder David Green, in 2019. It is now stored in Brooklyn, New York, according to a Monday court filing.
Jacquelyn Kasulis, acting US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, called it "an important milestone on the path to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin," noting the office is "committed to combating the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artifacts." Hobby Lobby agreed to return thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts in 2017. Per CBS News, it also agreed to a $3 million fine, saying it "imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items." (Read more Hobby Lobby stories.)