The "Gilgamesh Dream Tablet", a smuggled ancient cuneiform previously held at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, will be returned to Iraq (courtesy the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

The “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet,” a 3,500-year-old clay cuneiform that was acquired by the arts and crafts chain store Hobby Lobby in 2014, has been forfeited to the United States, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced today. The rare fragment, which bears a sequence from the epic of Gilgamesh, is among 17,000 stolen artifacts that are expected to be returned to Iraq this week, according to the country’s culture minister Hassan Nazim.

According to the DOJ, the ancient tablet was “encrusted with dirt and unreadable” when an American antiquities dealer acquired it in 2003 from the family member of a London coin dealer. The tablet, measuring approximately six-by-five inches, was shipped into the US by international post without declaring the contents, as required by law. After the tablet arrived in the country and was cleaned, experts realized that it featured a portion of the Gilgamesh epic, one of the world’s most ancient works of literature, written in the Akkadian language.

The DOJ also alleges that the aforementioned antiquities dealer sold the tablet with a “false provenance letter” in 2007. The fabricated letter said that the tablet had been inside a box of ancient bronze fragments purchased in a 1981 auction. The artifact was later bought and sold several times in different countries before Hobby Lobby, headed by the evangelical Christian business entrepreneur Steven Green, purchased it from a London auction house in 2014 and put it on display at the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) in Washington, DC. The museum has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

In 2019, US law enforcement agents seized the tablet from the museum after the DOJ deemed it as “stolen Iraqi property” in a complaint. Today, July 29, New York’s eastern district court ordered the forfeiture of the tablet. According to the DOJ, Hobby Lobby consented to the forfeiture “based on the tablet’s illegal importations into the United States in 2003 and 2014.”

“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 US Attorney Jacquelyn M. Kasulis. “This office is committed to combatting the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artifacts.”

In January, Green announced that a smuggled collection of 8,106 clay objects from Iraq held in MOTB’s collection was returned to the Iraq Museum in Bagdad via the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In 2017, Hobby Lobby agreed to pay a $3m fine and forfeit 5,548 smuggled artifacts to Iraq.

According to Iraqi officials, the restituted artifacts will be boarded on an airplane that will take the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi back to his country on Thursday after he met today with US President Joe Biden in Washington, DC. It’s unclear if the “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet” will be included in the items or returned separately.

“This is the largest return of antiquities to Iraq,” said Nazim, as quoted by Al Jazeera, before adding that the decision was “the result of months of efforts by the Iraqi authorities in conjunction with their embassy in Washington.”

“I hope that in the near future we will be able to recover the rest of our goods, especially in Europe,” the Iraqi culture minister added.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...