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July 28, 2021, 9:19 a.m. EDT

Hobby Lobby ordered to forfeit rare Gilgamesh tablet smuggled out of Iraq in 2003

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By Lukas I. Alpert

A federal judge has ordered that an ancient cuneiform tablet inscribed with a portion of the Sumerian epic poem of Gilgamesh that had been illegally sold to Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., be forfeited to the government.

The tablet — known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet —  originated in modern-day Iraq and had been brought illegally to the U.S. in 2003, federal prosecutors said. 

It was then sold several times before being acquired by Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based arts and crafts chain, to be displayed at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. Hobby Lobby’s founder, Steven Green, is the museum’s chairman.

The tablet was seized by federal agents in 2019. Federal officials have said the tablet will be returned to Iraq.

“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 Jacquelyn Kasulis, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. 

Representatives of Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment.

In 2017, Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million after authorities accused the company of buying thousands of historical artifacts that had been smuggled out of Iraq.

Prosecutors said that the tablet had originally been brought to the U.S. by an antiquities dealer who had bought it from the family of a London coin dealer. Caked in dirt and unreadable, the tablet was sent by mail to the U.S. without any declaration of what it was, a violation of U.S. law.

In 2007, the dealer sold the 6×5 inch tablet, which had since been cleaned and confirmed to be inscribed with portions of the ancient epic poem written in Akkadian, along with false provenance claiming it had been found inside a box of miscellaneous bronze fragments sold at auction in 1981, prosecutors said.

The item was sold several times more to buyers in various countries before returning to London where it was sold to Hobby Lobby in 2014. The tablet was then transported by a Hobby Lobby representative aboard a commercial flight back to the U.S, which also violated U.S. law, according to prosecutors.

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