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Rare Gilgamesh tablet, once on view at the Museum of the Bible, is one step closer to being returned to Iraq

Rare Gilgamesh tablet, once on view at the Museum of the Bible, is one step closer to being returned to Iraq

FRIDAY, July 30, 2021

Federal authorities have taken ownership of a rare cuneiform tablet that craft company Hobby Lobby purchased in 2014 for the Museum of the Bible, a legal move that closes the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the museums problematic collection.

Hobby Lobby purchased the rare artifact, known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, for almost $1.7 million to display in the D.C. museum built by the company's chief executive, Steve Green. The six inch by five-inch clay artifact is part of an epic poem that is considered one of the world's oldest religious and literary texts. Originally from what is now Iraq, the next step will be to repatriate it to that country, experts say.

"This is a mythic story of the origins of the world, this incredibly famous text equal to the 'Odyssey' or the 'Iliad,'" said Candida Moss, a New Testament scholar and co-author with Joel Baden of "Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby." "It's a star because we Christians relate this text to our Bible."

The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet entered the country illegally before an international auction house arranged for its private sale to Hobby Lobby, according to the federal complaint. Authorities took the tablet from the museum in 2019 and this week the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ordered the forfeiture.

The court order is the latest example of the government's commitment to ending the smuggling of international cultural objects, according to Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite of the Justice Department's Criminal Division. "Thwarting trade in smuggled goods by seizing and forfeiting an ancient artifact shows the department's dedication to using all available tools, including forfeiture, to ensure justice," Polite said in a statement.

Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma City-based craft company led by the evangelical Green family, is the primary benefactor of the Museum of the Bible, a 430,000 square-foot building that opened in 2017 a few blocks from the Capitol with a mission to "invite all people to engage with the transformative power of the Bible." In a statement, the museum said it has been working with federal authorities and that Hobby Lobby is suing Christie's for the money it spent on the tablet.

"The museum was informed in 2019 of the illegal importation of this item by the auction house and previous owners. Since then, we have supported the Department of Homeland Security's efforts to return this Gilgamesh fragment to Iraq," the statement said.

Experts have long questioned Hobby Lobby's acquisition efforts and the authenticity of some of the items in its collection. Early skepticism about the prominently displayed Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, proved valid when, in 2018, officials acknowledged that five of the 16 fragments were fake. The next year an internal report discredited the remaining 11.

In 2017, Hobby Lobby reached an agreement with the Eastern District of New York regarding more than 3,500 Iraqi artifacts that federal officials said were illegally imported. As part of the settlement, the company agreed to forfeit the objects, pay a $3 million fine and submit to federal oversight. The artifacts were returned to Iraq in 2018.

Last year, Green issued a public statement admitting to early mistakes in building the private collection of about 40,000 objects. He announced that an internal review had identified some 11,500 items from Egypt and Iraq that had "insufficient provenance." The original number grew by several thousand, according to later comments from museum officials. On Wednesday, the museum announced it completed the return of the objects, totaling 8,143, to Iraq.

"We are grateful for the efforts of the Ambassador of Iraq, Fareed Yasseen, and the U.S. State Department for helping us restore these to the Iraqi people," the museum said in a statement about the transfer. "Museum of the Bible looks forward to future opportunities to collaborate with Iraq to study and preserve its rich cultural heritage."

It remains unclear if the government's actions are enough to fight the illicit trade of cultural objects. "Some of us have questioned if it is effective as a deterrence," said Patty Gerstenblith, director of the Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University. "Criminal proceedings would be more effective, but it is very difficult to prove a criminal case.

"I look at the timeline [of Hobby Lobby's acquisitions] and think if I got caught doing something I wouldn't keep doing it," she added.

Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible are not the only ones forced to repatriate objects, Gerstenblith noted. "I wonder what will make a difference," she said about the recent forfeiture. "Steve Green keeps saying 'I didn't know' [about the rules for importing antiquities]. There is a lot of self-deception going on, conscious or not. People fool themselves."

Jeffrey Kloha, the museum's chief curatorial officer, said the museum understands the criticism but wishes to make the "facts and circumstances" clear.

"All of these artifacts were acquired between 2009 and 2014, and almost all prior to 2011. The Museum has taken extraordinary steps since to resolve the issues associated with them. We approached both Iraq and Egypt ourselves in 2017 and early 2018 to inform them of our intention to research and return these objects. All of this was done amicably and directly with the countries of origin along with the awareness of the United States government," Kloha said. "It is unfortunate that much of the reporting on this subject does not make it clear that this is the completion of a long process and not a new story."

Experts expect the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet will also be repatriated to Iraq, although how and when are not yet known. Some of the Iraqi artifacts seized by the government and repatriated in 2018 are now at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, where scholars have had access to them, said Eckart Frahm, professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Yale University. Those artifacts are among a half-million or so cuneiform tablets in museum collections around the world and are of interest to scholars and researchers. The Gilgamesh fragment is more significant, he said.

"It speaks to us, describes the condition of man, the suffering of humankind, the fragility of the hero," Frahm said. "If I were the director of a museum, I would put it on display."