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New York court orders Gilgamesh tablet returned to Iraq

The US Department of Justice said a past seller of the tablet, infamously purchased by the US company Hobby Lobby, misrepresented how it had been acquired.
Inscribed stone, giving an account of the Great Flood, Epic of Gilgamesh tablet, from Nineveh, illustration from the magazine The Illustrated London News, volume LXIII, November 15, 1873.

An ancient piece of literature from modern-day Iraq was illegally brought to the United States and must be forfeited, a New York City court ruled today.

A tablet including part of the Epic of Gilgamesh — a tale from the ancient civilization of Sumeria and one of the world's oldest pieces of literature — entered the United States illegally and was then sold, the Department of Justice US Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York said in a release Monday.

“Whenever looted cultural property is found in this country, the United States government will do all it can to preserve heritage by returning such artifacts where they belong,” the district’s attorney Richard Donghue said.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a long poem written the Akkadnian language that was found in 1853 in the ruins of a library of the Assyrian King Assurbanipal, located in the modern-day Nineveh province of northern Iraq. The story of a king is one of the oldest known epics in human history.

The tablet in question is a clay cuneiform tablet bearing part of the epic about a dream being recanted to the protagonist’s mother. The delicate piece is one of hundreds of thousands of artifacts looted from Iraq since the 1990s, according to court documents.

The issue with the tablet began in 2003, the year the United States invaded Iraq. At that time, an unknown antiquities dealer purchased the tablet from a Middle Eastern antiquities dealer in London. It was revealed to be part of the Gilgamesh epic after being cleaned. In 2007, the dealer falsely stated that the tablet had been acquired via an auction in 1981 and sold an auction house. In 2014, the US arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby bought the tablet and it was then displayed at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, according to the release.

Reuters revealed yesterday that the international auction house Christie’s sold the tablet to Hobby Lobby, citing a fraud claim filed by Hobby Lobby against Christie’s.

Christie’s told Reuters the company had no knowledge of the illegality of the acquisition. The Museum of the Bible cooperated with the investigation, the Department of Justice said.

The tablet was seized by US officials back in September, but the forfeit order was filed Monday, according to the release.

The looting of antiquities is a major issue in Iraq and the government has worked for years to retrieve items from its rich cultural heritage. Poor economic and security conditions have contributed to theft of artifacts in the country.

Iraqi law stipulates that objects like the tablet are the property of the state. The United States also has laws forbidding the transfer of such objects from Iraq, according to the court documents.

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