The Department of Justice has formally seized a 3600-year-old cuneiform tablet that bears part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s oldest works of literature, from the crafts retailer Hobby Lobby.
The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was imported illegally into the United States in the early 2000s and purchased by Hobby Lobby for display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington.
Last year, the DOJ confiscated the tablet, which measures 6 inches by 5 inches and is written in the Akkadian language, and originated in Mesopotamia, in modern-day Iraq.
A Federal investigation found it had not been properly declared when it was brought into the US.
“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,” Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr, said.
A DOJ statement said the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was encrusted with dirt and unreadable when it was purchased by a US antiquities dealer in 2003.
The dealer and another expert in cuneiform, a system of writing used more than 3000 years ago, shipped the tablet into the United States without declaring its historical significance.
After the tablet was cleaned, experts recognised the tablet as bearing a portion of the Gilgamesh epic.
The DOJ said the tablet was sold by the unnamed antiques dealer in 2007 with a letter falsely stating that it had been inside a box of ancient bronze fragments purchased in a 1981 auction.
It passed through several owners, before being sold by Auction House in London to Hobby Lobby in a private sale in 2014.
It was then delivered by an Auction House employee to the United States along with the falsified documentation.
The DOJ said Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit the tablet as it had been illegally imported.
“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 for the Eastern District of New York.
Special Agent in Charge Peter C. Fitzhugh of Homeland Security Investigations said: “The trafficking of cultural property and art is a lucrative criminal enterprise that transnational criminal organisations exploit to make a profit, regardless of its destructive consequence to cultures around the globe.”
Iraq has filed a petition for the tablet’s recovery with US Customs and Border Protection.
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