WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States has returned to the Republic of Iraq a rare cuneiform tablet bearing a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian poem considered one of the world’s oldest works of literature.
The repatriation ceremony was held Thursday at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, the artifact originated in the area of modern-day Iraq and entered the United States contrary to federal law. An international auction house (the Auction House) later sold the tablet to Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. (Hobby Lobby), an arts-and-crafts retailer based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for display at the Museum of the Bible (the Museum). Law enforcement agents seized the tablet from the Museum, pursuant to a judicially-authorized seizure warrant, in September 2019.
Acting Executive Associate Director Steve K. Francis of the Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States Fareed Yasseen signed a ceremonial certificate transferring ownership of the artifact from the United States to Iraq. Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division; Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Stacy White of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs; Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood; Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities Hassan Nadhem; Director-General Audrey Azoulay of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; and Ambassador-at-large Richard Kurin for the Smithsonian Institution also participated in the repatriation ceremony.
“We hope that returning the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to the Republic of Iraq is a message to the people of Iraq, and to the world, that the United States government will take action to seize and repatriate antiquities and other significant items of cultural heritage that have been unlawfully brought into the United States,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.
“This office is proud to have played a central role in making this rare and ancient cuneiform tablet available for repatriation to its country of origin and the people of Iraq,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Jacquelyn M. Kasulis for the Eastern District of New York. “We will continue to use our civil forfeiture laws to combat the illegal sale of cultural treasures so that they may be restored to their rightful place in a country’s history.”
“Today, Iraq is reclaiming a piece of its cultural history,” said Special Agent-in-Charge Peter C. Fitzhugh of HSI New York. “We are honored to have played a role in the repatriation of this rare tablet that was pillaged from Iraq, only to be sold without a valid provenance and any regard for his cultural value. HSI New York’s Cultural Property, Arts and Antiquity Investigations program will continue to work tirelessly to interrupt the criminal activities of those who loot antiquities and seek to profit off the theft of a country’s rich history.”
As alleged in the government’s amended complaint, in 2003, a U.S. antiquities dealer (the Antiquities Dealer) purchased the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, encrusted with dirt and unreadable, from a family member of a coin dealer in London. The Antiquities Dealer and a U.S. cuneiform expert shipped the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to the United States without declaring formal entry. After it was imported and cleaned, experts in cuneiform recognized it as bearing a portion of the Gilgamesh epic in which the protagonist describes his dreams to his mother. The protagonist’s mother interprets the dreams as foretelling the arrival of a new friend. She tells her son, “You will see him and your heart will laugh.” The names of the hero, Gilgamesh, and the character who becomes his friend, Enkidu, are replaced in the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet with the names of deities Sin and Ea. The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet measures approximately 6-inches by 5-inches and is written in the Akkadian language, which was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia.
In 2007, the Antiquities Dealer sold the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet with a false provenance letter that stated that the tablet had been among miscellaneous ancient bronze fragments purchased in a 1981 auction. This false letter traveled with the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet as it was sold several times in different countries, and a later owner provided the letter to the Auction House in London. In 2014, the Auction House sold the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to Hobby Lobby in a private sale and an Auction House employee carried it on a flight from London to the United States and then transferred it to New York. Hobby Lobby consented to the tablet’s forfeiture based on the tablet’s illegal importation into the United States in 2014.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York and the Criminal Division’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (MLARS) worked with HSI to forfeit the tablet in July. The Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs provided assistance.
The government’s case was handled by Senior Trial Attorney Ann Brickley of MLARS and Assistant U.S. Attorney Sylvia Shweder of the Eastern District of New York.
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