It’s a new day for a 3,500-year-old artifact.
US officials on Thursday formally returned the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to Iraq after the Justice Department had deemed that it “entered the United States contrary to federal law.”
“The tablet is a treasure to the world. And it will now return to its home,” said Stacy White, the acting principal deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, during a Smithsonian Institution repatriation ceremony in Washington, DC.
The artifact – inscribed with a portion of “Gilgamesh,” an epic poem considered one of the world’s oldest works of literature – had been purchased by US craft store Hobby Lobby at a 2014 auction. The privately owned arts and crafts retailer, whose president is also the chairman of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, bought the clay tablet for display in the museum from an international auction house for $1,674,000.
The museum and Hobby Lobby had each asked the auction house about the tablet’s origin, but the auction house withheld that information and lied in saying that the antiquities dealer had confirmed the details of provenance, according to the Justice Department, which has long sought to return to artifact to Iraq. Law enforcement agents seized the tablet from the museum in 2019.
The Museum of the Bible has expressed its support for the government’s effort to return the artifact.
Iraq ambassador to the US Fareed Yasseen told those gathered at Thursday’s ceremony that “the attachment to our artifacts is so deeply rooted amongst Iraqis.”
“Our history is really important to us. Our history is what makes us. We’re an old country,” he said, adding: “And so you can’t take that from us.”
Hobby Lobby previously agreed to forfeit thousands of artifacts from Iraq and pay a $3 million fine in 2017 to resolve a civil action the Justice Department had brought against it.
In 2018, those 3,800 ancient artifacts, including cuneiform tablets, were returned to Iraq after they had been falsely labeled as “tile samples” and illegally smuggled to Hobby Lobby, according to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Justice Department.