American craft store Hobby Lobby have been told they must return an artefact showing the story of Gilgamesh.
The Christian arts and crafts retailer had obtained the rare piece of history for display in its museum of biblical artefacts. the tablet shows part of the Gilgamesh epic, one of the world’s oldest and rarest works of literature, in the Akkadian language.
The Department of Justice (DoJ) says the 3,600-year-old ‘Gilgamesh Dream Tablet’ was bought in 2003 by an American antiquities dealer who then sold the tablet with a “false provenance letter”. Hobby Lobby bought it from a London auction house in 2014.
Hobby Lobby had consented to the court-ordered forfeiture, “based on the tablet’s illegal importations into the United States in 2003 and 2014”.
“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. “This office is committed to combatting the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artefacts.”
There are thousands of smuggled ancient Iraqi artefacts purchased by Hobby Lobby and in 2017 the company agreed to pay a $3m fine and give up thousands of artefacts including 5,000 papyri fragments and 6,500 clay objects.
In a statement the evangelical Christian billionaire president of Hobby Lobby, Steve Green, said the company “should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled”.
“My goal was always to protect, preserve, study, and share cultural property with the world. That goal has not changed, but after some early missteps, I made the decision many years ago that, moving forward, I would only acquire items with reliable, documented provenance. Furthermore, if I learn of other items in the collection for which another person or entity has a better claim, I will continue to do the right thing with those items,” Green said in a statement.