WASHINGTON — A 3,500-year-old Iraqi clay tablet was discovered among the remains of an ancient Mesopotamian king’s library, then taken from an Iraqi museum 30 years ago, and is now being returned to Iraq.
The $1.7 million cuneiform clay tablet was discovered in the debris of Assyrian King Assur Banipal’s library in 1853 as part of a 12-tablet collection. Officials think it was illegally smuggled into the United States in 2003, sold to Hobby Lobby, and finally displayed in the nation’s capital’s Museum of the Bible.
In September 2019, federal officers from Homeland Security Investigations took the tablet, also known as the Gilgamesh Dream tablet, from the museum. The Gilgamesh tablet is a portion of Sumerian poetry from Gilgamesh’s Epic. It is one of the world’s oldest literary works, as well as one of the world’s oldest religious writings.
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, New York, started a civil forfeiture court case that culminated in a repatriation ceremony with Iraqi authorities on Thursday at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
The theft of the museum in the 1990s, according to Fareed Yasseen, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, affected Iraqis deeply.
“What occurred, in the end, was that people, individual people, did the right thing,” he added. However, there is still much more that can be done to protect cultural assets across the world. “Artifacts are still being stolen and smuggled out,” says the expert.
Iraq’s minister of culture, tourism, and antiquities, Hassan Nadhem, expressed his delight at the items’ repatriation.
“For me, restoring Iraqi antiques means restoring our self-esteem and confidence in Iraqi society,” he explained through a translator.
It’s part of a growing effort by authorities in the United States and throughout the world to restore stolen artefacts to their homelands. Such goods would have most likely never made it back in the past. The illicit market for these artefacts is burgeoning, as are criminal networks and smugglers trading in stolen goods and faking ownership information.
“By returning these unlawfully obtained items, the authorities in the United States and Iraq are helping the Iraqi people to reconnect with a chapter of their history,” Audrey Azoulay, director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, stated. “This extraordinary reparation is a huge win over those who desecrate history and then sell it to fund murder and terrorism.”
The return is personal for the acting head of Homeland Security Investigations, who discovered and probed the tablet’s origins. Steve Francis was assigned to a US Customs team that was dispatched to Iraq in 2003 to assist preserve plundered antiquities, and his parents were born in Iraq, as members of a tiny Christian minority known as Chaldean Iraqis.
“It has a special meaning for me. Francis explained, “I’m a Chaldean Iraqi who leads the agency that conducted this work.” “It is very remarkable.”
A Sumerian Ram sculpture that was taken during a different case is also being returned.
The 3000 B.C. sculpture was used in Sumerian temples for sacred vows. Investigators suspect it was stolen from a southern Iraqi archaeological site and then passed off as part of a collection unearthed years before. Curious about the extent of the collection, Homeland Security Investigations checked it up and noticed the ram was not among the things mentioned. The dealer ultimately admitted his guilt.
Since 2008, the Department of Homeland Security has returned more than 15,000 objects to 40 nations, including at least 5,000 antiquities to Iraq. Many of the investigations have come from the agency’s New York headquarters, where a team of agents is looking into cultural property trafficking and stolen antiquities, including other tablets and clay seals.
Hobby Lobby’s owners, ardent Christians, gathered a huge number of items for the Bible museum in Oklahoma City. Prosecutors said Steve Green, the $4 billion company’s president, agreed to buy more than 5,500 artefacts for $1.6 million in 2010 as part of a scheme involving a number of middlemen and the use of phoney or misleading invoices, shipping labels, and other paperwork to get the artefacts past customs agents in the United States.
Prosecutors claim that Hobby Lobby’s own expert told them that buying antiquities from Iraq posed a “significant danger” since so many of the objects in circulation are stolen. However, Green, who has been collecting ancient antiquities since 2009, claimed naiveté in dealing with Middle Eastern sellers.
In 2018, the executives agreed to pay $3 million to resolve the dispute and return thousands of items. Homeland Security was repatriating goods from that case in 2018 when they were made aware of the smuggled tablet, according to the case’s lead agent, John Labatt, located in New York.
It wasn’t easy to get it back, though. Agents had to show that it had been acquired illegally.
In 2003, Labatt combed through data and followed the tablet from London to the United States. He said it was purchased by a couple who confessed they were aware at the time that they were buying it from someone who may not have been honest. They shipped it to themselves in the United States, bypassing customs.
Before Hobby Lobby acquired the tablet from a London-based auction company in 2014, it was sold many times using a fake provenance letter.
By that time, the statute of limitations had run out on any charges against the pair.
“But, in the end, getting it back where it belongs is the most essential part,” Labatt added. “And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”