US seizes ancient ‘looted’ Gilgamesh tablet and could return it to Iraq

·2-min read
The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a rare portion of one of the most ancient works of literature originally from Iraq
The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a rare portion of one of the most ancient works of literature originally from Iraq

A 3,500-year-old tablet bearing the text of one of the world's oldest works of literature could soon be returned to Iraq after a US federal court ruled that it must be surrendered to the authorities.

US officials say the ancient tablet, which bears text from the Epic of Gilgamesh, was illegally brought to the country before it was purchased by the arts and crafts firm Hobby Lobby.

It was intended to be put on display at Washington DC's Museum of the Bible, which is funded by Hobby Lobby and has been plagued by controversies over the legality of its collection.

But US authorities have now formally ordered the forfeiture of the tablet, raising hopes that it will at last be returned to modern Iraq, where it was discovered in 1853.

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Jacquelyn M Kasulis, the acting US attorney for the eastern district of New York, said the ruling was "an important milestone on the path to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin".

She added: "This office is committed to combating the black market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artefacts."

The five-by-six inch tablet was looted from Iraq in the early 1990s and was later purchased by an American antiques dealer in London in 2003.

From there, it was shipped to the United States undeclared and then sold on with false documentation, eventually passing into the hands of Hobby Lobby.

US officials said Hobby Lobby has consented to the forfeiture while Steve Green, its president, has said he was naïve about the tablet's origins and "knew little of the world of collecting" when he began work as an antiquarian.

The forfeiture of the tablet comes two years after it was seized by US Homeland Security agents as part of a wider investigation into Hobby Lobby, which in 2017 was fined $3m (£2.1m) for unlawfully importing artefacts. The Gilgamesh tablet is currently being stored in Brooklyn.

"Forfeiture of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet demonstrates the department’s continued commitment to eliminating smuggled cultural property from the US art market," said Kenneth Polite, an assistant US attorney-general, in a statement on Tuesday.

"Thwarting trade in smuggled goods by seizing and forfeiting an ancient artefact shows the department’s dedication to using all available tools, including forfeiture, to ensure justice," he added.

The so-called dream tablet contains sections of a Sumerian poem which has intrigued scholars because it echoes stories from the Old Testament, including the Garden of Eden.

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