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Judge orders forfeiture of ancient tablet from Museum of the Bible

The recently confiscated tablet bearing a fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Image courtesy of the Museum of the Bible.

BROOKLYN, N. Y. (RNS) — A federal judge has ordered Hobby Lobby, the arts and crafts chain whose president is Museum of the Bible founder Steve Green, to forfeit an ancient tablet bearing a rare fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The clay tablet, roughly the size of an iPhone, was originally brought to the United States by an antiquities dealer who purchased it in London in 2003, according to the Justice Department. The artifact was encrusted with dirt at the time and its cuneiform script was completely hidden.

Scholars and art experts later determined that the script was part of the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s oldest works of religious literature. It was acquired by Hobby Lobby in 2014 from Christie’s auction house for the company’s collections at the Museum of the Bible.

The item was part of the exhibitions at the Museum of the Bible when it opened in November 2017 and remained on display until 2019, when it was confiscated by federal agents.

Judge Ann M. Donnelly, with the United States District Court Judge for the Eastern District of New York, entered the forfeiture order of the tablet Monday (July 26).

“Before displaying the item in 2017, the museum informed the Embassy of Iraq that we had the item in our possession, but extensive research would be required to establish provenance,” said Charlotte Clay, the museum’s media relations manager, in an emailed statement.

“We have supported the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to return this Gilgamesh fragment to Iraq,” Clay said.

“Christie’s auction house, the source and importer of the item, is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by Hobby Lobby,” said Clay. The company filed the suit against Christie’s in 2020 for providing them with false information about the tablet’s provenance.

In 2017, Hobby Lobby agreed to return nearly 4,000 artifacts to Iraq after they were found to have been looted from Iraqi archaeological sites. As part of the settlement with the Justice Department, the company was also required to pay $3 million to the U.S. government.

Two years later, the Museum of the Bible acknowledged buying more than a dozen ancient Bible fragments that were later suspected of being stolen.

In 2020, the Museum of the Bible announced it determined that more than 11,000 clay and papyri items in its collection had dubious provenance. It is working to clarify the questions of provenance and to determine the items’ final destinations.

From Religion News Service. May not be republished.

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  • Renée Roden