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Ancient tablet seized from Hobby Lobby returns to Iraq after decades of secret swaps

Gilgamesh Dream Tablet (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/WikiCommons)
September 25, 2021

An ancient stone tablet looted from its home country and smuggled across borders for several decades before landing in the hands of an arts and crafts chain will finally be returned to Iraq.

The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet — a rare cuneiform tablet bearing a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh — is believed to be one of the world’s first literary works. Hobby Lobby purchased it for $1.7 million to be put on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. But federal agents seized it in 2019, and a federal judge ordered its return to Iraq over the summer.

That handover is slated to take place Thursday in a formal ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution.

“By returning these illegally acquired objects, the authorities here in the United States and in Iraq are allowing the Iraqi people to reconnect with a page in their history,” said Audrey Azoulay. “This exceptional restitution is a major victory over those who mutilate heritage and then traffic it to finance violence and terrorism.”

Asoulay is the director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, also known as UNESCO. Under UNESCO’s 1970 Convention, participating countries agreed to “prohibit and prevent the illicit trafficking of cultural property.”

Both Iraq and the United States are signatories of the convention.

In the early 1990s, when the U.S. first invaded Iraq during the Gulf War, many of country’s treasured artifacts began to disappear. Over the next decade and change, the looting led to the destruction of archaeological sites and thousands of missing artifacts from the National Museum of Iraq, The Atlantic reported.

The national museum was vacated on April 8, 2003 as U.S. troops invaded Iraq for a second time, according to the Smithsonian Magazine. By the time staff returned a few days later, an estimated 15,000 items — many of them antiquities — were gone.

Some were returned in the days and weeks that followed, but a few of the stolen goods were brought back to the U.S. by “American government employees, who took them as souvenirs or war trophies,” The Chicago Tribune reported.

Others were trafficked on the black market by terrorist groups such as ISIS, according to Al Jazeera.

Many of the missing artifacts began to appear on online auction sites or were traded on the international antiquities markets. According to a 2003 article in Salon, the opening bid on eBay for a cuneiform cone described as originating in 2000 B.C.E. started at $1.

Tablet disappeared in the 1990s

The Gilgamesh tablet, which measures 5 inches by 6 inches, was one such artifact taken in the looting. It disappeared some time in the 1990s before reappearing in London in the early 2000s, federal prosecutors said.

The tablet went from a Jordanian coins dealer to a U.S. antiquities dealer to a Princeton professor and back to two antiquities dealers before it was put up for sale at an international auction house.

That’s when Hobby Lobby bought it for $1.7 million in July 2014 and gave it to the Museum of the Bible.

A museum curator started asking questions about the tablet’s provenance before it was slated to open in 2017. It turned out they could not verify the item had been in the U.S. as far back as suggested, and federal agents seized it in 2019.

The government filed a complaint for forfeiture in June 2020, saying the tablet had been brought into the U.S. illegally and was “stolen Iraqi property.” A federal judge then ordered Hobby Lobby to return it.

Now, thousands of stolen artifacts from Iraq are making a similar return back homej.

U.S. leads the way with returns

Earlier this summer, the U.S. returned more than 17,000 items in what the Iraqi Culture Minister Hassan Nazim called the “largest return of antiquities to Iraq,” the German news outlet Deutsche Welle reported.

Iraqi historian Abdullah Khorsheed Qader told DW the two countries worked for years to recover some of these pieces.

“Iraqi contacts with the American side made it clear that the smuggled antiquities are in the safe hands of the American Homeland Security,” he said.

The pieces returned by the U.S. is by far Iraq’s largest haul this year. According to Iraq’s Ministry of Public Affairs, the country received an additional nine pieces from Japan, seven pieces from Holland and one piece from Italy for a total of 17,338 artifacts.

“I hope that in the near future we will be able to recover the rest of our goods, especially in Europe,” said Nazim in a statement announcing the return, according to Al Jazeera.


© 2021 The Charlotte Observer

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