WASHINGTON – A 3,500 year old clay tablet discovered in the ruins of an ancient Mesopotamian king’s library and then looted from an Iraqi museum 30 years ago is finally being brought back to Iraq.
The $ 1.7 million wedge-shaped clay tablet was found as part of a 12-tablet collection in the rubble of the library of Assyrian King Assyr Banipal in 1853. Officials believe it was illegally imported into the United States in 2003, then sold to Hobby Lobby, and finally on display at the Museum of the Bible in the country’s capital.
Federal agents with Homeland Security Investigations confiscated the tablet known as the Gilgamesh dream tablet from the museum in September 2019. The Gilgamesh tablet is part of a section of a Sumerian poem from the Gilgamesh epic. It is one of the oldest literary works in the world and one of the oldest religious texts.
The Brooklyn, New York attorney’s office opened a civil case in court that resulted in a repatriation ceremony at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian with officials from Iraq.
Farreed Yasseen, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, said the looting of the museum in the 1990s hit the Iraqis hard.
“The real gist of what happened, however, is that people, individual people, did the right thing,” he said. But there is much more to be done to preserve cultural heritage around the world. “Artifacts are still being stolen, they are being smuggled out.”
Hassan Nadhem, Iraq’s Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, spoke of his pride in returning the artifacts.
“Returning the Iraqi artifacts to me means restoring our self-esteem and confidence in Iraqi society,” he said of a translator.
It is part of the increasing efforts of authorities in the US and around the world to return stolen antiques from their home countries. In the past few years, such items would probably never have made it again. The black market for these relics is huge, as are criminal networks and smugglers who trade in stolen items and forge property data.
“By returning these illegally acquired items, the authorities here in the United States and Iraq are allowing the Iraqi people to reconnect with a page in their history,” said Audrey Azoulay, director general of the UN Organization for Education, Science and Culture . “This extraordinary restitution is a great victory over those who maim the legacy and then sell it to fund violence and terrorism.”
For the incumbent head of Homeland Security Investigations, who found and investigated the origin of the tablet, the repatriation is personal. Steve Francis’ parents were born in Iraq, part of a small sect known as the Chaldean Iraqis who are Christian, and he was assigned to a U.S. customs unit in 2003 that was sent to Iraq to help protect looted artifacts.
“It’s really something special to me. I am a Chaldean Iraqi and run the agency that did this work, ”said Francis. “It really is something.”
The authorities are also repatriating a Sumerian ram sculpture that was confiscated in a separate case.
The sculpture from 3000 BC Was used for religious vows in Sumerian temples. Investigators believe it was stolen from an archaeological site in southern Iraq and then passed on as part of a collection discovered years ago. The Homeland Security Investigations teams, curious about the size of the collection, looked it up and found the ram was not among the items listed. The dealer finally gave in.
Homeland Security Investigations has returned more than 15,000 items in 40 countries since 2008, including at least 5,000 artifacts to Iraq. Many of the cases come from the agency’s New York office, where a team of agents are investigating cultural property trafficking and stolen artifacts containing other tablets and clay seals.
The Oklahoma City Hobby Lobby owners, devout Christians, collected large quantities of artifacts for the Bible Museum. Prosecutors said Steve Green, the president of the $ 4 billion company, agreed in 2010 to buy more than 5,500 artifacts for $ 1.6 million, the artifacts of past U.S. customs agents.
Prosecutors say Hobby Lobby has been warned by its own expert that acquiring antiques from Iraq carries a “significant risk” because so many of the artifacts in circulation are stolen. But Green, who has been collecting ancient artifacts since 2009, advocated naivety for doing business with merchants in the Middle East.
In 2018, executives agreed to settle the case for $ 3 million and return thousands of items. The lead agent in the case, New York-based John Labbatt, said Homeland Security returned items from the case in 2018 when they were also made aware of the smuggled tablet.
But getting it back wasn’t easy. Agents had to prove it was wrongly acquired.
Labbatt brooded over records, tracking the tablet from London to the United States in 2003. It was purchased by a couple who admitted that it knew at the time that it was bought by someone who may not have been sincere, he said . They mailed it to you in the US to prevent it from going through customs.
The tablet was sold with a false letter of provenance several times before Hobby Lobby bought it from a London auction house in 2014.
By then, the statute of limitations had expired to charge the couple with crimes.
“But in the end, the most important thing is to get it back where it belongs,” said Labbatt. “And we do.”
Associate press writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.