The United States returned a rare cuneiform tablet bearing a portion of the epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian poem considered one of the world’s oldest works of literature, to the Republic of Iraq, following an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). The repatriation ceremony of the $1.7 million artifact took place at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
The “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet,” originated in what is now modern-day Iraq and entered the United States in violation of federal law. An international auction house (the “Auction House”) later sold the tablet to Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (“Hobby Lobby”), an arts-and-crafts retailer based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for display at the Museum of the Bible. HSI special agents seized the tablet from the Museum in September 2019, also known as the Hobby Lobby Case.
HSI Acting Executive Associate Director Steve K. Francis and Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States Fareed Yasseen signed a ceremonial certificate transferring ownership of the artifact from the United States to Iraq.
Kenneth A. Polite, Jr., Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division; Stacy White, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State; Joey Hood, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs; Hassan Nadhem, Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities; Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; and Richard Kurin, Ambassador-at-large for the Smithsonian Institution also participated in the repatriation ceremony.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York and the Department of Justice’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (MLARS) worked with HSI to forfeit the tablet in July 2021.
“Stealing a nation’s cultural property and antiquities is one of the oldest forms of organized transnational crime. Since 2007, HSI has recovered and returned over 15,000 artifacts to more than 40 countries, including more than 5,000 artifacts to Iraq,” said HSI Executive Associate Director Steve Francis. “While we recognize cultural property, art and antiquities are often assigned a dollar value in the marketplace, the meaning of these historical national treasures to the Iraqi people far surpasses any monetary value. We are proud to have helped in their recovery and return so future generations may continue study and admire them for years to come.”
“We hope that returning the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to the Republic of Iraq is a message to the people of Iraq, and to the world, that the United States government will take action to seize and repatriate antiquities and other significant items of cultural heritage that have been unlawfully brought into the United States,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.
“The return of this ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin and the Iraqi people is the culmination of an important civil forfeiture case that demonstrates this Office’s commitment to combating the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artifacts,” stated Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Jacquelyn M. Kasulis.
“Today, Iraq is reclaiming a piece of its cultural history,” stated HSI New York Special Agent in Charge, Peter C. Fitzhugh. “We are honored to have played a role in the repatriation of this rare tablet that was pillaged from Iraq, only to be sold without a valid provenance and any regard for his cultural value. HSI New York’s Cultural Property, Arts and Antiquity Investigations program will continue to work tirelessly to interrupt the criminal activities of those who loot antiquities and seek to profit off the theft of a country’s rich history.”
Background of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet
As alleged in the government’s amended complaint, in 2003 a U.S. antiquities dealer purchased the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, encrusted with dirt and illegible, from a family member of a coin dealer in London. The Antiquities Dealer and a U.S. cuneiform expert shipped the tablet to the United States by international post without declaring formal entry. After the tablet was imported and cleaned, experts in cuneiform recognized it as bearing a portion of the Gilgamesh epic in which the protagonist describes his dreams to his mother. The protagonist’s mother interprets the dreams as foretelling the arrival of a new friend. She tells her son, “You will see him and your heart will laugh.” The names of the hero, Gilgamesh, and the character who becomes his friend, Enkidu, are replaced in this tablet with the names of deities Sin and Ea. The tablet measures approximately 6-inches by 5-inches and is written in the Akkadian language, which was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia.
In 2007, the Antiquities Dealer sold the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet with a false provenance letter that stated the tablet had been among miscellaneous ancient bronze fragments purchased in a 1981 auction. This false letter traveled with the tablet as it was sold several times in different countries, and a later owner provided the letter to the Auction House in London. In 2014, the Auction House sold the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to Hobby Lobby in a private sale and an Auction House employee carried it on a flight from London to the United States and then transferred it to New York. Hobby Lobby consented to the tablet’s forfeiture based on the tablet’s illegal importation into the United States in 2014.
The government’s case was handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Sylvia Shweder and Senior Trial Attorney Ann Brickley of MLARS.
HSI is a directorate of ICE and the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move.
HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 7,100 special agents assigned to 220 cities throughout the United States, and 80 overseas locations in 53 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.