The Museum of the Bible in the nation’s capital is once again under fire for possession of a stolen artifact. A federal government prosecutor filed a claim against the museum that a six-by-five-inch clay tablet was stolen from Iraq at the turn of the 21st century.
Hobby Lobby owner Steve Green purchased the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet in 2014 at Christie’s auction house for $1.6 million. He then donated the artifact to the Museum of the Bible — a business also owned by Green. However, he had no idea the artifact had a secret. It had been previously stolen from Iraq.
US Attorney Richard Donoghue submitted a forfeiture claim against the museum Monday. Although Hobby Lobby legally purchased the artifact, the papers documenting the item’s purchase history were falsified.
“In this case, a major auction house failed to meet its obligations by minimizing its concerns that the provenance of an important Iraqi artifact was fabricated. It withheld from the buyer information that undermined the provenance’s reliability,” said Donoghue.
Representatives from the Museum of the Bible vowed it would return the artifact to Iraq. Hobby Lobby also announced it would be suing Christie’s auction house for selling the tablet with inaccurate claims of its provenance.
The Gilgamesh epic recounts the story of a king that fights against and alongside gods as he seeks life everlasting. Historians consider it one of the most important pieces of literature.
The story dates back to the Sumerian civilization of Mesopotamia. It shares many similarities with the biblical story of Noah and the flood in the book of Genesis.
The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, dated around 1600 B.C., is a portion of the epic. It depicts a dream Gilgamesh had and the interpretation provided by his mother.
Christie’s auction house purchased the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet in 2013. After inquiring about the item’s provenance, the auction house learned it “was not verifiable and would not hold up to scrutiny in a public auction,” according to the lawsuit.
Despite full knowledge of the artifact’s falsified provenance, the auction house listed the tablet for private sale. One year later, Hobby Lobby purchased the tablet and donated it to the Museum of the Bible.
As part of “due diligence research” in 2017, attorneys from the museum called for an investigation of the tablet’s provenance. The attorneys discovered that the auction house’s letter of provenance was false. It indicated that an antique dealer purchased the tablet in 1981.
An unnamed antiquities dealer brought the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet into the U.S. illegally from London in 2003. They sold it four years later with the false provenance.