Old tablet acquired by Hobby Lobby returning to Iraq

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WASHINGTON (AP) – A 3,500-year-old clay tablet discovered in the ruins of a former Mesopotamian king’s library and then looted from an Iraqi museum 30 years ago has finally returned to Iraq.

The $ 1.7 million wedge-shaped clay tablet was found in 1853 as part of a collection of 12 tablets in the rubble of the library of Assyrian King Ashur Banipal. Authorities believe it was illegally imported into the United States in 2003, then sold to Hobby Lobby and ultimately displayed in its Bible Museum in the nation’s capital.

Federal agents from Homeland Security Investigations seized 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.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, New York, began civil forfeiture proceedings that culminated in a repatriation ceremony Thursday at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian with Iraqi officials.

Farreed Yasseen, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, said the looting of the museum in the 1990s hit Iraqis hard.

“The real heart of what happened, however, is that the people, the individuals, did the right thing,” he said. But there is still a long way to go to preserve cultural heritage around the world. “The artifacts are still stolen, they are smuggled out. “

Hassan Nadhem, Iraqi Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, spoke of the pride he felt when seeing the returned artifacts.

“Returning Iraqi artifacts means for me to restore our self-esteem and our confidence in Iraqi society,” he said, speaking through a translator.

This is part of a growing effort by authorities in the United States and around the world to return stolen antiques to their countries of origin. In years past, such items would probably never have returned. The black market for these relics is vast, as are criminal networks and smugglers who sell stolen items and tamper with property data.

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

For the acting head of Homeland Security Investigations, who found and investigated the origins of the tablet, repatriation is personal. Steve Francis’ parents were born in Iraq, part of a small sect known as Chaldean Iraqis who are Christians, and he was assigned to a US Customs unit in 2003 that was sent to Iraq to help to protect looted artifacts.

“It’s really special to me. I am a Chaldean Iraqi and I run the agency that did this work, ”said Francis. “It really is something.”

Authorities are also repatriating a sculpture of a Sumerian ram that was seized in another 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, then part of a collection discovered years earlier. The Homeland Security Investigations teams, curious about the size of the collection, searched for it and discovered that the ram was not among the items listed. The dealer ended up confessing.

Homeland Security Investigations has returned more than 15,000 items in 40 countries, including at least 5,000 artifacts to Iraq since 2008. Most cases have come from the agency’s New York office, where a team of officers is investigating on trafficking in cultural property and stolen objects, which included other tablets and clay seals.

Devout Christian owners of Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby have collected artifacts for the Bible Museum on a large scale. Prosecutors said Steve Green, president of the $ 4 billion company, agreed to buy more than 5,500 artifacts in 2010 for $ 1.6 million in a scheme involving a number of intermediaries and the use of false or misleading invoices, shipping labels and other slip-on documents. artifacts in front of US customs officials.

Prosecutors say Hobby Lobby was warned by its own expert that acquiring antiques in Iraq posed “considerable risk” as many items in circulation are stolen. But Green, who has been collecting antiques since 2009, pleaded naivety by doing business with merchants in the Middle East.

In 2018, executives agreed to settle the case for $ 3 million and return thousands of items. New York-based lead agent John Labbatt said Homeland Security was repatriating items from the case in 2018 when it was also made aware of the contraband tablet.

But getting it back was not easy. Officers had to prove that it had been acquired wrongly.

Labbatt looked into the records and followed the tablet from London to the United States in 2003. It had been purchased by a couple who admitted they knew about it when they were buying it from someone who may not have been above the bar, he said. They sent it to the United States on their own, so it didn’t go through customs.

A fake letter of provenance was used to sell the tablet on several occasions before Hobby Lobby bought it from a London-based auction house in 2014.

By that time, the statute of limitations had passed to indict the couple with all the crimes.

“But at the end of the day, the most important part is putting it back in its place,” Labbatt said. “And that’s what we do.”

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