DOJ returns a portion of the “Epic of Gilgamesh” to Iraq

The United States has returned a portion of the “Epic of Gilgamesh” back to the Republic of Iraq, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday. The rare Sumerian poem was illegally transported out of its native country more than a decade ago and is part of an ongoing operation to return thousands of artifacts taken from Iraq and purchased by Hobby Lobby.

“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,” Kenneth A. Polite Jr., assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said in a statement.

In 2003, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was illegally smuggled to the U.S. from London by an antique dealer and cuneiform expert, the DOJ alleged in an amended complaint. Upon arriving to the U.S., the tablet, which is approximately 6-inches by 5-inches, was cleaned and identified as part of the Gilgamesh epic. Written in the ancient extinct language of Akkadian, the tablet includes the portion of the epic when the protagonist describes his dreams to his mother.

The Dream Tablet was then sold several times after initially being sold in 2007 with what the Justice Department claimed was a “false letter of provenance.” It eventually ended up back at an auction house in London, and in 2014, the auction house sold the tablet to Hobby Lobby for $1.6 million. 

In July of 2021, the Department of Justice ordered the forfeiture of Gilgamesh, and Hobby Lobby agreed. 

The arts and craft retailer purchased the tablet and thousands of others similar to it with the objective of displaying some of them in the Museum of the Bible, which Hobby Lobby’s founder helps fund. According to the Justice Department, the Dream Tablet was seized from the museum by law enforcement in 2019. 

On Thursday, a repatriation ceremony was held at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

“Today, Iraq is reclaiming a piece of its cultural history,” special agent-in-charge Peter C. Fitzhugh of the Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations New York said. “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.”