US wants to send ancient artifact Hobby Lobby bought for $1.6 million back to Iraq

(CNN) — Federal authorities want a rare, ancient artifact returned to Iraq after it was sold to a US craft store for $1.6 million in an auction.

In 2014, Hobby Lobby, a privately owned arts and crafts retailer whose president is also the chairman of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., bought the clay tablet for display in the museum from an international auction house for $1,674,000, according to a civil complaint filed by federal authorities on Monday. Hobby Lobby is now suing the auction house for fraud and breach of contract.

The tablet is inscribed with a portion of Gilgamesh, an epic poem considered one of the world’s oldest works of literature, written in cuneiform — a system of writing on clay tablets used in ancient Mesopotamia thousands of years ago.

The artifact, known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, “originated in the area of modern-day Iraq and entered the United States contrary to federal law,” according a news release from the Department of Justice.

The tablet was seized from the Museum of the Bible by law enforcement agents in September 2019, according to a release from the Department of Justice. At the time of seizure, no court action was taken. On Monday, the civil complaint was filed seeking to forfeit the artifact to US authorities.

The museum and Hobby Lobby both asked the auction house about the tablet’s origin but the auction house withheld that information and lied in saying that the antiquities dealer had confirmed the details of provenance, according to the DOJ. The department said the museum cooperated with the government’s investigation.

“Whenever looted cultural property is found in this country, the United States government will do all it can to preserve heritage by returning such artifacts where they belong,” US Attorney Richard Donoghue said in an online statement.

“Whenever looted cultural property is found in this country, the United States government will do all it can to preserve heritage by returning such artifacts where they belong,” United States Attorney Richard P. Donoghue said in an online statement.

“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, and withheld from the buyer information that undermined the provenance’s reliability.”

In a statement to CNN Wednesday, Museum of the Bible spokeswoman Charlotte Clay said the museum “supports the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to return this Gilgamesh fragment to Iraq.”

Clay said Christie’s, the international auction house from which Hobby Lobby bought the item, is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by the company on Tuesday.

Hobby Lobby is seeking a refund of the $1,674,000 purchase price and alleging fraud and breach of contract against Christie’s, according to an online release from Pearlstein & McCullough LLP, Hobby Lobby’s law firm.

“Before displaying the item in 2017, we informed the Embassy of Iraq that we had the item in our possession but extensive research would be required to establish provenance,” Clay said in a statement.

“We have continued these private discussions with Iraqi officials. We announced previously that we would be assisting in the return of items to Iraq and Egypt, and we have cooperated with Homeland Security on all of these matters.”

A Christie’s spokesperson told CNN in a statement Wednesday that “this filing is linked to new information that has come to light regarding an unidentified dealer’s admission to government authorities that he illegally imported this item, then falsified documents over a decade ago in order to perpetrate an illegal sale and exploit the legitimate market for ancient art.”

“Now that we are informed of this illicit activity pre-dating Christie’s involvement, we are reviewing all representations made to us by prior owners and will reserve our rights in this matter,” the statement said.

“Any suggestion that Christie’s had knowledge of the original fraud or illegal importation is unsubstantiated.”

3,800 ancient artifacts already returned

According to Monday’s civil complaint, hundreds of thousands of objects are estimated to have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq since the 1990s, including cuneiform tablets.

This isn’t the first case of its kind involving Hobby Lobby.

The company agreed to forfeit thousands of artifacts from Iraq and pay a $3 million fine in 2017 to resolve a civil action the Justice Department brought against it.

In 2018, those 3,800 ancient artifacts, including cuneiform tablets, were returned to Iraq after they were falsely labeled as “tile samples” and illegally smuggled to Hobby Lobby, according to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the DOJ.

So what happens now?

Since the time of the artifact’s seizure, it has been in the custody of Homeland Security in a secure warehouse, according to John Marzulli with the United States Attorney’s Office.

Judge Ann Marie Donnelly, of the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York will rule on the forfeiture, Marzulli said.

If the artifact is forfeited to the US, a division within the Department of Justice will decide where it will be returned.