The Department of Justice Has Seized a Stolen Portion of ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ From Hobby Lobby

Of the many strange things about living in the United States in 2021, few are stranger than Hobby Lobby’s role as a major player in the international market for objects from antiquity — a market rife with crime, fraud and corruption. This has led to several very high profile run-ins between the law and the Green family, the billionaire evangelical Christian owners of Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. And now, there’s a new, very high profile run-in involving no less an archeological prize than the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Brooklyn prosecutors have ordered Hobby Lobby to forfeit the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a cuneiform piece containing a portion of one of the oldest religious texts in the world, The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Green family has had the tablet in their possession since 2014, when they purchased the five-by-six inch tablet for $1.6 million from an art dealer who claimed the piece had been purchased legally as part of an auction in 1981. Prosecutors now believe that dealer had either been lying or lied to and that the Akkadian tablet, which is around 3,5000 years old, was looted from Iraq in the early 1990s.

That would be a violation of the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act, a 2004 statute that banned the importation of cultural artifacts taken from Iraq after 2004. The U.S. invasion of Iraq led to a flood of looted artifacts on the market, and the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities has been struggling to find the antiquities ever since.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh was a plumb get for the Museum of the Bible, since the Epic of Gilgamesh has held a lot of interest for Christians since it was first discovered in 1853. The poem tells the story of an ancient hero (who was likely a real-life Sumerian king) and his many contests with the ancient gods. Christian archeologists are especially intrigued by the poem’s depiction of an ancient, global flood — a flood that has a lot of resemblance to Noah’s adventures in the Book of Genesis.

But it’s a lot easier to get your hands on major archeological finds for your new museum when you choose to ignore the advice of experts, which is what the Green family did in the early days of the Museum of the Bible acquisitions, as described in Candida Moss and Joel Baden’s Bible Nation. The Green family were swindled by several con men trafficking illegally gotten goods and counterfeit objects, which has led to forfeitures. In 2017, the Greens had to settle with the United States Attorney’s office in Brooklyn to the tune of $3 million, to say nothing of returning 11,000 pieces from their collection to Iraq and Egypt. Since that time, the Greens say they’ve learned a lot more about the business.

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