The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. is once again facing criticism for its possession of a stolen artifact.
According to Christianity Today, US Attorney Richard Donoghue of the Eastern District of New York filed a forfeiture claim against the museum on Monday for a six by five-inch clay tablet that was stolen from Iraq.
The tablet, which is known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was sold to arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby – which is owned by the Museum’s owner Steve Green – in 2014 at Christie’s auction house for $1.6 million. Following the purchase, Hobby Lobby donated the tablet to the Museum of the Bible, unaware that the tablet had actually been stolen years prior.
“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," said US Attorney Richard Donoghue.
In a statement, representatives from the Museum of the Bible told Christianity Today that the artifact will be returned to Iraq in compliance with authorities.
Christie’s auction house is also being sued by Hobby Lobby for selling the stolen tablet with falsified claims of its provenance.
Deemed one of the world’s most important pieces of literature, the Gilgamesh epic recounts the story of a king who fights both against and alongside gods on a journey to achieve eternal life.
The ancient story dates back over 4,000 years to the Sumerian civilization of Mesopotamia.
The epic is also known for its similarities to the biblical story of Noah and the flood in the book of Genesis.
The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, which was dated to around 1600 BC, is a portion of the Gilgamesh epic. Discussed in the tablet is a dream that the protagonist, Gilgamesh, had followed by his mother’s interpretation of the dream.
After purchasing the Gilgamesh dream tablet in 2013, Christie’s auction house inquired about the artifact’s provenance, only to find out that it "was not verifiable and would not hold up to scrutiny in a public auction,” the lawsuit claims.
The auction house determined that it would still, however, put the tablet up for private sale.
In 2014, the lawsuit asserts, that the auction house offered the tablet to representatives of the Green Collection and the Museum of the Bible. Hobby Lobby would, in turn, purchase the artifact before donating it to the museum
Then, in 2017, the museum called for an investigation on the tablet’s provenance as part of “due diligence research,” according to the US attorney.
It was discovered that a false letter of provenance, indicating that the tablet was purchased by an antique dealer in 1981 at Butterfield & Butterfield auction house in San Francisco, had been provided.
In actuality, the US attorney noted, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was illegally imported from London into the US in 2003 before being sold again in 2007 with the false provenance.
The tablet would make its way into the auction house several years later before its 2014 purchase by Hobby Lobby.
As Christian Headlines previously reported, The Museum of the Bible had faced criticism in the past few years since its opening in 2017 for its acquisition of potentially stolen artifacts.
In April, the museum had returned over 11,000 artifacts to Iraqi and Egyptian in as it lacked proper documentation and it was possibly stolen beforehand.
Hobby Lobby and Museum of the Bible President Steve Green published an official statement back in March, acknowledging his mistakes over the items.
“I trusted the wrong people to guide me, and unwittingly dealt with unscrupulous dealers in those early years,” said Green on the museum’s website.
“My goal was always to protect, preserve, study, and share cultural property with the world. … If I learn of other items in the collection for which another person or entity has a better claim, I will continue to do the right thing with those items,” he continued.
At the time of this writing, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet is being held at a US Customs and Border Protection facility in Queens, New York.
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Photos.com
Milton Quintanilla is a freelance writer. Visit his blog Blessed Are The Forgiven.