Hobby Lobby Ordered by US Courts to Return 'Stolen' $1.6M Ancient Artifact to Iraq

An ancient artifact that the company Hobby Lobby has owned since 2014, will potentially be returned to Iraq after a complaint was filed. According to NPR, in the complaint, it details the clay tablet's journey from a palace library in ancient Mesopotamia to its current location in a Department of Homeland Security warehouse in Queens, New York. The 3,500-year-old piece, known as Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, was purchased for $1.6 million by the franchise to be displayed in the Washington, D.C. Museum of the Bible.

However, now, the artifact is being labeled as "stolen Iraqi property" in the civil complaint that was filed on Monday. It states that an unnamed, major international auction house sold the tablet to Hobby Lobby — whose owners are also the founders of the museum — in 2014. Agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations took the tablet into their possession in 2019. "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," Richard Donoghue, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York stated. "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 2017, Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million for not conducting their due diligence after federal authorities said they were recovering several stolen artifacts that were smuggled from Iraq. Written on the five-by-six inch tablet is a poem that is believed to have been written 4,000 years ago or more. Written in the Akkadian language, it tells the story of a hero describing his dreams to his mom detailing the Great Flood and the Garden of Eden stories from the Old Testament. The small and priceless piece was discovered in the ruins of a palace in Nineveh, in present-day Mosul, Iraq.

The tablet seems to have been passed around more than once before landing the hands of Hobby Lobby. It's believed to have surfaced around 2001 when a U.S. antique's dealer took possession of it, buying it and several other pieces for $50,350. The dealer then sold it to two other buyers and appeared in a catalog for $450,000. With it, they posted a false letter claiming it had been owned by only one person for the last 25 years and that it was acquired at a 1981 San Francisco auction.