Arts-and-craft retailer Hobby Lobby, led by billionaire evangelical Steve Green, has filed a lawsuit against renowned British auction house Christie’s for deceiving the company about the legality of the sale of a rare cuneiform tablet it acquired for display in the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.
The rare cuneiform tablet, which bears a portion of an epic Sumerian poem known as the “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet,” is now the center of forfeiture proceedings started Monday in New York by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations office. Authorities argue in a civil complaint that the poem, which is considered one the world’s oldest works of literature and originated in the area of modern-day Iraq, was unlawfully acquired by The Museum of the Bible, which is chaired by Green.
In their lawsuit filed on Tuesday, Hobby Lobby argues that Christie’s and a dealer identified as “John Doe” deceived the company about the legality of the sale of the tablet and is seeking the return of the $1,694,000 it spent to acquire it in 2014 along with interest and attorney fees, the Daily Beast reported.
The Museum of the Bible confirmed the lawsuit in a statement to The Christian Post Tuesday and noted that they have been cooperating with federal authorities to ensure the artifact is returned.
“We support the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to return this Gilgamesh fragment to Iraq. Christie’s, the source of the item, is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by Hobby Lobby, which loaned the item to us,” the museum, which opened in 2017, stated.
“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. 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.”
The 254-year-old Christie’s has denied the allegation by Hobby Lobby that the auction house "intentionally left Hobby Lobby with the erroneous impression" that the tablet had been legally brought into the U.S. in 1981, when, in actuality, it had been illegally imported to the U.S. in 2003.
A Christie's spokesperson told Fox Business that Hobby Lobby’s lawsuit "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."
The spokesperson said the auction house was unaware of the fraud prior to getting involved with the sale of the tablet.
"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," Christie’s said. "Any suggestion that Christie's had knowledge of the original fraud or illegal importation is unsubstantiated."
Authorities explained that in 2003, a U.S. antiquities dealer purchased an encrusted cuneiform tablet from a Middle Eastern antiquities dealer in London. Experts in cuneiform later recognized the tablet as a portion of the Gilgamesh epic after it was imported and cleaned.
In the epic, the protagonist describes his dreams to his mother and she interprets the dreams as foretelling the arrival of a new friend. She tells her son, “You will see him and your heart will laugh,” authorities noted.
The antiquities dealer later sold the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet with a false provenance letter in 2007, stating that the tablet had been inside a box of miscellaneous bronze fragments purchased in a 1981 auction. The false provenance letter traveled with the tablet and was provided to the auction house by a later owner. The auction house’s antiquities director spoke with the antiquities dealer as part of their due diligence and the dealer informed the auction house that the provenance would not withstand scrutiny and should not be used in connection with a public sale.
The auction house went against that advice, however, and told Hobby Lobby, which purchased the tablet in a private sale in 2014, that it had been acquired at an auction in 1981, according to Homeland Security.
When Hobby Lobby asked for more details in connection with the purchase and the museum expressed discomfort with the provenance in 2017, the auction house told them that the antiquities dealer had confirmed the details of the provenance. The auction house did not share the false provenance letter and the antiquities dealer’s name with Hobby Lobby and the Museum.
The Museum of the Bible would later cooperate with authorities in investigating the origins of the tablet.
“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 P. Donoghue, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement Monday. “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.”