Federal prosecutors filed a civil complaint on Monday alleging that an ancient cuneiform tablet with a part of the epic Sumerian poem of Gilgamesh written on it was stolen from Iraq and sold to Hobby Lobby with falsified origins. “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,” wrote Richard Donoghue, a U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. The “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet,” which carries a portion of the epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia, is considered one of the earliest works of literature. Since the $1,674,000 artifact was found in Iraq, it is “considered property of the state,” and should be returned to the country since it was not authorized for private possession, the prosecutors allege.
The complaint says that a U.S. antiquities dealer bought the tablet in 2003 from a Middle Eastern dealer named Ghassan Rihani in London and later sold it to two U.S. buyers in 2007 with a “false provenance letter.” The letter did not state that it was purchased from Rihani and instead falsely claimed that it had been inside a “box of miscellaneous ancient bronze fragments” in a 1981 San Francisco auction, the complaint says.