On The Case

Hobby Lobby, Christie’s and the Epic of Gilgamesh: a new chapter for ancient saga

(Reuters) - The Epic of Gilgamesh, a 3,500-year-old Sumererian tale considered one of the world’s first pieces of literature, has a new chapter in an unlikely location: the U.S. court system.

On Monday, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn filed a civil forfeiture complaint, alleging that a small tablet, recounting in cuneiform a famous scene from the epic Gilgamesh tale, was illegally looted from Iraq and eventually sold to the Hobby Lobby Stores with false assurances about its provenance. The government’s suit didn’t name the auction house that sold the ancient artifact to Hobby Lobby or the auction house official who was allegedly informed that the tablet’s provenance wouldn’t survive the scrutiny of a public auction.

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But on Tuesday, those details were filled in by Hobby Lobby, which purchased the ancient tablet for $1.7 million in 2014 with plans to display it in its Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. The privately-held corporation sued the international auction house Christie’s in federal court in Brooklyn, asserting that Christie’s and the tablet’s previous owner covered up the true story of the artifact’s origins with a concocted version of its history.

Christie’s said in an email statement that the Hobby Lobby suit is based on “new information” from an “unidentified dealer’s admission to government authorities” of illegal actions. “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,” the statement said. “Any suggestion that Christie’s had knowledge of the original fraud or illegal importation is unsubstantiated.” Hobby Lobby also named the tablet’s most recent previous owner as a John Doe defendant.

In combination, the two lawsuits tell the story of a years-long alleged conspiracy to evade the U.S.’s 1990 ban on the import of looted Iraqi cultural and archeological artifacts.

It feels like a luxury, in the midst of the pandemic, to revel in litigation that could be the kernel of a caper movie. But we all need a good distraction!

In 2003, according to the government’s complaint, an unnamed antiquities dealer and cuneiform expert visited a London apartment that belonged to the family of a Jordanian dealer who specialized in artifacts obtained from the Middle East. The antiquities dealer and cuneiform expert viewed several tablets, including some with dense script that appeared to be literary. They eventually bought several pieces for $50,000 and shipped them to the U.S. When the cuneiform expert preserved and cleaned the tablets, he realized that one of them recounted part of the Gilgamesh epic.

In 2007, the antiquities dealer sold the tablet to two buyers who wanted to know its ownership history. According to the government, the unnamed dealer invented a story that made no mention of the Jordanian artifacts trader or the London apartment. Instead, the dealer claimed that the tablet had been sold at a public auction by Butterfield & Butterfield in San Francisco in 1981 – before the U.S. barred the import of Iraqi antiquities. The dealer even cited a lot number from the 1981 auction, which listed miscellaneous bronze fragments, according to the government’s forfeiture complaint.

The tablet gained fame over the next several years. The 2007 buyers, according to the government, consigned it to a rare book dealer, who cited its clean provenance and listed it in his catalogue for $450,000. A translation of the tablet’s cuneiform text was published by a Princeton professor. Neither the government lawsuit nor Hobby Lobby’s complaint details exactly how many times the artifact changed hands before 2013. But sometime in late 2013, the owner identified in the Hobby Lobby complaint as John Doe reached out to Christie’s, asking if the auction house could broker a private deal for the tablet, the government said. (Reminder: The government complaint does not identify Christie’s by name, but its account of the auction house’s involvement jibes with the allegations in the Hobby Lobby complaint against Christie’s.)

The woman who then headed the Christie’s antiquities department, according to Hobby Lobby, called the antiquities dealer who first bought the tablet in 2003 and later allegedly cooked up the story of its sale at a Butterfield’s auction. She said she wanted to confirm the provenance of the artifact. According to the government’s forfeiture suit, the antiquities dealer “responded that the provenance was not verifiable and would not hold up to scrutiny in a public auction.”

That was not what Christie’s allegedly told Hobby Lobby when it pitched a private sale of the tablet in early 2014. Hobby Lobby was building a collection of biblical antiquities for a Bible museum it planned to open. Hobby Lobby asserts in its lawsuit that the private Christie’s catalogue describing the tablet listed only the artifact’s purported sale at the 1981 Butterfield auction and its later sale by the rare books dealer.

Hobby Lobby contends in its lawsuit that when it pressed Christie’s on the tablet’s provenance, it received an email from Christie’s stating that the auction house had spoken with the purchaser from the 1981 Butterfield auction, who confirmed the transaction. “Unfortunately Butterfields no longer have their consignor records so we could not corroborate this further,” the Christie’s email said.

Hobby Lobby alleged that Christie’s deliberately omitted any mention of the antiquities dealer who bought the piece in 2003 and created an impression that the tablet had been in the U.S. long before even the 1981 auction.

Hobby Lobby paid nearly $1.7 million for the tablet in July 2014. A Christie’s representative delivered it in person to the company in Oklahoma City that September. (The government’s complaint notes that Hobby Lobby thus avoided the New York sales tax.)

In 2017, a curator Hobby Lobby hired for the Museum of the Bible started asking questions about the tablet’s previous owners. The curator contacted Christie’s, which had a new head of its antiquities department. The new auction house official, in turn, raised questions about why Christie’s did not tell Hobby Lobby about the antiquities dealer’s ownership of the tablet. (The government’s complaint says the new Christie’s official believed the antiquities dealer had been the purchaser in that 1981 auction.) But according to both Hobby Lobby and the government, the auction house did not admit concerns about the tablet’s history to Hobby Lobby.

Federal agents seized the piece from the Museum of the Bible last September. Hobby Lobby said it learned for the first time that the tablet had likely been stolen from Iraq and illegally imported into the U.S. at a meeting with federal agents in January. It alleged in its suit against Christie’s that the government told Hobby Lobby that Christie’s knew the tablet’s provenance was fraudulent at the time of the $1.7 million sale in 2014.

Christie’s, according to Hobby Lobby, has refused to refund the purchase price. It’s suing for fraud and for violation of New York business law – all over a small piece of very, very old clay with strange writing on it.