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Stolen old tablet returned to Iraq


WASHINGTON – A 3,500-year-old clay tablet discovered in the ruins of a former Mesopotamian king’s library and then looted from an Iraqi museum 30 years ago has finally returned to Iraq.

The $ 1.7 million wedge-shaped clay tablet was found in 1853 as part of a collection of 12 tablets in the rubble of the library of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal. Authorities believe it was illegally imported into the United States in 2003, then sold to Hobby Lobby and ultimately displayed at the Hobby Lobby Bible Museum in the nation’s capital.

Federal Homeland Security investigators seized the tablet, known as the Gilgamesh Dream tablet, from the museum in September 2019. The Gilgamesh tablet is part of a section of a Sumerian epic poem by Gilgamesh. It is one of the oldest literary works in the world and one of the oldest religious texts.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, NY, began civil forfeiture proceedings that culminated in a repatriation ceremony Thursday at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian with Iraqi officials.

Farreed Yasseen, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, said the looting of the museum in the 1990s hit Iraqis hard.

“The real heart of what happened, however, is that the people, the individuals, did the right thing,” he said. But there is still a long way to go to preserve cultural heritage around the world. “The artifacts are still being stolen, they are being smuggled out.”

Hassan Nadhem, Iraqi Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, spoke of the pride he felt when seeing the returned artifacts.

“Returning Iraqi artifacts, for me, means restoring our self-esteem and our confidence in Iraqi society,” he said, speaking through a translator.

This is part of a growing effort by authorities in the United States and around the world to return stolen antiques to their countries of origin. The black market for these relics is vast, as are criminal networks and smugglers who sell stolen items and tamper with property data.

“By returning these illegally acquired objects, the authorities here in the United States and in Iraq allow the Iraqi people to reconnect with a page of their history,” said Audrey Azoulay, Director General of the United Nations Educational Organization. , science and culture. “This exceptional restitution is a major victory over those who mutilate heritage and then traffic it to finance violence and terrorism.”

Homeland Security Investigations has returned more than 15,000 items in 40 countries, including at least 5,000 artefacts in Iraq since 2008.

Devout Christian owners of Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby have collected artifacts for the Bible Museum on a large scale. Prosecutors said Steve Green, president of the $ 4 billion company, agreed to purchase more than 5,500 artifacts in 2010 for $ 1.6 million as part of a program involving a number of intermediaries and the use of false or misleading invoices, shipping labels and other slip-on documents. artifacts in front of US customs officials.

Prosecutors say Hobby Lobby was warned by its own expert that acquiring antiques in Iraq posed “considerable risk” as many items in circulation are stolen. But Green, who has been collecting antiques since 2009, pleaded his inexperience in trading with merchants in the Middle East.

In 2018, executives agreed to settle the case for $ 3 million and return thousands of items.

Information for this article was provided by Michael Balsamo of The Associated Press.