The Founders of Hobby Lobby Are Suing Christie’s for Selling Them an Ancient Artifact That Pretty Much Everyone Now Agrees Was Stolen

The dispute centers on the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, which was taken from Iraq sometime in the 2000s.

The cuneiform tablet known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, which was seized by the U.S. g overnment. Courtesy the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

A bitter three-way legal tangle between Christie’s, the US government, and the family that runs the arts-and-crafts chain-store Hobby Lobby has cast a dark shadow over the antiquities trade.

The finger-pointing began last September, when the government seized an ancient Mesopotamian artifact known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet from the Museum of the Bible, which was founded by the Hobby Lobby family in 2017. The family had purchased the object through Christie’s in a private sale for $1.67 million in 2014.

This week, the government announced that it was moving forward to formally retain the ancient tablet, which was imported illegally from Iraq sometime in the 2000s.

Now the family, through Hobby Lobby, is seeking to get its money back from Christie’s, alleging that the auction house did not do its due diligence in investigating the tablet’s legal status.

“This lawsuit seeks a recovery for our client based upon promises made when the Gilgamesh Tablet was sold in 2014,” Michael McCullough of Pearlstein & McCullough, the firm representing Hobby Lobby, said in a press release.

“We will be joining our lawsuit with the government’s forfeiture action and we are very confident that we will be successful in recovering the purchase price from Christie’s.”

A Hobby Lobby store front. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Falsified Records

Much of the complicated back-and-forth between the three parties hinges on a falsified provenance dossier indicating that the tablet first appeared in the US in 1981, when it supposedly sold at the Butterfield & Butterfield auction house in San Francisco. The provenance also falsely indicated that the tablet had been deaccessioned by a small museum.

But according to the US government, the tablet has an altogether different history. In legal papers, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York says that an unidentified antiquities dealer viewed the tablet in or prior to 2001 in the London home of Jordanian antiquities dealer Ghassan Rihani. Two years later, after acquiring the tablet and a group of other objects for just over $50,000, the unidentified dealer had the entire trove sent to the US illegally.

Then, in 2007, the dealer created the false provenance and bogus auction record, omitting any mention of Rihani, and sold the Gilgamesh tablet to another unidentified party. (Complicating matters further, the tablet was also later published in at least two dealer catalogues, indicating its “clean” provenance and lending further credence to its legal status.)

But while the government makes no claim that Christie’s ever provided this false dossier to Hobby Lobby as proof of the tablet’s good legal standing, the family behind the chain store says otherwise, alleging in its lawsuit against the auction house that the dossier was included with “a specially prepared private sale catalogue.” The family now claims that the auction house engaged in “deceitful and fraudulent conduct.”

Importantly, the government acknowledges that Christie’s had access to the false provenance. District attorneys say that when Christie’s—described only as “a major international auction house” in government court papers—tried to verify the dossier with the consigner prior to the 2014 private sale to the Hobby Lobby family, the tablet’s owner recognized that the provenance “was not verifiable and would not hold up to scrutiny in a public auction.”

The government also says that Christie’s then-head of antiquities told the consigner that the tablet “would not be offered in a public auction, but a private sale,” suggesting that the auction house may have been acting cautiously.

In a statement provided to Artnet News, a Christie’s spokesperson said the Hobby Lobby 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.

“Now that we are informed of this 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. Assertions within the filing that suggest Christie’s had knowledge of the original fraud or illegal importation do not comport with our investigation.”

This is not the first time that the Hobby Lobby family has been embroiled in the looted antiquities trade.

In 2017, US government attorneys filed a civil action against Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc, outlining a years-long, willful pattern of illicitly smuggling Iraqi artifacts into the US despite numerous warnings, interceptions, and large-scale purchases that were “fraught with red flags,” according to the government.

Thousands of smuggled objects were eventually returned to Iraq and Hobby Lobby paid a $3 million fine.

Meanwhile, while legal mattrs are being sorted out, the Gilgamesh tablet is being held in a Department of Homeland Security warehouse in Queens, New York.

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