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Hobby Lobby accuses Christie's of selling ancient artifact fraudulently

The cuneiform tablet in question tells the Epic of Gilgamesh. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of New York
The cuneiform tablet in question tells the Epic of Gilgamesh. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of New York

May 19 (UPI) -- Hobby Lobby sued Christie's on Tuesday, accusing the auction house of selling it an ancient artifact that had been looted.

The lawsuit comes one day after U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of New York seized the cuneiform tablet from where it was housed at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.

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Hobby Lobby said Christie's told the company the sale of the cuneiform tablet, which features the Epic of Gilgamesh, was legal. The auction house allegedly said the tablet had been sold by San Francisco firm Butterfield & Butterfield in 1981, meaning it had ownership in the United States prior to a federal ban on cultural imports from Iraq in the 1990s.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said a provenance letter proving the tablet was sold in 1981 was false.

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"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," said Richard Donoghue, U.S. attorney for the eastern district of New York.

Christie's denied having knowledge that the item's sale was illegal.

"This filing 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," a spokesperson said in an email to UPI.

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"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. Any suggestion that Christie's had knowledge of the original fraud or illegal importation is unsubstantiated."

Hobby Lobby purchased the cuneiform tablet with plans for it to go on display at the Museum of the Bible, partly funded by the Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby. The museum opened in 2017 under the shadow of a separate case in which Hobby Lobby agreed to return more than 100 historic artifacts from modern-day Iraq that company President Steve Green purchased in Dubai.

In the lawsuit, Hobby Lobby said it wants the $1.6 million it spent on the tablet back as well as interest on the money since 2014 and attorney's fees.

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In addition to Christie's, the lawsuit names the anonymous seller of the cuneiform tablet -- identified as "John Doe" -- as a defendant.

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