Venerable London-based auction house Christie’s is the target of an ongoing lawsuit brought by Hobby Lobby, which alleges that the auction house knowingly sold the arts and crafts chain a 3,500-year-old “Epic of Gilgamesh” tablet that had been smuggled out of Iraq and, as a result, was seized by the feds earlier this week.
Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby is accusing Christie’s of fraud and seeking to recover the $1,674,000 it paid for the tablet.
The tablet, which bears the text of one of the world’s oldest works of literature, came from the area of modern-day Iraq and was illegally shipped to the US in 2003, the Department of Justice alleged this week.
It exchanged hands a number of times with a “false letter of provenance” as part of a years-long alleged conspiracy to evade the US’s 1990 ban on the import of looted Iraqi cultural and archaeological artifacts, according to the DOJ.
Then Hobby Lobby purchased it at a Christie’s auction with the purpose of displaying it at the Washington, DC-based Museum of the Bible, which is funded by the family of the arts and crafts chain’s founder, David Green.
“The museum was informed in 2019 of the illegal importation of this item by the auction house and previous owners,” a spokeswoman for the museum said. “Since then, we have supported the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to return this Gilgamesh fragment to Iraq.”
In its lawsuit, which was filed last year, Hobby Lobby alleged that Christie’s knew the tablet’s origin story was fake at the time of the sale in 2014.
Christie’s, according to Hobby Lobby, has refused to refund the purchase price.
Representatives for the auction house did not return The Post’s request for comment.
Taken together, the government filings about the ancient Sumerian tablet and Hobby Lobby’s suit against Christie’s paint the picture of a dramatic plot to profit off looted cultural art.
In 2003, according to the DOJ, an unnamed antiquities dealer and cuneiform expert visited a London apartment that belonged to the family of a Jordanian dealer.
The unnamed antiquities dealer bought several pieces for $50,000 and shipped them to the US and, after cleaning the tablets, realized that one of them included a part of the “Epic of Gilgamesh.”
Four years later, the antiquities dealer sold the tablet to two buyers who wanted to know where the relic came from.
The unnamed dealer allegedly invented a story that claimed the tablet had been sold at auction by Butterfield & Butterfield in San Francisco in 1981, before the US barred the import of Iraqi antiquities, the DOJ alleges.
It’s unclear how many times the tablet, which was becoming increasingly famous among collectors in the West, was purchased and resold before 2013, when Joseph David Hackmey, an Israeli businessman and art collector, asked Christie’s to broker a private deal for the tablet, according to Hobby Lobby’s suit.
Notably, the DOJ does not identify Christie’s at any point as the relevant auction house in its complaint, but the allegations against the unnamed auction house in the government’s suit match those made against Christie’s in Hobby Lobby’s.
When Christie’s tried to verify the origins of the tablet, the dealer who first bought the tablet in 2003 and allegedly cooked up its fake import story told Christie’s that “the provenance was not verifiable and would not hold up to scrutiny in a public auction.”
But Hobby Lobby said in its lawsuit that Christie’s advertised the tablet’s origins as legitimate.
Hobby Lobby’s suit asserts that it even pressed the auction house on the origins of the tablet, and Christie’s allegedly insisted that it 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,” Christie’s allegedly told Hobby Lobby in an email.
A few years after the sale, a curator Hobby Lobby hired for the Museum of the Bible started asking questions again about the tablet’s origins.
The curator contacted Christie’s, which by then had hired a new head of its antiquities department, who questioned why the auction house had not told Hobby Lobby about the tablet’s previous owners, according to the government’s recounting.
But Christie’s allegedly did not raise any concerns about the tablet’s true origins with Hobby Lobby. It wasn’t until January 2020 at a meeting with federal agents that Hobby Lobby learned that the tablet had likely been stolen from Iraq and illegally imported into the US.
With Post wires