In 2014, Hobby Lobby purchased a tablet containing an excerpt from the Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the oldest epic work of literature in Western Civilization. The tablet is 3500-years old, and Hobby Lobby won the tablet in a Christie’s auction, paying $1.6 million for it. Hobby Lobby displayed the tablet in its Museum of the Bible, which houses a number of rare and ancient artifacts.
Now, Hobby Lobby has forfeited the tablet to the US Department of Justice due to it shady provenance. It seems that the original seller falsified a letter of provenance to show that the tablet had entered the United States before laws against importing rare artifacts were enacted.
To make matters worse, Christie’s apparently knew that the letter was questionable, but withheld that information.
Unfortunately, that means Hobby Lobby took one on the chin financially. I’m not sure what the fate of the original smuggler is, but I imagine he’s long gone and living the sweet life.
The bigger question, though, is what should be done with such artifacts? Current US policy seems to be to return them to their country of origin. While that might seem to the be simplest policy, is it really best for the preservation of the artifacts—and our cultural heritage?
The Gilgamesh tablet originated in Iraq, and is being returned to the country. It wasn’t that long ago that ISIS was destroying ancient masterpieces from non-Islamic cultures in that neck of the desert. The Iraqi government itself is a flimsy attempt at planting a parliamentary democracy in a part of the world that has been at war and under autocratic rule since… well, since the Epic of Gilgamesh was first set in cuneiform to clay tablets.
The situation is akin to the debate over Britain returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece, and for all its turmoil, Greece is practically Sweden (pre-Islamic invasion) in terms of stability and good governance when compared to Iraq. The British Museum has housed the Marbles safely for years, preserving and maintaining them for the world to enjoy. Lord Elgin took possession of the Marbles when the Ottoman Empire controlled Greece, but that’s not his fault.
If Greece is the basket case of southeastern Europe, than what is Iraq? How likely is the Gilgamesh fragment likely to survive in a nation that, at any moment, could be torn asunder by terrorist clans, Iran, or both?
I’m not advocating that Westerners go around plundering ancient tombs and temples to come home with major loot. But the damage from when Westerners did do that stuff—mind you, often in the name of cultural preservation and historic study—has already been done—if it can even be called “damage.” Returning priceless, fragile artifacts to unstable countries of origin just risks the survival of the artifacts, while symbolically throwing a sop to the hand-wringers who still think “imperialism” in the nineteenth-century sense is a problem.
Granted, if I were Greek or Iraqi, I’d probably feel differently, but where do we draw the line? Suppose an ancestor of mine purchased some valuable Japanese artifact from the Tokugawa period, and the artifact came into my possession. Am I obligated to return that item to the government of Japan simply because, in the intervening years, its status has elevated from “antique” to “artifact”?
There are shades and nuance here, but that’s even more reason to avoid a policy that dictates always returning the item in question to its country of origin (which, in the case of the tablet, would technically be Sumeria, which no longer exists as a state). Instead, treat these situation on a case-by-case basis.
For the Iraqis, the strongest argument is that the tablet was illegally removed from the country. On those grounds, I can understand why the United States government would want to return the tablet to Iraq. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but it is a fairer deal than the Brits returning the Marbles to Greece.
Nevertheless, protecting history is probably worth hurting a few Iraqis’ feelings.