Today the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York announced the filing of a civil forfeiture action against a cuneiform tablet which was most recently purchased by the Museum of the Bible. The Government’s allegations show a familiar pattern: fake the history of an object, have the object published in a scientific publication, earn the endorsement of a prominent expert, and conduct the sale in secret. The complaint is docketed at Civ. No. 20-2222. Here are some of the best allegations from the government’s complaint, available here.
First off, the Government rightly points out the scourge of looting in Iraq, and the discovery of the epic of Gilgamesh in 1853:
This tablet was seized from the Museum of the Bible in September, and is storing the tablet at at U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Queens, which may help explain why the EDNY U.S. Attorney’s office has filed this action and not another office. It may also be because this office is one which has good track record of successful civil forfeiture actions.
HSI Special Agent-in-Charge Peter Fitzhugh stated in the press release:
“We are proud of our investigation that led to this reclaiming of a piece of Iraq’s cultural history. This rare tablet was pillaged from Iraq and years later sold at a major auction house, with a questionable and unsupported provenance, HSI New York’s Cultural Property, Arts and Antiquity Investigations program will continue to work with prosecutors to combat the looting of antiquities and ensure those who would attempt to profit from this crime are held accountable.”
The laws at issue here are parts of the Customs laws and the National Stolen Property Act:
One interesting aspect here, and I’m not sure what the appetite for the Museum of the Bible will be to defend this action in court given the absolute devastating series of seizures, investigations and scandals, but they may have some legal defenses due to the difficulty in tracing an illicit antiquity to its point of origin. Federal law still hinges in many ways on pinning a specific time and place for a criminal act involving a piece of cultural heritage, whether that act is looting from context, theft, smuggling, etc. The government will have to show I think that this tablet did originate in Iraq after an applicable Iraqi heritage or patrimony law. Of course if the Museum of the Bible wants to do the right thing and just let this object be returned, those legal arguments are moot. But the complaint does I think leave open the specific origin for the fragment, and when. A very typical problem with illicit objects like this one.
The best argument the government laid out in the complaint is that the Museum of the Bible and the Auction House engaged in some really clumsy post-sale due diligence which only made the problems worse, and acknowledge Iraq as the origin:
The forfeiture here alleges some serious fraud and wrongdoing by a prominent new museum, the Museum of the Bible; but also dealers, antiquities experts, and prominent auctioneers.
United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Richard P. Donoghue also stated in the release:
“Whenever looted cultural property is found in this country, the United States government will do all it can to preserve heritage by returning such artifacts where they belong, 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.
The forfeiture action is a very powerful and useful remedy to police specific objects, but it really may not do all that much long-term to disincentivize actors from doing this kind of thing in the future. A forfeiture every now and then is just the cost of doing business.
United States Files Civil Action to Forfeit Rare Cuneiform Tablet Bearing Portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh (May 18, 2020), https://www.justice.gov/usao-edny/pr/united-states-files-civil-action-forfeit-rare-cuneiform-tablet-bearing-portion-epic.