Christie’s in US lawsuit over looted ancient Mesopotamian artifact

The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet. (US District Court Eastern District of New York)
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Updated 23 May 2020

Christie’s in US lawsuit over looted ancient Mesopotamian artifact

  • Auctioneers ‘withheld information from museum that bought clay tablet’

LONDON: An ancient Mesopotamian artifact at a museum in Washington, DC may have been illegally imported into the US after being stolen from Iraq at the end of the first Gulf War, leading to a lawsuit against one of the world’s biggest auction houses.
The artifact, a small clay cuneiform tablet thought to be around 3,500 years old, contains fragments of text from the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” one of the oldest works of literature in history.
It was confiscated by Homeland Security officers in September 2019 from the Museum of the Bible in Washington, which was co-founded by the president of US arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby, who bought the tablet for the museum.
On Monday, US prosecutors sought to formally take possession of it with a view to repatriating it to Iraq.
The museum said it is cooperating with the authorities and supports efforts to return the tablet.
Hobby Lobby filed a lawsuit against auction house Christie’s on Monday, through which the tablet was purchased, for withholding information about its origins.
The retailer bought the “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet” for $1.67 million in a private sale organized by Christie’s in 2014.
But in 2017, when the curator of the Museum of the Bible raised questions about the tablet’s origins, Christie’s withheld information that “would not withstand scrutiny” and engaged in “deceitful and fraudulent conduct,” according to the lawsuit.
Christie’s has denied wrongdoing, saying any and all illegality surrounding the tablet occurred prior to its involvement in 2014.
Federal prosecutors allege that the tablet was moved to the US illegally after being bought by an antiques dealer in London in 2003, before being sold on to a buyer in the US in 2007 for $50,000.
The US buyer then forged a letter claiming it had been purchased in 1981 at auction in San Francisco so as to circumvent a ban on importing cultural property from Iraq in the wake of the 1990 Gulf War, which saw priceless objects looted from nine of the country’s most important museums. It is thought that the tablet was one such object.
Richard Donoghue, the US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, told reporters on Monday that Christie’s knew the tablet’s origins were suspicious, but “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.”

FASTFACT

Christie’s has denied wrongdoing, saying any and all illegality surrounding the tablet occurred prior to its involvement in 2014.

But Christie’s said any suggestion that it “had knowledge of the original fraud or illegal importation is unsubstantiated.”
The looting of Iraq’s historical treasures is thought to have been so widespread, and involved so many irreplaceable objects, that it is impossible to place a monetary value.
Arab Spring countries, including Egypt, Libya and Syria, have also lost countless priceless items in recent years.
The case is not the first time the Museum of the Bible has been caught up in a scandal surrounding stolen goods.
Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 and forced to return thousands of objects looted from Iraq.
In March 2020, the museum’s chairman, Steve Green, admitted that it possessed over 11,000 other items from Iraq and Egypt that it suspected had been stolen.


At least 16 dead as India airliner crashes on landing

Updated 42 min 54 sec ago

At least 16 dead as India airliner crashes on landing

  • The Air India Express plane from Dubai had 191 passengers and crew on board when it overshot the runway
  • There were 10 infants on board

NEW DELHI: At least 16 people were killed Friday when a passenger jet overshot and skidded off the runway as it landed in southern India, breaking into two pieces, officials said.
Dozens of people were injured, 15 of them seriously, after the Air India Express Boeing 737 originating from Dubai touched down in Kozhikode in heavy rain.
The airline said more than 190 passengers and crew were on board the plane that, according to the aviation ministry, plunged 10 meters (35 feet) down a slope off the end of the raised so-called table-top runway.
Television footage showed the fuselage of the jet ripped apart and surrounded by emergency personnel working in the dark, spraying the wreckage with water although there was no sign of any fire.
Sakeen K., the district medical officer in the nearby city of Malappuram, said that 16 people had died.
“We are still ascertaining the toll,” she told AFP.
Kozhikode official Seeram Sambasiva said that the two pilots were among the dead.
Senior local policeman Abdul Karim told AFP said that another 15 passengers “have critical injuries. It is still a developing situation.”
“We have at least 89 people, many of them with serious injuries, admitted at different Kozhikode hospitals. The ambulances are still coming in,” said Sujith Das, another senior police official.
“We have been told that all those who have survived the crash also have some form of injuries.”
Aviation regulator DGCA said the plane skidded off the end of the runway and “fell down in the valley and broke down in two pieces.”
Four people were still stuck inside the plane. media reports said.
One television channel reported there had been a problem with the jet’s landing gear.
Air India Express said in a statement that there was “no fire reported at the time of landing.”
It said there were 174 passengers, 10 infants, two pilots and five cabin crew on board the aircraft.
The plane was one of dozens in recent weeks to repatriate some of the thousands of Indians left stranded abroad by the coronavirus pandemic, many of them in Gulf countries.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his condolences.
“My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones. May the injured recover at the earliest... Authorities are at the spot, providing all assistance to the affected,” Modi said.
The last major plane crash in India was in 2010 when an Air India Express Boeing 737-800 from Dubai to Mangalore overshot the runway and burst into flames.
The crash killed 158 people and left eight survivors.
Kerala has been battered by heavy rains in recent days.
At least 15 people were killed on Friday after a landslide triggered by heavy rains flattened a row of huts elsewhere in the state.
Around 50 other people were feared trapped in the debris. The dead included two children.