US prosecutors are seeking to confiscate a rare antique painting from the Washington Bible Museum, co-founded by the head of retailer Hobby Lobby.
The antique is 3,500 years old, and its origin dates from what is now Iraq, and it contains a text from the epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest literary works in the world.
The prosecution says that an auction house deliberately withheld information related to the plate source.
The Hobby Lobby group said it was cooperating with government investigations.
The group had bought the plaque from an auction house during a 2014 private sale session for $ 1.67 million (equivalent to 1.36 million pounds) to display at the Bible Museum in Washington, USA.
The New York District Prosecutor’s Office says the plank illegally entered US territory.
The prosecution did not mention the name of the auction house in its public statement, but the “Hobby Lobby” group on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against “Christie” the auction house.
In a statement, Christie said the lawsuit related to an alleged unlawful behavior that “precedes Christie’s involvement” in the acquisition of the artifact.
She added, “Any hint that Christie was aware of the original fraud or illegal import is baseless.”
The artifact known as “Gilgamesh Dream Bar” includes parts of a Sumerian poem from epic stories of the Old Testament, such as the Garden of Eden.
According to a civil lawsuit filed by US prosecutors on Monday, an antiques dealer originally bought the plank in 2003 in London.
In 2007 the merchant sold the tablet to another buyer for $ 50,000, and the sale included a false document alleging the piece was auctioned in the United States in 1981.
The tablet was sold to the Hobby Lobby group in 2014.
Prosecutors said that after three years, the curator asked for clarification about the source of the plank, and alleged that the auction house had withheld information about its origins, including the false letter that it knew was “not an argument in the investigation.”
It is not clear if the museum informed the authorities about the case.
The tablet was seized from the museum in September last year, and the legal move came on Monday as a formal attempt to confiscate.
The Iraqi Ministry of Antiquities told the American Broadcasting Corporation, “NPR,” it seeks to know whether the plaque is among the thousands of artifacts stolen from its museums in 1991.
At least nine regional museums out of a total of 13 museums in the country were looted that year when former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime lost control of certain areas of the country, shortly after its invasion of Kuwait.
The civil suit comes after the “Hobby Lobby” group was fined an amount of three million dollars, and forcing it to hand over thousands of artefacts smuggled from Iraq, which it bought for the Bible Museum.
Last March, Steve Green, the museum’s board chairman, revealed that he had detected another 5,000 papyrus artifacts and 6,500 pieces of pottery in the museum’s collection, which are not entirely known.
He said the artifacts would be returned to Egypt and Iraq.