An­cient Assyr­ian sculp­ture up for sale at Christie’s – but should it ever have left Iraq?

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - ROB CRILLY New York MINA ALDROUBI Con­tin­ued on page 3

A 3,000-year-old Iraqi arte­fact goes on sale at Christie’s auc­tion house in New York this week, where it is ex­pected to fetch more than $10 mil­lion (Dh36.72m) for its Amer­i­can own­ers. The Iraqi govern­ment, how­ever, has de­manded a halt to the sale of the two-me­tre frieze taken from an an­cient Assyr­ian palace.

The carv­ing of the “winged ge­nius” is billed as the most ex­quis­ite piece of Assyr­ian art to reach the mar­ket in decades and is the cen­tre­piece of Christie’s an­tiq­ui­ties sale.

How­ever, demon­stra­tors are plan­ning to con­gre­gate out­side the sale room to de­mand its re­turn.

It was ex­ca­vated in the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury from the ru­ins of the North-west Palace in Nim­rud, in what is present-day Iraq.

Iraq’s min­istry of cul­ture said of­fi­cials had con­tacted In­ter­pol and Unesco, the United Na­tions cul­tural or­gan­i­sa­tion, to stop the sale and repa­tri­ate the an­cient arte­fact.

“We call on all Iraqi and in­ter­na­tional of­fi­cials, civil so­ci­ety and the me­dia to take a se­ri­ous stand in pres­sur­ing the Amer­i­cans in stop­ping this process, it is a con­tin­u­a­tion of the de­struc­tion of Iraq’s cul­tural her­itage,” the spokesman said.

Steps had been taken to prove that the arte­fact came from the an­cient city of Nim­rud, he said.

Christie’s es­ti­mate val­ues the gyp­sum carv­ing of a god-like fig­ure at as much as $15m. That would set a world record for the sale of an Assyr­ian art­work, which cur­rently stands at a lit­tle un­der $12m.

The case is the lat­est con­tro­versy to hit the US an­tiq­ui­ties mar­ket. Deal­ers, auc­tion­eers and mu­se­ums have all had

In that time Iraq was un­der oc­cu­pa­tion. This is not just the her­itage of Iraq. This is the her­itage of mankind JAB­BAR JAA­FAR Ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Voices for Iraq

items con­fis­cated. This year thou­sands of an­cient arte­facts looted from what is be­lieved to be a lost Sume­rian city were sent back to Iraq af­ter be­ing smug­gled into the US as “ce­ramic tiles”.

And last year, pros­e­cu­tors seized a plun­dered Per­sian arte­fact val­ued at $1.2m from a Bri­tish dealer at an art fair in New York, a Ro­man mar­ble torso of Cupid from Christie’s be­fore it was to be auc­tioned, and a 2,300-year-old bull’s head sculp­ture from the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art.

The rise of ISIS and the mod­ern plun­der of mu­se­ums and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites flooded the black mar­ket with stolen arte­facts.

How­ever, the Christie’s piece left the re­gion more than 150 years ago when mod­ern-day Iraq was part of the Ot­toman Em­pire.

A spokes­woman for the auc­tion house said the re­lief was ex­ca­vated with per­mis­sion from the Grand Vizier of the Ot­toman Em­pire.

“While Christie’s is sen­si­tive to claims for resti­tu­tion by source coun­tries of cul­tural prop­erty, there is a long-stand­ing and le­git­i­mate mar­ket for the works of art of the an­cient world that have been col­lected for cen­turies and have had a pro­found ef­fect on the de­vel­op­ment of western cul­ture,” she said.

“That is clearly the case for this re­lief, and that is why Christie’s feels the sale of this piece is le­git­i­mate and safe.”

Jab­bar Jaa­far, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Voices for Iraq, said the ex­pla­na­tion was not good enough.

“In that time Iraq was un­der oc­cu­pa­tion,” he said.

Mr Jaa­far called for sup­port­ers to protest out­side Christie’s to­day.

“This is not just the her­itage of Iraq. This is the her­itage of mankind,” he said.

The carv­ing was com­mis­sioned by Assyr­ian King Ashur­nasir­pal II whose realm spanned parts of mod­ern-day Iraq and Syria from 883 to 859BC. His palace was one of the largest in an­tiq­uity.

The ru­ins at Nim­rud were ex­ca­vated by a Bri­tish ar­chae­ol­o­gist Sir Austen Henry La­yard in the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury. Many of his finds made their way to Lon­don, where they are now on dis­play in the Bri­tish Mu­seum.

But the pieces were also of in­tense in­ter­est to mis­sion­ar­ies, who had read of the an­cient Assyr­ian em­pire in the Old Tes­ta­ment. The dis­cov­ery of Assyr­ian trea­sures was taken as proof that the Bi­ble was a work of his­tory rather than fic­tion.

Three pieces carved in gyp­sum were sold for $75 (in­clud­ing ship­ping to the US) to an Amer­i­can mis­sion­ary and even­tu­ally ended up in a sem­i­nary near Wash­ing­ton, which pro­vides post­grad­u­ate ed­u­ca­tion to clergy of the Epis­co­pal Church.

They were dis­played in the li­brary of the Vir­ginia The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, un­til a rou­tine au­dit re­vealed the true value of the carv­ings, send­ing in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums spi­ralling to $70,000 a year.

Christie’s said the sale would help to pre­serve the re­main­ing two re­liefs and fund a schol­ar­ship.

The re­lief shows an Ak­pallu, or demi-god, with finely feath­ered wings and a horned head­dress. He holds a bucket and a cone to rep­re­sent fer­til­ity and pro­tec­tion for the king.

Max Bern­heimer, in­ter­na­tional head of an­tiq­ui­ties at Christie’s in New York, said the scale of the carv­ing was in keep­ing with the mon­u­men­tal size of the palace at Nim­rud.

“These huge slabs of gyp­sum, sculpted in re­lief, were de­signed to im­press and over­whelm,” he said.

“Ev­ery as­pect was re­lated to the strength and power of the king.”

Christie’s

The gyp­sum carv­ing of an Ak­pallu demi-god dates from the reign of Assyr­ian King Ashur­nasir­pal II (883-859BC)

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