At a Christie’s antiquities auction on October 30, while an exceedingly rare Assyrian relief sold for $31 million, decolonization protesters demonstrated outside. The sale more than tripled the artifact’s initial estimate of $10 million, attracting the attention of experts and activists who say the auction is an insult to the Iraqi people who have already suffered a long history of violence sustained by Western imperialism.
The work is one of three carved gypsum slabs sold to an American missionary, who gave them to the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1859. According to a Christie’s press release, the 7-foot-tall relief on the auction block once adorned the walls of the massive Northwest Palace commissioned by King Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BCE) at Nimrud in modern-day Iraq. The royal palace was one of the largest in antiquity, reflecting Ashurnasirpal’s status as the most powerful ruler of one of the largest empires in history, spanning much of Mesopotamia and beyond.
The frieze was initially acquired in Mosul, Iraq in 1859 by an American missionary named Dr. Henri Byron Haskell, from the English archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard, who had unearthed the royal palace at Nimrud. Haskell also sent five other examples to Bowdoin College in Maine, and another which is now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Other institutions and approximately 60 museums around the world contain reliefs from Ashurnasirpal’s palace, including the British Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery.
Advocates of Iraqi sovereignty have consistently called for museums to return objects they consider tantamount to their nation’s cultural heritage. The reluctance of these museums to negotiate restitution mirrors Greece’s longtime feud with the United Kingdom over the British Museum’s ownership of the Elgin Marbles from the Athenian Parthenon.
Two members of the Iraqi Transnational Collective quietly protested the Christie’s antiquities auction, saying online that the sale of “an Assyrian artifact in a New York City art auction is another way to sustain, reproduce and support a long history of western colonial plunder, looting and stealing epitomized by the US-led invasion of Iraq. Cultural heritage is not a commodity.”
Another anti-colonial protest group, called Decolonize This Place, supported the collective’s actions and reposted their statement on Instagram.
The Ashurnasirpal relief depicts a Winged Genius, a deity also known as an Apkallu, holding a bucket and a cone-shaped object, signifying fertility and protection for the king. The Apkallu has feathered wings and wears elaborately detailed robes, a horned headdress, an earring, a necklace, and armlets, and has two daggers and a whetstone tucked into fabric folds at his waist.
The work was most recently on display in the Virginia Theological Seminary’s library until a 2017 audit revealed its value. The institution reportedly decided to sell the stone slab to cover the cost of the increased insurance premiums of the remaining two pieces it owns, and to support the seminary’s scholarship fund.
Christie’s is often cautious about questions of legality when it comes to selling items of antiquity. A spokesman for Christie’s told CNN that while the auction house was “sensitive to claims for restitution by source countries,” it had been reassured by law enforcement authorities that there was no legal basis for a cultural property claim in this case. But a legal sale is not necessarily ethical.
Zainab Bahrani, a Columbia University professor of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology who was a senior advisor to Iraq’s Ministry of Culture in 2004, finds the Christie’s sale reprehensible. In an email to Hyperallergic, she stated that “The Virginia Theological Seminary has been incredibly insensitive to the suffering of the Iraqi people who have endured horrendous violence and seen their heritage obliterated under ISIS, including the demolition of the Assyrian palace at Nimrud, from which this relief was originally taken.”
“That ISIS destruction,” she noted, “very likely raised the market price of the relief. The seminary has thus profited directly from the suffering and loss that we have endured. While several thousand of our women and children are still missing and unaccounted for, and the rubble of our blown up heritage still lies all around us, the utter callousness of the sale is astounding.”
Michael Rakowitz, an Iraqi-American conceptual artist who also teaches at Northwestern University, is similarly outraged by the Christie’s sale. Ironically, he has been working on a reconstruction of Room Z from Nimrud’s Northwest Palace that highlights the connections between the plundering of such ancient sites by the West and the destruction of antiquities by ISIS.
Back in June, Rakowitz premiered his reconstruction of Room N from the palace at Art Basel.
“I stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people and Assyrians worldwide condemning this sale of the Assyrian relief that was excavated from the Northwest Palace of Nimrud and demanding its return to Iraq,” the artist-professor said in an email to Hyperallergic.
“Once again the voracious appetite for the cultural heritage of the east by western institutions and private collectors is made apparent. If only the lives of the people fleeing the areas near these recently razed archaeological sites in places like Nimrud were quite as valuable to the West. Instead, they are vulgarly dehumanized as invaders rather than being welcomed as immigrants or refugees.”
The particular relief that Christie’s auctioned off belongs to the palace’s Room S, which connected a public central courtyard to the king’s private chambers. The image of the Winged Genius, Apkallu, was repeated across these walls again and again. The cuneiform text tells of Ashurnasirpal’s ancestry, his military triumphs, the extent of his empire and the construction of the Northwest Palace.
The purchaser of the artifact remains anonymous.
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