Art theft? Iraq demands return of 3,000-yr-old Assyrian artefact up for auction in New York
A 3,000-year-old Assyrian sculpture is expected to sell for more than $10 million at a New York auction, but the forthcoming bidding war may be overshadowed by protests demanding the plundered artwork’s return to its native Iraq.
The exquisitely-detailed artefact, which depicts an Assyrian deity, will go under the hammer at Christie’s in New York on Tuesday – with critics of the high profile art sale claiming that the piece belongs in a museum, preferably in Iraq.
The seven-foot-tall (2.1 meters) frieze is believed to have been purloined from an ancient Assyrian palace in Nimrud, in what is now present-day Iraq, in the mid-nineteenth century. The sculpture was packaged up and shipped westward by an enterprising young Brit who was reportedly given permission by the Ottomans to carry out his ancient treasure hunt. The relief eventually found its way to the United States, sitting largely forgotten in a Virginia seminary. A routine audit conducted last year revealed the sculpture’s true value, sending insurance costs through the roof.
A spokesman for Christie’s told CNN that the auction house had been reassured that there is no legal basis for any foreign nation to claim ownership of the ancient artefact – but Baghdad begs to differ. Iraq’s Ministry of Culture has demanded that the panel be returned to Iraq, while activists are reportedly planning to demonstrate outside the auction house during the sale.
Social media users also expressed anger about the auction, arguing that the sculpture is a stolen artefact and should be returned to its native land.
“This is an Assyrian artifact, this belongs in the community back home in Iraq. How can something from ME be sold on American soil?” one Twitter user asked.
This is an Assyrian artifact, this belongs in the community back home in Iraq 🇮🇶... How can something from ME be sold on American soil?— Eddie Abbasi 𓅓⁶ (@CoachAbbasi) October 30, 2018
This sculpture is a stolen Iraqi artifact. Civilized World must stand up to stop selling it in the Auction. https://t.co/62PP818AyP— Ismael Alsodani (@IAlsodani) October 30, 2018
Others took issue with the very idea of selling such an invaluable piece of human history to private buyers.
Should not be up for sale. It is part of human culture and should be in a museum.— magenta96 (@valleylily56) October 30, 2018
“Assyrians have lost so much history be it in the hands of ISIS or during the 1915 genocide and are still struggling to recover while you unethical f*cks are auctioning off what’s left of their history to wealthy private collectors,” an angry netizen tweeted.
Assyrians have lost so much history be it in the hands of ISIS or during the 1915 genocide and are still struggling to recover while you unethical fucks are auctioning off what’s left of their history to wealthy private collectors.— Lyanna (@that_girl1231) October 30, 2018
Media coverage of the auction has also been criticized, with some describing reports of the art sale as overly enthusiastic and even promotional.
stolen Iraq artifacts and CNN seems to agree with it— Soraya Tebbani (@2flamesburning1) October 30, 2018
Across the Atlantic, a similar debate about art theft is raging in the UK. In June, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pledged to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece if he becomes the UK prime minister.
The marble sculptures – which have been exhibited in the British Museum since 1816 – take their name from Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the 1800s. He claimed at the time that he had permission from Ottoman authorities to take the sculptures back to London.
London's art museums have benefitted greatly from colonial plundering – an uncomfortable fact that has inspired protests and even rogue art tours.
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