Ancient Assyrian Sculpture Sells for $31m, But Should It Have Ever Left the Region?

Ancient Assyrian Sculpture Sells for $31m, But Should It Have Ever Left the Region?

An Iraqi artifact that dates back three millennia was sold at Christie’s New York for $30.1m and sparked debate around the ethics of its sale. The Iraqi government called for the sale to be stopped and even contacted UNESCO to help demand the repatriation of the ancient panel.

A spokesperson for Iraq’s cultural ministry spoke out against the sale as it continues to profit off of Iraq’s cultural heritage.

“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 2 meter long panel was the highlight piece of Christie’s antiquities sale and is said to be the rarest work of Assyrian Art to hit the market in decades. It was looted in the early 19th century when Sir Austen Henry Layard excavated the royal palace of Nimrud (present day Iraq) and sold the piece to a missionary, who brought it back to the U.S in 1860.

The case comes at a particularly interesting time for the antiquities market, with numerous cases recently involving the repatriation of smuggled and looted goods. Earlier in the year, thousands of looted artifacts were returned to Iraq after being smuggled into the US as “ceramic tiles” when discovered to be ruins of a lost Sumerian city. The presence of ISIS and the destruction of ancient sites like Palmyra has flooded the black market with stolen and looted goods.

The Christie’s piece however left the region over a hundred years ago, when Iraq was occupied by the Ottoman empire and so Christie’s claims no wrongdoing.

“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 which have been collected for centuries and have had a profound effect on the development of Western culture,” a spokesperson for Christie’s 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.”

What Christie’s is not acknowledging however, is that the publicity around the sale and its price could have the unintended repercussion of promoting more looting and smuggling of ancient artifacts in a region that is already deeply damaged.