Detail of “An Assyrian Gypsum Relief of a Winged Genius,” which Christie’s sold for the Virginia Theological Seminary on Wednesday for $31 million. COURTESY OF CHRISTIE’S IMAGES

Sale of Assyrian Sculpture Sparks Controversy

By Abby Schultz
Nov. 2, 2018 3:10 p.m. ET

The purchase of a 3,000-year-old Assyrian sculpture at Christie’s on Wednesday for a record US$31 million has upset members of the Assyrian community, who view the ancient gypsum relief as part of their cultural heritage and not as a work of art that can go to the highest bidder

Christie’s detailed in a release that it had the legal right to sell the seven-foot sculpture on behalf of the Virginia Theological Seminary, which received the it from an American missionary, Henri B. Haskell, in 1859. Haskell acquired the relief, and two others sent to the seminary, from Sir Austen Henry Layard, who excavated the sculptures from the Northwest palace in present-day northern Iraq with “permission from the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Sultan,” Christie’s said in a news release before the sale

The auction house noted that it reached out to law enforcement authorities before it published details of the sale to ensure the documentation for the relief met -applicable laws governing its sale

The immense shallow-carved sculpture depicts a bearded winged deity, known as Apkallu, and was created during the reign of the Assyrian ruler Ashurnasirpal II around 883 B.C. to 859 B.C., according to the auction house’s catalog notes. It was excavated from an interior wall of the Northwest palace, where many similar reliefs and structures were destroyed by the Islamic State in 2015

That destruction was likely a factor in boosting the value of the relief beyond its US$10 million to US$15 million estimate range, but it’s also why the work’s sale to a private, anonymous bidder has distressed the Assyrian community in the U.S. as well as in Iraq and elsewhere, according to Helen Malko, an Assyrian archaeologist at the Middle East Institute at Columbia University

“A lot of people feel that their heritage has been wiped out and destroyed,” Malko says. The sale to an unknown bidder, who may keep it in a private collection, is viewed as an “addition to the ongoing cultural genocide,” she says. It’s just a different format

Ramond Takhsh, president of the Assyrian American Association of Southern California, agreed

“This is not an automobile, this is not a used car. This is our history,” Takhsh says. Just because you have the right to do something, doesn’t mean in and of itself it’s right

An anonymous person posted a video titled “Letter to the Highest Bidder” on Facebook the day before the sale arguing the community’s case. The words of the video said, “When you look at this piece of Assyrian history, surely you see its magnificence. You see a piece of valuable heritage. A prestige item.” Then it continues, I wish you could see it through my eyes…You see ‘for sale,’ but I see everything that was stolen from us—our past, our future

Bidding for the relief took nearly five minutes and included two people in the room, two on the phone, and one previous bid on the books, according to Christie’s. The final bidding came down to a man in the room and a bidder on the phone with Laetitia Delaloye, Christie’s London head of antiquities. The man in the room, who Christie’s says will remain anonymous, eventually won with a hammer price of US$27.25 million

At US$31 million with fees, the price is the highest for an Assyrian work of art, and the second highest price paid for an antiquity. In 2007, a nearly 5,000-year-old sculpture found in Iraq and known as the Guennol Lioness, sold for nearly US$57.2 million at Sotheby’s in New York

In a statement after the Christie’s sale, the seminary said it chose to auction the sculpture after a routine insurance audit in 2017 “revealed the value of the three tablets had more than quadrupled,” pushing its premiums up to US$70,000 a year

“After months of study and consultation with students, faculty, and staff, the Board of Trustees determined to sell the largest of the three tablets,” the seminary said

Proceeds from the sale will benefit the seminary’s Vocations Scholarship Fund, which is for international, second-career and students of color, and it will fund the preservation and study of the two smaller carvings, a spokesman said in an email. The seminary will hold a symposium featuring those carvings in 2019

“These are world-class treasures that have been part of Virginia Seminary’s history for over 150 years,” the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, dean and president, said in the news release. “But in the end, the Trustees felt that the cost of maintaining the entire collection would pull resources from our primary mission to educate lay or ordained leaders for the Episcopal Church

The Assyrian American National Federation maintains that it has a “deep moral obligation to challenge these ‘legal’ sales,” according to an early October statement. As a community, we share the responsibility to ensure this piece is accessible to future generations so that they will understand what came before them

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