Art theft? Iraq demands return of 3,000-yr-old Assyrian artefact up for auction in New York

30 Oct, 2018

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.

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“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.