Putting a Price Tag on History

Bible and archaeology news


This Assyrian relief sold for $31 million at Christie’s Auction House. Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2018.

On October 31, 2018, Christie’s Auction House sold an ancient Assyrian relief for $31 million!

Originally part of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II’s palace in Nimrud (in modern Iraq), this relief stands 7 feet tall and dates to the ninth century B.C.E. It depicts an apkallu (a minor deity with wings).

How the piece ended up at Christie’s Auction House is an interesting story. Sir Austen Henry Layard uncovered it during his excavations of Nimrud’s royal palace. In 1859, Dr. Henri Byron Haskell, who was in Iraq as an American missionary, acquired this relief and two others directly from Layard for $75 each, most of which simply covered the cost of shipping. Having acquired the reliefs on behalf of his friend Joseph Packard, Haskell shipped them to Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, where Packard was a professor. There they remained for more than 150 years.

Then, in 2017, the annual insurance premium for these pieces increased to $70,000. Faced with this enormous cost, the seminary decided to sell one of the reliefs to fund the research and preservation of the other two as well as to contribute to a scholarship fund. This led to the auction this past fall.

Although the relief’s worth had been estimated at $10 million–$15 million, it sold for $30,968,750. This set a new world record for Assyrian art.

Some scholars worry that this profitable sale may encourage looting throughout the Middle East. Others argue that the vast destruction of archaeological and cultural heritage sites by ISIS and the recent wars to combat them are responsible for the increased value of this well-preserved relief, which has a clear provenance (ownership history). Only time will tell its impact.

No one can ever truly put a price tag on history, but based on this recent auction, it would be exorbitant!


Strata: “Putting a Price Tag on History” originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

From Babylon to Baghdad: Ancient Iraq and the Modern West examines the relationship between ancient Iraq and the origins of modern Western society. This free eBook details some of the ways in which ancient Near Eastern civilizations have impressed themselves on Western culture and chronicles the present-day fight to preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage.

On occasion, the editorial staff at BAR receives letters that are compelling, but are simply too long to fit in the published Questions & Queries section of our magazine. Below is one such letter. This Letter to the Editor was received from a reader and raises some points pertaining to one of our published pieces that are worthy of discussion. As with every Letter to the Editor, the letter is the work of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of BAS or the BAR editorial staff.—B.C.


Letter to the Editor

Dear Editor,

The Virginia Theological Seminary’s sale of an ancient Assyrian relief through Christie’s Auction House raises several important questions. In essence, VTS deaccessioned the relief much as museums do with items otherwise expected to be held in perpetuity for the public good. Such deaccessioning is hard to square with the notion that ancient artifacts, particularly those that are well-preserved and blessed with a clear and unimpeachable provenance, should be held in trust for past, present, and future generations.

VTS had three reliefs and treated them as something more than its property for 150 years, preserving, protecting, and displaying them. Nonetheless, it said that it needed to put one up for auction to avoid incurring the “enormous cost” (as the article above puts it) of insuring it. Even so, it will have to insure the two reliefs it still holds. One would think the “enormous cost” of insuring those two would be 2/3 of the premium for all three, so any immediate savings are nominal. If the cost to insure the remaining two reliefs becomes “enormous,” will VTS deaccession another one or both of them through another auction?

The auction house hasn’t identified the buyer of the relief, and I have been informed that faculty and staff at VTS have been gagged to preclude any disclosure. If the relief had gone to a museum or another educational institution, scholars could continue to have access to it; if it went into private hands, as it appears, few but the buyer will ever see it again.

VTS preserved the three reliefs for more than 150 years. Its thin explanation for selling one relief by auction doesn’t show much of an understanding of the ethical complexities of deaccessioning. Likewise, the sale by auction can’t be reconciled with the Seminary’s actions during the previous 150 years.

Jack Park
Atlanta, GA

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