Biblical Archaeology Review 45:2, March/April 2019

Strata: Putting a Price Tag on History

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

Originally part of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal 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.

Join the BAS Library!

Already a library member? Log in here.

Institution user? Log in with your IP address.