Retrieved from Nimrud in modern-day Iraq in the mid-19th century, Assyrian relief sells for $30,968,750 to become the second-most expensive piece of ancient art ever sold at auction
Standing more than seven feet high, this proud figure was once part of
an elaborate decorative scheme that covered
the walls of the Northwest Palace at Nimrud in modern-day Iraq,
which was constructed some 3,000 years ago. On 31 October at Christie's New York, it sold for $30,968,750, the second highest price for any work of ancient art and the highest ever for an Assyrian relief.
‘These huge slabs of gypsum, sculpted in relief, were designed to impress and overwhelm,’ explains G. Max Bernheimer, International Head of Antiquities at Christie’s in New York. ‘Every aspect was related to the strength and power of the king.
‘If you’re studying ancient art from the textbooks you don’t get a sense of the monumental scale of these things until you’re standing in front of them. When you look at this relief and you imagine the size of the room that it was once part of, and the size of the relief itself, it must have just been absolutely overwhelming.’
The palace — at 120m by 200m, one of the largest known in antiquity — was commissioned by King Ashurnasirpal II, who reigned from 883-859 BC. Ashurnasirpal was a tyrant who ruthlessly expanded his kingdom, conquering much of the ancient Near East including modern-day Syria and the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers — an area referred to today as ‘the cradle of civilisation’. The palace reflected Ashurnasirpal’s newfound status as the most powerful ruler of the largest empire ever
There are approximately 400 of these carved relief panels that would have filled the interior, which depicted narratives of Ashurnasirpal’s military triumphs, as well as animal hunts and courtly scenes.
‘This relief is adorned with these winged figures, which were
called apkallu or “genius”,’ Bernheimer continues. ‘They have the portrait-like quality of the king, but here he's a god, and he’s anointing this sacred tree with
a pine cone-shaped object. It’s all about fertility and protection for the king.’
The apkallu has finely feathered wings and wears elaborately
detailed robes, a horned headdress, an earring, a necklace
and armlets, and has two daggers and a whetstone tucked into
fabric folds at his waist.
The stone’s surface is also covered in the so-called ‘Standard
Inscription’, a cuneiform incantation that recalls Ashurnasirpal’s
achievements: ‘Fierce monarch, merciless hero, the word of
whose mouth destroys mountains and seas… He was the king
A number of surviving reliefs from the palace show traces of
original paint on the surface, and our film uses digital technology to spectacular effect to recreate the colours of this apkallu’s skin, jewellery and tightly curled beard.
This superbly preserved frieze was acquired in Mosul in 1859 by an American missionary
named Dr Henri Byron Haskell from the English archaeologist
Sir Austen Henry Layard, who had unearthed the royal palace
at Nimrud. In addition to this relief, which has been housed at the Virginia
Theological Seminary since its crossing of the Atlantic,
Haskell also sent five others to
Bowdoin College in Maine and another, which is now housed
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Around 60 other museums around the world contain reliefs
from Ashurnasirpal’s palace, including the
British Museum, the
Brooklyn Museum and the
Yale University Art Gallery. Without question, this relief represents the finest example of Assyrian art to have come onto the market in decades, and was sold on behalf of the Virginia Theological Seminary to underwrite a scholarship fund.