January 1958, the Oriental Institute Nippur Expedition discovered a
door socket (exc. no. 6N-351) in the main gate of Inanna’s Parthian
level temple (L II, locus SB 53, see Civil 1989: 60). It was recognized
to have been used formerly as a grinding stone, and turned out to have
originally been the pedestal of a diorite statue, bearing the remains
of a dedicatory inscription of Šū-Suen (RIME 3/126.96.36.199, foll.
1997). Some 44 years later, a piece of this socle has been offered for
sale—and has been sold—at a London auction. This short paper aims to
demonstrate the misfortune of this extraordinary object.
Although the socle itself was found as early as 1958, it remained unpublished for several decades. It was Miguel Civil (1989: 60-61, 64) who edited the text and published a photograph of it (see also Braun-Holzinger 1991: 288 Abb. 4), which appears to have been taken at the excavation site. Its later whereabouts are not known (cf. Braun-Holzinger 1991: 275, Frayne 1997: 314, Braun-Holzinger 2007: 138). Surprisingly, it was found and photographed by John Russell (1998: 206 and 241, no. 231) in a storehouse at Nineveh in 1989, probably in May (pers. comm. 05.10.2013). Alongside with it he also found several other artefacts of varied origins, a number of which he recognized later as they appeared on the antiquities market between 1989 and 1998 (Russell 1998: 240-241).
The next appearance of the object under discussion is dated to as late as the 7th November 2002, when a piece of this pedestal—bearing lines 11-19 only—was offered for sale at a Bonhams auction in Knightsbridge (London), listed as no. 206. To judge by the new damage visible on the new photograph (Bonhams 2002: 72-73), the looters or dealers tried to cut out the inscribed part with a chisel but finally used a circular saw. This practice was widely applied over the past two decades, especially in the case of stamped clay bricks, because of their relatively small inscriptions in relation to their original measurements (see Brodie 2011: 125-126 on the so-called Nebuchadnezzar Larsa bricks with clear saw marks).
In the Bonhams catalogue, the following description of this object was given:
A section of black stone inscribed in Sumerian
Third Dynasty of Ur, circa 2038-2029 B.C.
Containing nine fully or partly preserved lines of a royal text of Shu Sin, fourth king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, translating, ']…[….] the monthly… in the temple of Enlil and Ninlil, Shu-Sin, beloved of Enlil, the king whom Enlil chose as the beloved one of his heard […..', 9¼ x 5¼in. (23 x 13.5cm.), in a presentation box with gold embossed spine (Bonhams 2002: 72)
The estimated value was £4,000-6,000; the hammer price went as high as £7,500. As usual, the names of neither the seller nor the buyer have been made public. According to the auction catalogue, the object was “formerly in a European private collection” (Bonhams 2002: 72), more specifically, in the possession of an “UK collector” (courtesy of a Bonhams specialist, pers. comm. 05.12.2012). To judge by the translation, the one who made the description appears not to have been aware of its real provenance, and also not to have known the Šū-Suen 7 inscription (cf. lines 11-12, which have been left untranslated), although the Nippur copy’s corresponding part was published well before.
To draw conclusions, it seems reasonable to suppose that the pedestal was originally left in some Iraqi museum or excavation building—note that even Civil (1989: 60) took measurements from the photograph—from which it was brought to Nineveh, and after that stolen and smuggled to Europe. In fact, it appears never to have been given an accession number, and is commonly referred to by excavation number. Consequently, it is particularly difficult to determine the exact date of the theft. The object is not referred to in any official inventory of missing artefacts, compiled either after the First or after the Second Gulf War. Most probably it was stolen from the Nineveh storehouse sometime in the early 1990s.
Whenever it occurred, the sale could have been stopped by enforcing the international laws protecting cultural heritage (see Brodie 2008: 41-43, 48-49 and 2011: 117-120), or failing all else, the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which was accepted by the UK on the 1st August 2002 (see UNESCO homepage), i.e., three months before the auction.
Although the first steps in the destruction of Šū-Suen’s statue took place in antiquity, the piece of the socle remained almost intact until its theft from an Iraqi storage facility. Needless to say, it was the ever increasing demand for antiquities which facilitated this event and, though indirectly, also the further destruction of a unique piece of cultural heritage. More rigorous inquiries by the auction house, including consultation with Assyriologists familiar with the corpus of Sumerian royal inscriptions, might have prevented this sale, which resulted in a substantial profit for the seller, thus facilitating similar events for the future. Now it is our responsibility to prevent them.
ISSN 1546-6566 © Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative | Archival: 15 January 2014