A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
In the spring of 1992, while working in the archives of the British Museum, I found an inventory of sculptures from the Nineveh Porch, a charming and eccentric mid-nineteenth-century garden pavilion on the grounds of Canford Manor, an estate in Dorset, England, which had blended stained glass and gothic architecture with Assyrian statues and reliefs. The inventory gave me an opportunity to reconstruct the appearance of the building's interior, called a porch but actually an enclosed freestanding structure that had once housed the spectacular Assyrian collection now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In early May, I visited the estate, today a private school for boys, with Julian Reade, the British Museum's assistant keeper of western Asiatic antiquities. We were surprised by the beauty of the little building and by its excellent state of preservation, its iron doors and stained-glass windows looking as if they had been installed only yesterday. I was particularly pleased to find two casts of reliefs still in place on the wall just inside the door, since they showed how the sculptures had been mounted.
The biggest surprise, however, came the next day. Back at the British Museum, I looked in the inventory for the two casts we had seen in the porch. It identified the upper part of one as a genuine Assyrian relief. A photograph Reade had taken confirmed that it corresponded to a relief previously thought to be lost. We returned to Canford, accompanied by Ken Uprichard, a stone conservator from the British Museum, who removed several layers of paint from the slab and pronounced it to be stone. To make this partial slab fit into the scheme of the porch, it had been completed with a plaster cast made from the lower part of a similar slab in the British Museum. The wall above had then been filled in with another cast of a British Museum relief, and the whole ensemble painted to resemble stone.
We were pleased with our discovery but concerned that the sculpture might now be sold, as had the other Canford reliefs. The upper half of a sculpture carved with an Assyrian courtier and a winged deity, it was indeed consigned to Christie's with a presale estimate of £750,000 ($1.2 million). The July 1994 sale was a success beyond anyone's wildest dreams. After three minutes and 40 seconds of bidding, it was bought by Japanese dealer Noriyoshi Horiuchi for £7,000,000, which with commissions came to a total of £7,701,500, or $11.9 million, the highest price ever paid for an antiquity at auction.
Press reports on the sale of the relief focused on its unprecedented price, Iraq's opposition to its sale, and the story of its discovery in an English private school's tuck shop (commissary). The press did not mention that the tuck shop, the Nineveh Porch, was itself an unusual structure with an intriguing history. I began investigating how the sculptures had been spirited out of Ottoman Mesopotamia and arranged in the porch. These events reflect the wheeling and dealing accompanying archaeology in the mid-nineteenth century, and how "exotic" eastern art was received in Victorian England.
John Malcolm Russell is professor of art history and archaeology at Columbia University and author of From Nineveh to New York (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).