Christie’s claimed when they put up for sale that they were bought in 1969 and “similar” to the 8 identical pairs of elaborate gold earrings found in 1988 in the royal tombs at Nimrud, the ancient capital of Assyria. Iraqi officials spotted them in the catalogue and reported them to Interpol, stopping the sale.
Donny George, the former director of the Iraq Museum who was on the Nimrud excavation and who personally photographed the treasures, recognized the earrings as from Nimrud. He pointed out that the gold work at Nimrud was exceptional and unique, that there was no such thing as a “similar” piece.
The earrings were among the 613 items of jewellery and funeral ornaments that make up the Treasure, found in 1988 in two previously unexplored burial chambers, belonging to a ninth-century BC queen and princess, in the ancient city of Nimrud.
Sent to the central bank at the time of the first Gulf War in 1991, the Treasure has hardly ever been on show. But it was once described by an American investigator seeking to recover lost Iraqi artefacts as making the tomb of the Egyptian King Tutankhamun “look like Walmart”.
The treasure remained in the vault of the central for 20 years, surviving the 1990 Gulf War, depredations of Saddam Hussein’s son Qusay (he helped himself to almost a billion dollars in cash plus hundreds of gold bars from the bank), Shock and Awe, looters trying to break into it with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s, and a major flood. A team of Iraqi, US and British archaeologists, plus an awesome reservist Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos who in civilian life is a New York prosecutor with a classics degree along with his legal one, were able to rescue the Nimrud treasure from the flood.
At the time they thought it was fully accounted for, but somewhere between the summer of 2003 and winter of 2008, those earrings migrated out of Iraq into Christie’s hot little ask-no-questions hands. Even now Christie’s refuses to say who the seller was or even comment on the story at all. New York Customs enforcement will only say that no legal action has been taken.