Iraq’s battle for return of ancient artwork from Nimrud raises uncomfortable questions for the world’s museums
The West must repatriate the looted treasures of antiquity
He is one of the great figures of Iraqi history. Now, 3,000 years after his death, the Assyrian warrior-king Ashurnasirpal II, founder of the ancient city of Nimrud, is the figurehead of a battle to reclaim that nation’s heritage. The Iraqi government has demanded the return of a relief commissioned by the king in the 9th century BC. Unearthed by the British in the 1840s, the privately owned winged deity was offered for sale yesterday in New York, where it was expected to fetch $10 million at auction. The controversy highlights a reality that the great museums of the West, bulging with artefacts taken during the days of empire, can no longer ignore. The time has surely come to return the ancient world’s looted treasures.
Reliefs from Nimrud can be found in more than 60 institutions around the world. The British Museum alone holds thousands of objects taken from Iraq by Sir Austen Henry Layard, who sold the Ashurnasirpal relief to an American missionary in 1859. Auction house Christie’s and the museum, which is about to open a major exhibition about Ashurbanipal, another Assyrian king, insist Layard had the permission of the Ottoman authorities, but this is a red herring. The museum uses the same justification for retaining Greece’s Elgin Marbles, but in both cases the Ottomans were an occupying power.
There are signs the tide may be turning. The V&A in London plans to return items taken from Ethiopia by British troops 150 years ago. A German museum has already returned artefacts excavated from Alaskan tribal graves in the 19th century. The burden of repatriation, doubtless a mammoth task, should fall on those who have benefited from them for so long. Some nations of origin might feel they lack the necessary expertise, in which case they should be offered support. In return, they might be persuaded to loan back artefacts, to be displayed alternately at home and abroad. The British Museum has done much to help Iraq to recover from the destruction wrought by ISIS by training a new generation of Iraqi archaeologists. Now it should go further and lead the world’s other great institutions in restoring the lost heritage of the ancient world to the lands where it rightfully belongs.