In May 1992 John Russell from Columbia University and Julian Reade from the British Museum went on a day trip to Canford Hall near Bournemouth in order to take a look at the building known as the Nineveh Porch; it had been built by Lady Charlotte Guest and her husband Sir John around 1850 after a design by the architect Charles Barry, better known as the creator of the Houses of Parliament in London, and formed part of the manor. Russell and Reade are specialists in the art of the ancient Assyrians, and their trip was a kind of pilgrimage to a place where reliefs from the palaces of Nineveh and Nimrud had been installed in order to decorate the walls of a private loggia built expressly for this purpose. These reliefs had been excavated by Austen Henry Layard, a cousin of Lady Charlotte Guest (who together with her husband resided at Canford).
The Assyrian reliefs installed here were very substantial, including for instance a human-headed lion colossus and a similar bull, each of which weighed several tons and which had originally adorned important doorways in Ashurnasirpal II's palace at Nimrud. Together with a number of great reliefs they stayed in place at Canford until shortly after the first world war, when the whole collection was offered for sale by Ivor Churchill Guest, the first Viscount Wimborne, supposedly in order to raise money to pay inheritance taxes. The bulk of the sculptures were bought by an antiquities dealer, Dikran G. Kelekian, who took them to New York where they were placed in storage until he succeeded in selling them for $300,000 to John D. Rockefeller Jr in 19. He in turn gave them to the Metropolitan Museum where they are now installed.
In 1923 Canford Hall was sold by the Guest family and it became a boys' school. The Nineveh Porch, now robbed of nearly all its ancient treasures, was turned into a tuck shop, and it appears that no one had any idea that there were still antiquities here. From the beginning Barry had installed a number of plaster casts of reliefs in the British Museum collections in the porch, and it was assumed that what remained there after 1919 consisted only of such casts.
However, in 1956 Sir Leonard Woolley - the famous excavator of the royal graves at Ur - visited Canford and inspected the Porch, and he felt certain that some of the now whitewashed reliefs were genuine. Acting on a letter from Woolley, R. D. Barnett, keeper of western Asiatic antiquities at the British Museum and a recognised expert on Assyrian reliefs, went to Canford in 1958, and concluded that a further seven small reliefs were genuine. The school's authorities sourly rejected Barnett's suggestion that the Porch should be turned into a small museum to house the remaining pieces; instead, they were sold at Sotheby's for Pounds 14,250 in 1959, and the reliefs ended up in various museums around the world.
When Russell and Reade came to the Porch again in 1992 only the casts were supposed to be left, but lo and behold! One more piece was recognised as the real thing, although covered by layers of paint including a top coat of white vinyl emulsion. The school apparently did not really believe this new report, although made by two of the leading experts in the world on Assyrian art, so it took a couple of years before the relief had been taken down and sent to London, where it was offered for sale at auction by Christie's in June 1994. It was bought by a Japanese dealer, apparently acting on behalf of a religious sect which treasures the contemplation of ancient art. The price was Pounds 7.7 million, the highest amount ever paid for an antiquity.
Russell's interest in 1992 was really the Nineveh Porch itself, seen as an important element in the English reception of Assyria in the 19th century, when the first reliefs were brought back by Layard. His book presents a lavishly illustrated description and analysis of this strange and beautiful building, which still functions as a tuck shop and is now finally robbed of its treasures from Nineveh and Nimrud. He traces its story from the days of Lady Charlotte and her cousin and admirer Henry Layard and gives an elaborate account of the fate of the reliefs once installed there.
In doing so he also provides an example of the ambiguous and even murky world of the antiquities trade. The problem reaches all the way back to Layard himself, who felt free to donate Assyrian reliefs and other art to friends and family despite the fact that he was employed as excavator by the British Museum.
Interestingly, though not surprisingly, the Iraqi government raised a protest against the sale at Christie's in 1994, but this claim was, according to a report in The Times "thwarted by the discovery of a Victorian legal document", by which was meant the original firman or permit issued by the Ottoman Turkish government in May 1846, in which Layard was permitted to examine, excavate and remove "quantities of stones and remains of antiquities (which were found) in the environs of Mosul."
Canford School is now a wealthy institution and is planning a major expansion of its sports facilities on the basis of the funds raised by the sale of Ashurnasirpal's relief. What would he have thought?
Mogens Trolle Larsen is professor of Assyriology, the Carsten Niebuhr Institute, Copenhagen University.
From Nineveh to New York: The Strange Story of the Assyrian Reliefs in the Metroplitan Museum and the Hidden Masterpiece at Canford School
Author - John Malcolm Russell
ISBN - 0 300 06459 4
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 232