British Museum will not bid for fragment of Assyrian stele—even though it owns the rest

By Martin Bailey. Web only
Cuneiform curse condemns anyone who removes the object from its original site

Bonhams is selling this neo-Assyrian black basalt royal stele of Adad-nerari III on 3 April (est £600,000-£800,000/$1m-$1.3m)

The lower part of an Assyrian royal stele is due to be sold at Bonhams in London on 3 April, with an estimate of £600,000 to £800,000. The upper section belongs to the British Museum, but The Art Newspaper understands that the museum is unlikely to try to acquire the work to reassemble the monument.

The basalt stele, which dates from around 800BC, is dedicated to King Adad-nerari III. It comes from Tell Sheikh Hamad, in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border, where it was installed at a shrine commemorating a military victory. The British Museum’s fragment, depicting the head of the king, was discovered in 1879 and accessioned two years later. The Syrian site has been excavated since the 1970s by German archaeologists led by Hartmut Kühne.

The piece consigned to Bonhams is 1.4m tall and depicts the lower two-thirds of the praying king. It is being sold by a private collector in Geneva and was “given as a gift from father to son in the 1960s”, according to the auction house, but no details about when it left Syria are available. Bonhams is confident about the provenance, although some experts are concerned that the antiquity could have been illicitly excavated or exported.

Cuneiform curse

The Switzerland-based owner of the stele tried to sell it at Christie’s New York in 2000, with an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000, but it failed to sell. It was only after this that Karen Radner, an Assyriologist at University College London, linked the piece with the fragment in the British Museum and identified the praying figure as Adad-nerari III. A curse written in cuneiform on the object condemns anyone who removes the stele from its original site.