They were earrings that literally could have been worn by a queen. The neo-Assyrian jewelry, some 3,000 years old, is Lot 215 in an auction of ancient art and antiquities to be held at Christie's in New York next week [Editor's note: The original version misstated the age of the earrings.]. They are expected to fetch up to $65,000.
But Iraqi authorities say they might have belonged to the treasures of Nimrud, excavated by an Iraqi team in 1989, just after the devastating Iran-Iraq War. They have been publicly exhibited only twice – the second time for just one day under the US coalition authorities.
"I am 100 percent sure they are from the same tombs from Nimrud,” says Donny George, the former director of the Iraq Museum and now a professor of archaeology at Stony Brook University in New York. “Nothing of this nature has been excavated from it before – I witnessed the excavation. I would say it is 100 percent from there.”
Iraqi authorities have petitioned to stop the sale. "We're hoping to get them back," says one official.
The auction listing says the elaborate gold hoops were acquired from their previous owner before 1969. As of Tuesday evening, the auction house said they had not been withdrawn from sale. On Wednesday, they were still listed on Christie's website, which refers potential buyers to a German archaeological text "for a similar pair from a royal tomb at Nimrud." A UNESCO convention enacted in 1970 made it more difficult to trade in illegal antiquities.
The treasures of Nimrud, considered one of the most spectacular finds of the 20th century and compared with the treasures of King Tut's tomb, include eight pairs of seemingly identical earrings. Of the thousands of archaeological sites in Iraq, the ancient capital of the Assyrian Empire was one of the richest.
The highlight was the intricate gold jewelry, using techniques not seen again for thousands of years. The initial 19th-century British excavation of the Nimrud, known in the Bible as Kalakh, missed the royal tombs. The ancient city was guarded by huge reliefs and is near present-day Mosul.
After a team led by Iraqi archaeologist Muzahem Hussein discovered the tomb missed by the British, the hundreds of pieces of gold jewelry, bowls, and ceremonial objects were placed in bank vaults. With Iraq's invasion of Kuwait two years later and a decade of sanctions, they remained there for most of the next two decades. They were displayed once at the Iraq Museum before president Saddam Hussein was toppled.
After the fall of Baghdad in 2003 and the subsequent looting of the Iraq Museum, US investigators and Iraqi officials tracked down the treasures of Nimrud to a vault within a vault in the basement of Iraq's burned and flooded central bank.
Although many of the objects looted from the Iraq Museum have been recovered, stolen Iraqi antiquities are still turning up in the United States and other countries. US customs authorities recently returned to the Iraqi government dozens of items seized at US border points.
Last month, customs officials in the Gulf emirate of Dubai seized more than 100 artifacts at the borders. Iraq lost control of its border crossings after the 2003 invasion, leading to a flood of smuggling that it hasn't yet been able to fully tamp down.
Its archaeological sites, many of them in tribal areas or parts of the country ruled by militias, have been particularly vulnerable to looting.
Experts say the market for antiquities in New York and London has been saturated with a stream of looted goods. The neo-Assyrian earrings, though, would be among the most high-profile Iraqi objects offered for sale in recent years.