Christie's takes disputed earrings off auction block

The auction house has removed the ancient jewelry, which is claimed by Iraq, from a Monday sale to cooperate with an investigation into whether they were stolen from Iraq.

The gold neo-Assyrian earrings were claimed by Iraq but awaiting the highest bidder Monday in New York. Just days before the sale of ancient art and antiquities, however, Christie's took the jewelry, believed to be from the treasure of Nimrud, off the auction block.

Christie's says it is cooperating with an investigation into whether the earrings were in fact stolen from Iraq.

"When Christie's learned that there might be an issue with the provenance of the earrings they withdrew the lot from the sale," says Sung-Hee Park, a spokeswoman for the auction house in New York. "The lot is still with Christie's in New York, but we are cooperating in the investigation."

As of Wednesday night, when a Monitor story detailed an Iraqi petition to stop the sale, the earrings were still part of the Dec. 9 auction. On Thursday morning, the auction house website said Lot 215 – a pair of neo-Assyrian earrings believed to be some 3,000 years old – had been withdrawn [Editor's note: The original version misstated the age of the earrings.].

US officials say they have been involved for at least several weeks in trying to prevent the earrings from being sold after they were alerted that the ancient jewelry might have been part of the treasures of Nimrud, one of Iraq's greatest archaeological finds.

"This is an issue we have been aware of for quite some time," says Adam Ereli, spokesman for the US Embassy in Baghdad.

The Christie's spokeswoman said she did not know why they were publicly withdrawn from sale only Thursday.

The treasures of Nimrud are considered one of the most important finds of the last century – the hundreds of pieces of gold jewelry, bowls, and ornaments compare in lavishness to the jewelry from King Tut's tomb. A prominent Iraqi archaeologist, who photographed the hundreds of pieces excavated from the ancient Assyrian capital in 1989, says the earrings are unique.

"I'm sure it is from the collection. I've been there during the excavations, I know the pieces," says Donny George, former director of the Iraq museum and now a professor at Long Island's Stony Brook University.

Eight pairs of identical-looking earrings, intricate gold hoops with dangling cones, were found in the tombs. Mr. George says the pair in question was probably stolen before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. After being discovered by Iraqi archaeologists in 1989, the treasures of Nimrud were displayed only once before being put in safekeeping during two wars and a decade of trade sanctions.

They were recovered from a vault below the flooded central bank after Baghdad fell and were exhibited for less than a day when US authorities briefly reopened the Iraq museum in 2003.

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