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Ait Said-Ghanem, Nadia (2022) When Things Go Wrong: Smuggling Artefacts from Baghdad to London in the late 19th Century. SOAS History Blog [Opinion Pieces / Media / Blogs]

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Many of the artefacts we see today in the ‘Ancient Near East’ collections of European and American museums were purchased in the late 19th and early 20th century from dealers who specialised in smuggling archaeological artefacts to Europe from Baghdad. In order to conduct their business with these institutions, such dealers would write letters to curators to propose collections, organise deliveries, negotiate prices, and agree sales. In so doing, they would pepper their correspondence with information about the manner in which their operations were conducted, as well as information about themselves as individuals, and what motivated them to specifically seek to enrich the collections of public and private institutions in Europe and America. Many of their letters still exist today in museum archives. The British Museum (BM) archive, for example, preserves hundreds of letters sent to the department of Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities, written by dealers who exported artefacts to sell abroad in violation of the Ottoman antiquities law of 1884 (article 8). Although the correspondence volumes in the BM archive do not contain the replies of curators, these dealers’ letters alone are invaluable both to study how antiquities smuggling functioned post 1884, but also to reconstruct the life stories of the women and men who engaged in this trade. From the correspondence preserved by the BM, three types of sellers can be seen active between 1890 and 1900. The first are those who quickly turned the trade of archaeological artefacts into a long-lasting career, like the Iraqi-French antiquities dealer Ibrahim Elias Gejou, presented in the first part of this series. The second group had a profession unrelated to the antiquities trade, but occasionally sold artefacts to museum curators. The steamship officer Joseph Svoboda discussed in the second part of this blog series is a fitting example. But aside from the above two types, one group stands out conspicuously: antiquities dealers whose first sale to the department of Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities went so disastrously wrong for them and who felt so cheated by low offers that they gave up trading with the BM altogether. Based on the letters sent to the department between 1894 and 1900, this blogpost will recount the experiences of three sellers of this latter type. First, the story of 15 year-old Djemileh Hanna Sayegh, who sold her jewellery to invest in smuggling cuneiform tablets, will be reconstructed from her letters and those of her adoptive mother Ferida Antone Shamas. Next, the experiences of Eliza Kebaba, who unknowingly bought a collection of fake cuneiform tablets that made her investment worthless, will follow. This retelling will end with Rezooky Sayegh who, feeling cheated by the low price he was offered for the collection he sent, made no other attempt to sell to the department. This article is the third part of a series that aims to reconstruct the biographies of Iraq-based antiquities dealers active in the late nineteenth century from museum archives, and to reassemble from these documents the manner in which the smuggling of archaeological artefacts was conducted from Baghdad between 1890 and 1900.

Item Type: Opinion Pieces / Media / Blogs
Keywords: history; archaeology; iraq; museum collections; smuggling; antiquities dealers; biographies
SOAS Departments & Centres: Departments and Subunits > School of History, Religions & Philosophies > Department of History
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DS Asia
Date Deposited: 07 Mar 2022 18:45
Funders: British Academy

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