It wasn’t me!

The forthcoming February TimeLine auction offers 14 cuneiform-inscribed objects. Only five have a provenance putting them out of Iraq before August 1990, the date of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 661, which placed trade sanctions on any goods exported from Iraq including cultural objects such as cuneiform tablets. The provenances of the remainder are chronologically indeterminate. UNSCR 661 was reaffirmed for cultural objects in May 2003 by UNSCR 1483, which in June 2003 was implemented in the United Kingdom as the Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003. Article 8(2) of the Iraq (UN Sanctions) Order requires that:

Any person who holds or controls any item of illegally removed Iraqi cultural property must cause the transfer of that item to a constable.

Article 8(4) defines ‘illegally removed Iraqi cultural property’ as:

Iraqi cultural property and any other item of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance illegally removed from any location in Iraq since 6th August 1990.

Thus, the date threshold in the UK for discriminating between Iraqi cultural objects legally and illegally on the market remains 6 August 1990. Any object moved out of Iraq after that date must be surrendered to an appropriate law enforcement agency. What about the TimeLine objects of indeterminate provenance date? Unless the company has more information about provenance which it has decided not to make public, it cannot be said with any certainty from what has been made public when the objects in question were moved out of Iraq. The uncertainty doesn’t seem to be deterring customers though. At time of writing, eight of the indeterminate objects had between them received 36 bids. The deterrent effect of the Sanctions Order is hardly appreciable.

The most interesting object in the sale is lot 0235, described as a “Western Asiatic Babylonian Sin-Iddinam Cuneiform Barrel”. Not an Iraqi Babylonian Sin-Iddinam Cuneiform Barrel, which would be a more accurate description, but a “Western Asiatic Babylonian Sin-Iddinam Cuneiform Barrel”. Anyhow, that is not really the point. The point is the provenance:

Ex central London gallery; acquired August 1999 from a UK dealer; acquired by them from an Oxford academic, from a UK collection formed before 1992; this lot has been checked against the Interpol Database of stolen works of art and is accompanied by AIAD certificate number no. 10324-166483.

So, if the provenance is correct, the barrel is first known to have been in the UK by 1999 after acquisition by a UK dealer sometime before then. In other words, the barrel is said to have been in the UK by 1999 at the latest and who knows when at the earliest. There is nothing to establish that the barrel was in the UK before the 1990 date required by the Iraq (UN Sanctions) Order.

The TimeLine object description doesn’t include a translation of the barrel’s inscription. This is strange, because normally the inscription on an object such as this one that has been in circulation for 20 years or more will have been translated. Perhaps it has, and just not published by TimeLine, though the company normally does include translations when they are available (see for example lot 0238 in the same sale). If in fact the inscription records Sin-iddinam dredging the Tigris, which seems likely, the barrel will be one of many that have appeared on the market or in private collections since 1990. Before that date, only three were known. In 2011, Andrew George listed 21 recently-appeared examples, suggesting a probable find spot of Larsa, Adab or Zabalam (George 2011: 99). The most likely explanation for the proliferation of these barrels is that they were looted and trafficked from Iraq during the 1990s, making it all the more important for TimeLine to secure a provenance dating back to before 1990.

But what about “acquired from an Oxford academic”? Who was the Oxford academic? I can tell you now it wasn’t me. There is always Dirk Obbink, of course, who arrived at Oxford in 1995. According to the allegations swirling about (Higgins 2020; Sabar 2020), by 2010 he was selling papyri to the Hobby Lobby corporation, including some said to have been stolen from the Egypt Exploration Society. After 2010, he was also active in two antiquities dealerships: Oxford Ancient and Castle Folio. So, if the provenance is to believed, the barrel was acquired from an Oxford academic by 1999 at the latest, at which time Obbink was in post but a few years before the first evidence of his involvement with antiquities trading. Was he already dabbling in the antiquities market in the late 1990s, and would Obbink, who is a papyrologist, have been interested in a cuneiform barrel? Perhaps not. Perhaps Obbink wasn’t the only mucky-fingered academic active in Oxford at the time. And remember, ‘Oxford academic’ doesn’t necessarily mean a University of Oxford academic. I know many academics living in Oxford who are not employed by the University of Oxford. Perhaps it was one of them.


George, Andrew (ed.), 2011. Cuneiform Royal Inscriptions and Related Texts in the Schøyen Collection (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 17). Bethesda: CDL.

Higgins, Charlotte, 2020. A scandal in Oxford: the curious case of the stolen gospel, Guardian, 9 January.

Sabar, Ariel, 2020. A Biblical mystery at Oxford, Atlantic, June.