Saturday - 01 November 2014

Babylonian cylinder sealed at $500,000

14 April 2014Written by Anne Crane

The star entry in the latest sale of rare books, autographs and manuscripts at Doyle in New York proved to be an example of one of the most ancient forms of writing.

A rare cuneiform clay barrel cylinder from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon from 604-562BC, was the star entry in a sale held last week when it sold for $500,000 (£312,500).

Large Mesopotamian barrel cylinders of this type are not frequent visitors to the saleroom and this example, which measures 8.25in (21cm) in length, relates to one of the region's most famous ancient rulers who was responsible for the destruction of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, the Babylonian exile of the Jews and the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

This particular cylinder comes from the temple complex at Sippar (modern Tall Abu Habbah in Iraq), the cult site of the Akkadian sun god Shamash, and is inscribed with two well-preserved columns of text of approximately 37 lines that relate the rebuilding of the temple of Shamash in Sippar.

Provenance

It had a provenance to the rare book expert Ellen Shaffer, who began her career in Dawson's Bookshop in Los Angeles before becoming rare book librarian at the Fine Library of Philadelphia, and in 1953 was sold through Dawson's to Archie P Johnston.

The price on April 9, paid by a phone bidder, was at the upper end of a $300,000-500,000 estimate.

Almost exactly three years ago, on April 13, 2011, Bonhams sold another barrel cylinder from Nebuchadnezzar's reign with cuneiform relating to the same subject in their London rooms for £220,000. 

Bonhams' version was smaller at 5.25in (13.3cm), with 18 lines of text, and had a different provenance. It had been deaccessioned by a New England museum who acquired it in the 1990s, but prior to that had belonged to the archaeologist and diplomat Dr Edgar Banks who was field director of the Babylonian Expedition and American Consul to Baghdad in 1937. 

The buyer's premium at Doyle was 25/20/12%.

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