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Professor Finds Ancient Frieze in Students' "Sweet Shop"
by Columbia University Record - October 7, 1994 - Vol. 20, No.5
Posted: Wednesday, May 31, 2000 07:16 pm CST

ENGLAND (CUR) - A Columbia art history professor's recent sleuthing resulted in the discovery of a 3,000-year-old carved stone panel from the throne room of Assyrian King Assurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.). This summer the rare find was sold at auction for a record $11.8 million.

The restored panel, originally from an Assyrian king's throne room, was sold at auction for $11.8 million. Photo credit: Christie's

John Russell, associate professor of art history, in his Columbia office. Photo credit: Joe Pineiro

John Russell, an associate professor of art history, found the slab in the sweet shop of the Canford School, an English boarding school, in 1992.

The stone carving was covered with several thick coats of whitewash, and hung between a dart board and a candy machine.


"At first, the school didn't believe it was true," said Russell, who is beginning his eighth year at Columbia. "They didn't do anything for a year because they were between headmasters." The antiquity wasn't removed by conservators until one of the school's trustees was told that the British Museum had confirmed the piece's authenticity.

Russell visited the Canford School when he was in England completing research on a book about Sir Henry Layard, the discover of the "lost city" of Nineveh, an ancient Assyrian city located in what is now modern Iraq.

The school originally housed an extensive private collection of Assyrian antiquities held by Sir John Guest, a friend and patron of Layard's.

The Grubber at the Canford School, site of the ancient stone discovery. Photo credit: John Russell

The school's sweet shop, nicknamed "The Grubber" by the students, was designed by Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament. The small brick and stone building, which has a Gothic facade but an Assyrian interior, drew Russell's interest.

"We knew that most of the collection was sold in 1919 and ended up in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art," said Russell. "Seven remaining pieces had been discovered and sold at auction in 1959. There was no indication that anything remained of the collection."

However, a large Assyrian frieze was just inside the door of "The Grubber," across from a Coke machine and a pizza counter.

"We thought we wouldn't find any antiquities and we weren't looking. And since we weren't looking, we didn't see it at first," said Russell. "What we saw were plaster casts--reproductions--of Assyrian sculptures."


The original slab was positioned between two reproductions. All three were covered with several thick coats of paint, obscuring any detailed carving.

It wasn't until Russell returned to his research at the British Museum that he uncovered an inventory list of the entire collection of Assyrian art housed at Canford.

The list showed that the piece, depicting a royal attendant and a bearded, winged figure, was unaccounted for. With the help of Julian Reade, a curator at the British Museum, Russell documented the stone carving's authenticity.

Christie's, the auction house, estimated that the carving would bring $1.5 million. In a fierce four-minute bidding war, however, a well-known Japanese art dealer successfully bid $11.8 million.

The Canford headmaster said the windfall will fund several new scholarships and the construction of a theater and gymnasium.

The antiquity's finding is the subject of Russell's third book, Nineveh at Canford Manor.

Russell and Metropolitan Museum Publications are currently negotiating with university presses for publication.

"I could have written a novel; I wrote the academic study instead," said Russell, who completed his graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania in 1985.

Except for a few pinpoint holes from thrown darts--two show up clearly on the attendant's forearm and cheek--the 72-by-42-inch stone carving is considered to be in better shape than those housed in many museum collections.

"The coats of paint were probably the best thing that ever happened to it. It is incredibly well-preserved. It's a finely detailed piece," said Russell.

A plaster reproduction now hangs in its place in "The Grubber" at Canford.

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