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Ancient Iranian "Div Shir" Statuette Fetches Record Price at Sotheby’s


11 December 2007



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  Statuette of Div Shir - 3000-2800 BCE

 (Click to enlarge)

LONDON, (CAIS) -- An ancient statuette of a Standing Lioness Demon, which was sold for a record of $57 million at Sotheby’s Auction House in the New York on December 5, 2007.


The sale broke the previous record for the highest price for a sculpture at auction, which had stood at 29.1 million dollars and was set just last month at Sotheby’s in New York by Picasso’s “Tete de Femme (Dora Maar).”

Scholarly studies strongly indicate that the white magnesite or crystalline limestone statuette was carved in Elam, situated in modern-day Khuzestan province in southwestern Iran. 


At 8.8 cm (3 1/2 in.) high, the precious sculpture was carved by ancient Iranian artisans from the same civilization that witnessed the birth of writing, currency, the wheel and organised cities. 


The piece's geographical origin is corroborated stylistically by cylinder seals from the same area; their impressions include a similar leonine beast currently in Louver Museum. 


Edith Prada1 presented the statuette as Div Shir (demon lion/lioness) in an article published by Journal of the American Oriental Society. She dated the artefact to the early fourth - late third millennium B.C.E.


The carved Div Shir which Sotheby's auction house decided to rename it as "Guennol Lioness" as part of "Guennol Collection", measuring just over eight centimeters (3 1/4 inches) tall, was cunningly described as one of the last known masterworks of "Mesopotamian civilization" remaining in private hands, without mentioning Iran as the provenance.


"It was an honour for us to handle The Guennol Lioness, one of the greatest works of art of all time,” Richard Keresey and Florent Heintz, the experts in charge of the sale, said in a joint statement.


"Before the sale, a great connoisseur of art commented to us that he always regarded the figure as the ‘finest sculpture on earth’ and it would appear that the market agreed with him,” they said.


The statuette was owned by a private collector named Martin Family (Guennol, pronounced GWEN-ol, is Welsh for Martin), who loaned the item on trust to Brooklyn Museum in the same year the book was published.

The piece was acquired by Alastair Bradley Martin and his wife Edith in 1948 from Joseph Brummer. The New York art dealer had allegedly come to possess the figure in 1931 and reported that it was discovered at a site near Baghdad.


Nonetheless, Bloomberg was the only news agency which correctly reported that item as of an Iranian origin2.


The true date of smuggled artefact out Iran remains unknown.  


Previous to the sale of the artefact it was on view at the Brooklyn Museum for nearly 60 years. It was recently loaned to The Metropolitan Museum of Art3 for its landmark exhibition Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus (May 8-August 17, 2003), a showstopper in the exposition's first gallery.



Significance of the Sculpture

Many ancient Middle Eastern deities were visually represented with merged human and animal features. Such images evoked the Elamites' belief in attaining power over the physical world by combining the superior physical attributes of various species.


The striding upright Div Shir, some 5000 years old, is a diminutive feline figure with human posture. The nearby Sumerians possibly borrowed this powerful artistic hybrid from the Proto-Elamites lived in southwest Iran. Similar composite likenesses can be seen in the top and bottom registers of the trapezoidal front panel from the famous Great Lyre from the "King's Grave" (ca. 2650-2550 B.C.E.), a musical string instrument from a burial site at Ur in present-day Iraq4


The exquisitely carved Standing Lioness Demon is small in scale yet grand in power. The sculpture emanates strength and continues to evoke awe. This beautiful work of antiquity is conjectured to have been owned by an Elamite of important social status, perhaps a ruler. But its exact function still eludes scholars. The Div Shir was perhaps a fierce protective talisman meant to ward off evil. Its engaged clenched claws compressing its massive upper torso suggest a protective aspect of the composition.


The head of the Div Shir, with its grimacing glance, is turned sharply to the left, resting upon well-developed musculature and massive shoulders. The ferocious feline was probably painted colourfully in ancient times. The determined demon's tail snakes up the piece's spine from its posterior, embracing its slender waistline's left side. The sculpture's missing lower hind legs are thought to have been made of gold or silver. Four drilled holes behind the limestone object allowed for it to have been strung and suspended around one's neck, permitting it to function as a potent supernatural charm.




1. Porada, Edith. “A Leonine Figure of the Protoliterate Period of Mesopotamia,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 70, No. 4. (Oct.-Dec. 1950), 223-226.


2. Tiny Statue of Lioness Sells for Record $57.2 Million [Link]


3. Aruz, Joan (ed.), et al. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus (exh. cat.). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003, 42-44, 105-107.


4. Zettler, Richard L. and Lee Horne (eds.). Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur (exh. cat.). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1998, 53-57.



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