This little sculpture of a muscular leonine figure is 5,000 years old. It is contemporaneous with the first known use of the wheel, the development of writing and the first cities. For something so ancient it was crafted with breathtaking artistry and accomplishment. It is white magnesite or crystalline limestone, a mere 8.8cm (3 ½ inches) high and it exudes potency.

The mysterious and exquisite form is highly stylised, blending female human and lion. The head is life-like. 5,000 years ago the stakes would have been quite high for the carver to closely observe a lioness. Two holes in the top suggest that it may have been worn on a cord around the neck. The wearer would no doubt have been prestigious.

The Guennol Lioness is Mesopotamian, found near Baghdad by Sir Leonard Woolley on his 1924-34 dig. It is from Elam, a civilisation mainly in what is now southwest Iran, on the shore of the Persian Gulf. It was acquired in 1948 by Alastair Bradley Martin, who was the chairman of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and loaned to that museum. His collection is named Guennol after the Welsh word for martin, the bird. Sotheby’s described the figure as “one of the last known masterworks from the dawn of civilization remaining in private hands.”

In 2007 it sold at Sotheby’s as the most expensive sculpture in history: $57.2 million. The previous record was $29.2 million for Picasso’s bronze Tete du Femme (Dora Maar). The auction price of the Guennol Lioness was surpassed in February 2010 when Alberto Giacometti’s L’Homme qui marche I sold for $104.3 million.

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