Old Baghdad auction houses resisting demise

Al Baghdadi auction house shut down after 2003 because of the US-led invasion and occupation.
Sunday 11/11/2018
A view of the interior of al Baghdadi auction house. (Oumayma Omar)
A shadow of past glory. A view of the interior of al Baghdadi auction house. (Oumayma Omar)

BAGHDAD - Al Baghdadi antique shop and auction house, once a landmark of artistic and cultural activity in Baghdad, is a shadow of its past glory. A dusty facade decorated with turquoise ceramic tiles from Karbala is all that remains of the shop in Azamiah, a posh neighbourhood of the Iraqi capital.

The auction house in which precious objects were displayed and unique pieces sold has become a furniture shop. Decades of hardship from war, UN sanctions and occupation by a US-led international force led to its closure and the flight of its founder and co-owner Moqdad al-Baghdadi.

“Auction houses started with al Sabbagh auction, one of Baghdad’s oldest houses, which opened in the 1930s selling all kinds of antique items, including furniture, carpets, artefacts and paintings,” Baghdadi said.

The idea of specialised auction houses expanded and more auctions were established, including al Baghdadi house, which Baghdadi said he hoped to revive after he returned in 2012 after seven years of self-exile in Syria.

Manufacturing traditional ceramic tiles of Karbala is the profession that Baghdadi inherited from his father and forefathers. He is a passionate collector of artwork and antiques that adorned his workshop in the souks of Baghdad, a major destination for visitors and tourists in the 1970s.

It was then, encouraged by his brother, that he opened an antique shop Dar al Baghdadi, which developed into a “cultural salon” and meeting place for artists, art lovers, collectors and diplomats. The auction house in Azamiah came later.

“I visited many auction houses in the world during which I gained a great experience that helped me achieve my dream of establishing a modern house according to international standards. It soon became a unique landmark in Baghdad,” Baghdadi said.

Among the unique pieces auctioned at al Baghdadi house was a calligraphy of the word of Allah handwritten by Ottoman Sultan Mahmoud II, which was sold at 40,000 dinars at the time, and a gold-encrusted Seljuk shield that Baghdadi purchased in Mosul.

Al Baghdadi auction house shut down after 2003 because of the US-led invasion and occupation, Baghdadi said. He fled to Syria after his home was hit during a US bombardment that he says was “intentional” because of his outspoken opposition to the invasion.

After returning to Baghdad, Baghdadi said he was shocked to find that the auction house had been turned into a furniture shop by other co-owners. However, his determination to revive the house was not dimmed.

“I will not give up,” he said. “With the help of my son and wife I converted a house that I own in Azamiah into an auction place. Already, we have organised a number of auctions and other cultural events with the hope that this will encourage other houses to resume their activities.”

In Khan al Modalal in Baghdad’s old souks, a dozen antique shops boast treasures of museum quality. Antique dealer Bassem Shamri has a shop that shows Ottoman-era swords, engraved silver trays, silver-plated brass boxes in which wealthy women kept their toiletries and engraved water pitchers that the rich used to wash guests’ hands after feasts.

“Auctions have become a rare event and the lack of business for antique shops reflects the precarious security situation. Dealers are reluctant to show their treasures, fearing illicit bargains and kidnapping. Besides many wealthy families and art lovers who appreciate antiques have left the country,” Shamri said.

His attempts to have auctions and to raise the interest of potential collectors proved unsuccessful. “Unfortunately, people had other priorities in mind and the lack of confidence between sellers and buyers aborted deals,” he said.

Many collectors resort to social media and websites offering online bargains. “Such business could be very risky,” Shamri said. “In many instances the deal is suspicious and there is room for abuse and exploitation, especially if the buyer has no real experience in recognising rare items and artworks.”

With a population once among the wealthiest and best educated in the Middle East, Iraq provides many early 20th-century antiques from families that sold their possessions before migrating to flee decades of war.

After Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, goods from the neighbouring country’s wealthy homes and its national museum — famed for Islamic art and Quranic manuscripts — were stolen and taken to Iraq.

More treasures came with the looting of Iraq’s national museum and Saddam Hussein’s palaces in the lawless days after the US-led invasion of 2003.