An old friend: the Iraqi-French antiquity dealer Ibrahim Elias Géjou

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An old friend: the Iraqi-French antiquity dealer Ibrahim Elias Géjou

Week 3 – May 3, 2021

By Nadia Ait Said-Ghanem, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow

When Ibrahim Elias Géjou, Joseph Svoboda’s family friend, arrived at his father’s house in Baghdad on Wednesday 14 June 1899, he probably felt as exhausted as he was excited. His journey from Paris had lasted 45 days, but it was worth it.

(Fig 1) Clay cylinder BM 85975 
royal inscription relating the building work of Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC)
Bought from Gejou by the British Museum in 1899
Photo credit: British Museum Website

He had planned to purchase as many ancient objects and old manuscripts on Baghdad’s antiquities market as he could afford with his brother Isaac, his business partner, to sell on as before to his usual clients in London and Paris at a dizzying profit. Géjou’s faithful buyers were curators in Europe’s most famous museums, and scholars eager to both publish never-before-seen material and investigate new knowledge. In 1891, his friend Joseph had himself sold 25 ancient cylinder seals at a tremendous profit to the British Museum, and Ibrahim knew his own investment would pay off too.

(Fig 2) Ottoman Empire and Territory Divisions into Vilayets in 1905 – @ Wiki Commons

In 1899, buying and selling antiquities was legal throughout the Ottoman empire which then controlled Iraq, but their export by private individuals was forbidden by law since 1869. All parties involved were well aware of this, but few took notice except when caught. 

To take these objects out of the region, Géjou could count on a well-oiled delivery network. Since the Suez canal had been opened for navigation in 1869, trade to and from Iraq was booming. Géjou could send ancient artefacts to Europe easily, on steamships operating from Basra, like those of Strick & Co which he had used before.

(Fig 4) Geymer served for breakfast 
Photo credit: Iraqi food writer Nawal Nasrallah

On the morning of Monday 26 June 1899, already two weeks after his arrival and now well rested, Géjou was getting ready for another day of buying antiquities. Later that evening, he would tell his old friend Joseph that the day’s search had been fruitful. But for now, he’d get up, kiss his mother Ferida and father Elias on the head, and would joke around with his sisters Loulou and Sarah at breakfast. Perhaps they’d even prepared ‘geymer’, a cheese made from buffalo milk and a popular breakfast dish in Iraq.

Context: To give you visual examples of the types of ancient artefacts from Iraq and the region that are today dispersed across the world in museums, see the following collections:

Highlights of the ‘ancient Near East’ collection of the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, Germany  

Treasures from the ancient city of Ur in the Penn Museum, Philadelphia, USA 

artefacts sold by Gejou to the British Museum, London, UK 

artefacts sold by Gejou to the Louvre Museum, Paris, France

Suggested Reading: Diary 49: 29, 41, 65, 66, 71, 72

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