700-year-old handbag in London museum

Over the years it has been identified as an oriental box, a work basket, a document wallet and even a saddle bag. Now London’s Courtauld Gallery confidently believes one of its most prized possessions is really a 700-year-old handbag — probably the oldest in existence.

New research suggests that the stunning and remarkably well kept brass woman’s bag, inlaid with gold and silver, was made between 1300 and 1330 in Mosul, in what is now northern Iraq, during its Mongol-run period.

The bag has been a prized object in Courtauld’s collection since 1966. “It is one of the finest and best preserved examples of inlaid metalwork in the world,” said Rachel Ward, who has been leading research into the bag.

What was not certain was exactly what it was. “It is a fantastic object and yet it is almost unknown because there’s always been this puzzlement over what it is, who it was made for, when it was made, where it was made. So it hasn’t been used in things like general introductory books because you didn’t know what chapter to put it in.” The key to unlocking its secret is an unusual panel on the top showing a nobleman and woman and their attendants. One of those, a smiling page boy, has the bag around his shoulder.

The bag was acquired by the Victorian collector Thomas Gambier Parry in 1858 and was bequeathed to the Courtauld by his grandson in 1966. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014



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