School carves out a piece of saleroom history: Schoolboys' darts failed to harm a bas-relief that sold yesterday for a record price, writes Will Bennett

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The Independent Online
SOME OF Canford School's less gifted darts players may have left their mark on the 3,000-year-old bas-relief carved for the palace of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II, which sold for a world record pounds 7.7m yesterday.

For years the stone carving was next to the dartboard in the tuck shop. Boys munched crisps and cream buns as they honed their throwing skills.

Darts that missed their target sometimes struck the bas-relief. But no one minded for, disguised by several coats of whitewash and thought to be a plaster imitation, it never crossed anyone's mind that it had once decorated the palace of a king.

Charles Spreckley, head of school, said that the carving was known to generations of pupils as 'The Grubber'. To boys with more urgent matters on their minds it was merely a whitewashed part of the wall. 'There used to be a dartboard next to it, then there was a pinball machine. Darts used to go astray into the relief, but as soon as it was found how valuable it was it was all covered off.'

The route from the king's palace to the tuck shop was a tortuous one. The bas-relief was one of the finds excavated by the archeologist Sir Henry Layard, at Nimrud in what is now Iraq, in the mid-19th century. He originally planned to give the discoveries to the British Museum.

But he fell out with the museum trustees over the cost of transporting the finds back to Britain. Eventually he paid for much of this himself but was helped by Sir John Guest, a distant and wealthy relative, who owned Canford Manor, near Wimborne, Dorset.

Sir Henry repaid him by presenting him with some of the best of the finds and Sir John had a special Assyrian-style building erected to house them. In 1923 the manor became a public school and the building became the tuck shop.

Many of the items from the dig had already been sold but some were part of a wall and were covered by successive layers of whitewash. Experts from Sotheby's looked at the bas-relief and two accompanying casts in 1957 but dismissed them as plaster imitations.

There the matter rested until recently when a visiting American professor inspected the supposed plaster casts in the tuck shop. He said he recognised two but not the third and, suspecting that they might have an original, the school called in other experts.

Tests by Dr Julian Reade, an expert from the British Museum, revealed that it was no plaster cast. A conservationist then carefully stripped away the whitewash.

Christie's estimated that the carving would fetch about pounds 750,000 and yesterday a party from the school, including John Lever, the headmaster, and Commander Michael Chamberlain, the bursar, went to the auction in London to see if they were right.

Commander Chamberlain said: 'When it went through the reserve I breathed a sigh of relief, when it got to one million I said 'great' and then it started to get quite incredible. I have never witnessed anything quite like it before, the atmosphere in the saleroom was electric.'

Mr Spreckley said: 'It was totally staggering to find out in the first place that this piece of wall we had all been told was fake, and took no notice of, was worth about pounds 1m. To find it is worth nearly pounds 8m, I can't explain how staggering it feels.'

The school, which also sold for pounds 77,000 yesterday a fragment of a second relief kept in the headmaster's study, will actually get pounds 6.5m after the auctioneers' percentage and other costs have been deducted. The governors will meet tomorrow to decide how to spend it.

Mr Lever said: 'The school is going fully co-educational in a year's time. We are expanding so this will enable us to put into practice some of the projects we are dreaming about. We are hoping to build a theatre, we would like to build a sports hall and we will look seriously at setting up a number of scholarships.'

The theatre and the sports hall, for which a fundraising campaign had already been launched, could cost pounds 3m. The school may also build changing rooms for its golf course but there should be plenty left in its coffers for many years to come. But, apart from those whose children win any new scholarships created, parents cannot look forward to any fee reduction at the 500-strong school. Next year, they will pay pounds 11,900 a year for boarders and pounds 8,925 for day pupils.

(Photograph omitted)