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.
“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,” she said.
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.
Wider research by Ward has turned up considerable visual evidence of bag-carrying page boys next to noblewomen, but never alongside men.
“Other people in the past have called it everything from a work basket to a document wallet and, inevitably, male academics always assume it was for a man. What I’m saying is it’s a lady’s bag. It is the forerunner of a designer bag. The only difference between a modern and expensive designer bag and this one is that you get a bag-carrier to go with it,” Ward said.
The bag features in a new exhibition telling its story, which opened to the public on Thursday.
“Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq” runs at the Courtauld Gallery in London until May 18.