Britain seeks to block sale of Lawrence of Arabia’s dagger and robes

"There is a whole industry around Lawrence,” retired Israeli ambassador to Jordan and leading expert on Lawrence says.

Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The British government is going to great lengths to stop T.E. Lawrence’s war robes and dagger from leaving the country, imposing a temporary export ban.
Lawrence (1888-1935), better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was “one of the most extraordinary figures of the 20th century,” and his dagger and white silk and cotton robes were “absolutely iconic and a key part of his enduring image,” Ed Vaizey, the UK’s minister of state for culture, communications and creative industries, said in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph.
The row over Lawrence’s personal items has touched on Briton’s sense of national identity.
Jacob Rosen, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and leading expert on Lawrence, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that “Lawrence became a national symbol.”
Rosen, who has written about the late British archeologist, military officer and diplomat, added, “Many men in England have a sort of romantic, emotional affinity to Lawrence and all things associated with him.”
The sale of Lawrence’s World War I attire and dagger to a buyer abroad could lead to “the perception is that England can be bought.”
If a British-based buyer can offer $195,790 to Christie’s auction house, the items will remain in the UK. Last year, a private foreign buyer, who wished to remain unnamed, bought the dagger and robes for the same amount, but has been unable to take them out of Britain because of the temporary export ban.
Sir Hayden Phillips, chairman of the Arts Council committee that oversees the export policy of cultural goods, told the Telegraph: “The dagger was presented to Lawrence by Sherif Nasir in gratitude for Lawrence’s leadership and as a spontaneous mark of respect. The robes and dagger together form a crucial part of the images of Lawrence in painting, sculpture and photographs, and they are therefore an integral part of his life and our history.”
Rosen said there “is a whole industry around Lawrence.”
Lawrence gained fame in desert battles of WWI against the Ottoman army. He used his knowledge of the region to organize Beduin and Arab tribes to destroy Turkish garrisons and railway lines.
The silver-gilt mounted Arab Jambiya dagger was presented to Lawrence in 1917 by Sherif Nasir for his role in the victory over Turkish- controlled Aqaba on the northern point of the Red Sea. The city is located in present-day Jordan.
The 1961 epic David Lean film Lawrence of Arabia showed the young Lawrence in his white robes and a fictionalized version of Sherif Nasir presenting him with the dagger. The late Peter O’Toole played Lawrence and the recently deceased Omar Sharif depicted Nasir.
According to Michael Korda’s 2010 biography Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, Arab nationalists viewed Lawrence as pro-Zionist, and Zionists saw him as pro-Arab. Lawrence’s actions to promote Zionist immigration coupled with his effort to create a unified Arab state provide evidence that he was both an Arabophile and a Zionist.
He encouraged Jewish immigration to then-Ottoman-ruled area of present-day Israel as early as 1909: “The sooner the Jews farm it the better: their colonies are bright spots in a desert.” He would continue to support Jewish immigration after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.