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A handbag? Courtauld Gallery opens up identity of 700-year-old treasure

Researchers at central London gallery say mystery prized metal object was used by Mosul's 14th-century Mongol noblewomen.

Over the years it's 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 1300-1330 in Mosul in what is now northern Iraq during its Mongol-run period.

The object has been a prized object in Courtauld's collection since 1966 is highly prized. "It is one 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 is 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 women and their attendants. One of those, a smiling page boy, has the bag around his shoulder.

Having been cleaned, the bag will feature in a new exhibition telling its story which opens to the public.