An NPR article said that a million-dollar, solid-gold toilet was stolen from a palace recently. Originally constructed as an art piece, it’s also fully functional. Saddam Hussein’s homes were filled with similar riches.
According to NPR, the toilet was built by eccentric Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, who named it America. Formerly on display in the Blenheim Palace in England, visitors could book a three-minute appointment to sit on America and relieve themselves. It has been valued at up to $1.25 million and police have a suspect in custody. In 2017, President Trump asked the Guggenheim Museum in New York to borrow a Vincent Van Gogh painting for display in the White House. The article said that Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector and Cattelan himself replied offering to send them the solid-gold toilet, which was at the museum at the time. Extravagances such as golden utilities were often in the palaces of the late Saddam Hussein to show off his wealth and power.
The Psychology of Palaces
Why do rulers build so many palaces for themselves? “Rulers who founded dynasties or overthrew their successors often built lavishly as a way of announcing their control over the resources of the state and of establishing a base for rule,” Dr. Steven L. Tuck, Professor of Classics at Miami University, said. “Also, and this is often not recognized, these building projects were jobs programs. Sure, they aggrandize the ruler, but they also employ his subjects and provide jobs, sometimes lots and lots of jobs, during their lengthy construction phases.”
Dr. Tuck said that although the exact count varies, Saddam Hussein built between 80 and 100 palaces during his time as president of Iraq. He rarely lived in them, but they served as visual statements of his power and wealth.
“Saddam built palaces in every major, and many minor, cities in Iraq as a means of marking his territory and establishing a visible presence everywhere,” Dr. Tuck said. “From Mosul in the far north to Basra in the extreme south, no one should get any ideas of revolt if the ruler is, literally, everywhere at once.”
The Gold Standard
While Hussein’s houses were largely made of stone and inlaid with marble, he made a point of using gold in them. “Saddam’s palaces used gold for what all the writers on these palaces refer to as ‘fittings,'” Dr. Tuck said. “They are somewhat coyly referring to the faucets, soap dishes, sinks, wastebaskets, bidets, and even toilets in the palace bathrooms. It’s a deliberate statement of ostentation to fashion what might be considered the most utilitarian objects in the palace out of the most precious material in their construction.”
There are also some garish uses of gold in Saddam’s palaces unrelated to the lavatories. “One of the most ostentatious uses of gold not for ‘fittings’ is the three-story grand staircase in Saddam’s palace in Tikrit, his hometown,” Dr. Tuck said. “The staircase is made entirely of white marble with mother-of-pearl inlay accessorized with gold balusters and railing. Gold is also used to cover the wood in the rococo furniture throughout the sitting rooms in the Baghdad palaces—and it’s the major color scheme in other areas as well.”
While Hussein’s palaces with gold toilets were intended to seem grand and intimidating to visitors—Dr. Tuck said that as many as one-third of Iraqis at the time had no plumbing and had to relieve themselves into buckets—Cattelan’s single gold toilet was intended for the public to see and use. If America is recovered, crowds may have a chance to use it, again.
Dr. Steven L. Tuck contributed to this article. Dr. Tuck is Professor of Classics at Miami University. After earning his B.A. in History and Classics at Indiana University, he received his Ph.D. in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan.