London’s auctions give insight into Islamic art

The piece that sparked a lot of excitement was a Quran written for Sultan Qaytbay (1468-96), the 18th Mamluk sultan of Egypt.
Sunday 17/11/2019
Three silver and brass overlaid steel rams, Qajar, Iran, second half of 19th century. (Christie's Images Ltd, 2019)
Rare and expensive. Three silver and brass overlaid steel rams, Qajar, Iran, second half of 19th century. (Christie's Images Ltd, 2019)

LONDON - British auction houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams recently conducted the biannual Islamic Art Week, featuring Indian art and modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art, a relatively recent phenomenon introduced by Christie’s in 2017.

The decision to move the sale from Dubai to London was meant to “internationalise the market further for Middle Eastern Art,” Michael Jeha, Christie’s managing director and deputy chairman, said at the time.

Sara Plumbly, head of Department for Islamic and Indian Art at Christie’s, pointed out that works of particular interest included Quranic manuscripts and wooden caskets originating from Gujarat in India. A striking Quranic folio from a manuscript includes verses from Surah Ash-Shu’ara of the Quran.

The script used is a beautiful, elaborate and smooth one known as Maghrebi, a cursive form of the Arabic alphabet influenced by Kufic letters that developed in North Africa and Andalusia. Because of its colour, the work is referred to as the Pink Quran folio by Islamic Art specialists, Plumbly said.

The October sale featured textiles, jewellery, paintings, ceramics and works of art from Spain to China. Islamic objects influenced by Chinese artistic methods could also be found.

The most expensive work listed was a 15th-century illustrated double-sided folio “The Angel of Bounty and the Arrival at the Second Heaven of Pearls” and an illustrated double-sided bifolium “The Two Hells Reserved for Misers and Flatterers” from “Nahj al-Faradis” (“Paths of Paradise”). Both works were given a price estimate of $901,211-$1.28 million.

The least expensive lot was a collection of silver and brass overlaid steel rams and brass or gold and silver overlaid steel camels, originating from 19th-century Iran and owned by a private Swiss collection. It was estimated at $2,574-$3,862.

Despite the uncertainty of how much Islamic art attracts collectors, it is safe to say there is a relatively high demand for such art during auction events, Plumbly said, noting that Christie’s had an extremely successful sale during Islamic Art Week in April.

The piece that sparked a lot of excitement was a Quran written for Sultan Qaytbay (1468-96), the 18th Mamluk sultan of Egypt. With an estimate of $644,000-$1.02 million, the Quran sold for $4.79 million. One explanation for the high demand for the Mamluk Quran could be that it has an inscription stating whom the holy book was made for, in this case Sultan Qaytbay.

“It’s quite rare to find Quranic manuscripts with royal dedicatory inscriptions. Having one, of course, increases the importance, the value and the demand,” Plumbly said.

Christie’s officials said they take extra precautions regarding objects originating from conflict areas, particularly in Syria and Iraq, where much art and cultural heritage has been destroyed, looted or sold on the black market.

Christie’s measures to authenticate the legal origin of the pieces include asking stringent questions about the works of art and documents proving legal acquisition. The due diligence process ensures works of art offered are licit with sound provenance.

“You have to treat every object like it’s guilty until proven innocent,” said Plumbly, adding that Christie’s has been vigilant to ensure that it has a transparent market in which art specialists know from where acquisitions come.

The only “blip” that Christie’s encountered five years ago concerned a 17th-century tinned copper Safavid bowl. After extensive research, Plumbly said she discovered the bowl belonged to the collection of the Kabul museum.

“After realising that the bowl was looted from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, we worked with the British Museum, which had been doing a lot of work with the museum in Kabul, and the bowl was returned to where it belonged,” she said, adding that “the bowl was bought in good faith by the owners.”

Islamic Art Week brings together collectors, curators, academics and connoisseurs from all over the world. Free access to pre-sale galleries gives the public an opportunity to learn about Islam and Islamic art.

This firsthand insight into rare, elaborate, detailed and valuable works of art allows positive thoughts about Islamic civilisation