London, Asharq Al-Awsat—This week Christie’s and Sotheby’s, two of the world’s largest auction houses, are holding major sales of Islamic art during London’s Islamic Art Week. The week started on Tuesday at Christie’s, which hosted a sale of oriental rugs and carpets from the Islamic world. Continuing on Wednesday, Sotheby’s launched its “Arts of the Islamic World” sale, and on Thursday Christie’s is staging its “Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds” sale at its King Street branch in London. The week will wrap up on Friday when Christie’s hosts a sale of textiles from the Islamic world. Asharq Al-Awsat toured both auction houses to have a look at what is up for sale during the week.
At Christie’s, Sara Plumbly, the auction house’s Islamic Art specialist, took us on a tour of what was for sale. One piece, an example of Ottoman pottery, is a rare İznik China bowl decorated in blue Rumi Arabesque patterns showing cypress trees and flowers, and valued at between roughly 300,000–500,000 pounds (500,000–830,000 US dollars). Turkey’s İznik region was a thriving pottery-making hub during the Ottoman era, at one time under the direct patronage of the Ottoman court in Istanbul. This distinctive tradition used cobalt blue design patterns blending Arabesque and Chinese influences on finely crafted ceramics.
Plumbly showed us another İznik China piece up for grabs this week, an elegant Mosque lamp, or Qandil, decorated using two shades of blue and sporting stellar and florid motifs on a white ceramic surface, and estimated at 100,000–150,000 pounds (170,000–250,000 dollars). Plumbly said the piece originally belonged to a collection exhibited at the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul. It was still unknown, she said, whether the “lamp” was used for illumination or to amplify the acoustics in the mosque with the sounds bouncing off them, or perhaps only for decoration.
Plumbly also showed us an exquisite jade pendant from Mughal India, which happens to be the earliest known piece of jade made during that period. Dating from 1597–1598, this piece features a Qur’anic verse carved onto the jade surface using the Persian–Arabic Nasta’liq script. “This is considered one of the oldest jade stone pieces,” says Plumbly. “It is thought to have been made for Emperor Jahangir [the fourth Mughal emperor and the eldest son of Akbar the Great] to reduce his palpitations.” The piece will be up for auction on Thursday and is valued at roughly 15,000–25,000 pounds (25,000–42,000 dollars).
One of the most striking items on display is a 16th-century Qur’an from Herat in Iran during the Safavid era. What is unique about this item—though two others are housed at the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul—is that it is inscribed entirely in gold, with blue motifs for every Sura heading. “Seldom do we find a copy of the Qur’an written completely in gold,” says Plumbly. “The calligrapher is anonymous, and didn’t sign his name, unlike other calligraphers of that time, perhaps out of modesty.”
Carpets will feature prominently during the week, with Christie’s having devoted an entire day to their sale. A total of 145 oriental carpets were up for auction, including 26 from the Mamluk era in Egypt (1250–1517) and Ottoman carpets owned by the Hamburg collector Peter Lehmann-Bärenklau, who has amassed an impressive collection throughout the years. Among these were two unique pieces. One was manufactured in Cairo during the late Mamluk or early Ottoman era and is an example of beautifully knitted rugs that shows the development of the Egyptian textile industry in the early 16th century, following the Ottoman conquest in 1517. Mamluk-era carpets from Egypt are distinguished by their complex geometrical designs using numerous colorful threads. When Cairo fell into the hands of the Ottomans in 1517, carpet workshops there had to adapt to the new Ottoman style, and so they began to make a blend of different Turkish designs and techniques to produce these “new” Mamluk carpets.
At Sotheby’s, we met with Benedict Carter, head of Middle East auctions. Speaking about whether the high demand so far this week was an indication of an intensifying interest in Islamic art among the art-buying public or just a passing fad, Carter told Asharq Al-Awsat: “It is difficult to predict what happens in this particular market, yet there are a number of antique collectors and corporations that are always interested in Islamic art auctions as long as the pieces on display are unique.”
The most important piece in the auction, says Carter, is a portrait of Fath Ali Shah, the Qajar Emperor of Iran, dating from 1820. Fath Ali was one of the Qajari dynasty’s most prominent rulers. His age was distinguished by relative tranquility and security, with a great deal of emphasis laid on cultural development. As a prominent custodian of the arts, Fath Ali assigned a number of artists to paint full-length portraits of him, something he used to advertise his rule.This painting of Fath Ali, which sold on Wednesday for almost 3 million pounds (5 million dollars), had not appeared on the market since 1975. Although Fath Ali had several portraits made, this particular piece is different, says Carter, because a prince—Fath Ali’s grandson and successor—appears next to him. In the portrait, the style of artist Mehr Ali, the Qajari royal court’s favorite painter, is clear, especially his attention to minute detail when depicting the jewels on the king’s garments and turban, as well as on the shisha (water pipe) sitting in front of him. Carter says: “A Sultan is usually portrayed holding a sword or a dagger, but this was the first time that a shisha appeared in a portrait. This could be meant to express an atmosphere of relaxation, especially as his young grandson is portrayed next to him.”
Of course, no art auction is complete without jewels. At Sotheby’s, Carter shows us a collection from Morocco made by a Jewish jeweler. “Jewish craftsmen used to shape jewels for weddings,” he says. Carter tells us some buyers will actually wear these pieces, especially items such as earrings or bracelets. “The buyer could be an antiquity collector or a museum, but there are also some people who are simply interested in collecting them,” he says.
Another piece, a rock crystal, seems at first glance to have no specific function, but once examined carefully it becomes apparent what it is: a chess piece. This intricately carved piece is a rare example of the art of gemstone carving and sculpting which flourished during 11th-century Fatimid Egypt. It was sold on Wednesday for 98,500 pounds (165,000 dollars). Carter believes the piece is most likely part of a chess set commissioned for a young Fatimid nobleman. The rest of the set is housed at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
Being an Islamic art auction, there are also pieces from the birthplace of Islam itself: Mecca. One up for sale is a 19th-century Ottoman-era covering used for the Ka’aba door, and carrying the stamp of the then-Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, as well as a scale plan of the holy sanctuary drawn in watercolors on paper and including lists and diagrams of the buildings in the area. The map has precise measurements of the Prophet’s Mosque, with detailed explanations of the holy sites and other buildings around the Mosque.
Islamic Art Week runs from Tuesday, April 8, to Friday, April 11 at Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses in London.