London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Two of London’s most prestigious auction houses are due to launch a special week of sales of Islamic art on Tuesday. Islamic Art Week, hosted by Christie’s and Sotheby’s, will feature many centuries-old artistic treasures from across the Islamic world.
Having toured Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses to explore the most prominent pieces on sale during Islamic Art Week, Asharq Al-Awsat found a huge collection of Islamic antiquities, some of which have rich histories and truly unique stories, while others were distinguished by their aesthetic beauty, which has resisted the ravages of time, testifying to the skill and dedication of the craftsmen and artists who created these works.
The tour began in a corridor of Christie’s in London’s King Street, where the pieces to be auctioned on October 8 were displayed on a series of tables and shelves. Sara Plumbly, head of the Islamic Art Department at Christie’s, gave us the opportunity to view some of the most important pieces to be auctioned.
The first item was a unique carpet from Lahore dating back to the 18th century. According to the auction catalog, the carpet is designated for praying. It has tiny details and colors and is amazingly soft. The engravings on the carpet are also unique as its colors are rare—yellow and light brown, with pink flowers.
We also saw a dagger with a hilt made of translucent rock crystal that dates back to the height of the Mughal Empire in India. The dagger was kept in a red sheath, the corners of which are inlaid with corundum and emerald. The dagger is distinguished by its pure bright metal and good condition.
When asked about the dagger’s history, Plumbly said there was no information about it, its manufacturer, or even its owner. Perhaps it was made for a member of the royal court in the Mughal era, or even for one of the Sultans. “In the drawings of Mughal palaces and courts which we have, there are rulers and statesmen holding similar daggers,” Plumbly says.
Another piece of rock crystal was very likely used as a perfume bottle, Plumbly says it dates back to the Fatimid period, which was known for the use of rock crystal, though the crystal is not as pure as that of the dagger.
Also dating back to the Fatimid period (12th century CE) was an engraved wooden panel, once part of a door and mounted inside a frame manufactured in Syria in the 18th century CE. The auction house’s experts have no idea if the door was part of a mosque or palace. One thing they do know, however, is that similar pieces are a rare sight on world markets, making this a very valuable item.
The biggest surprise among the items has to be the rare Qur’an written in gold on blue vellum decorated with silver. This particular copy of the Qur’an was made in India in the 17th century CE. Plumbly says decorated Qur’ans like this one are relatively unusual. “I do not think I have seen many similar pieces,” she says. Pumbly described the use of blue on the holy book as “fascinating,” and reminiscent of another copy of the Qur’an she was familiar with that was made in Andalusia and used similar colored paper. Plumbly said she expected it to sell for more than the estimated price of 6,000–8,000 British pounds.
As this year’s Hajj season draws to a close, there were some newer, but still fascinating, artifacts of past pilgrimages. In particular, some photographs of the pilgrimage journey to Mecca and Medina taken by Mohamed Sadiq Bey were on display. Sadiq Bey accompanied the pilgrims on their journey from Cairo to Mecca during September 1880–January 1881, photographing pilgrimage rituals and various holy sites on the way. The photographs he took, which he later published in Egyptian magazines, were among the first to be taken in the region.
Islamic Art Week runs October 7–10 at Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses in London, UK.