All good things come with time: London spring Islamic Week will go ahead in June

(by the Islamic Arts specialist Dr Isabelle Imbert PH.D)

This past couple of months have been challenging for the art market, especially for the microcosmos of Islamic arts, but it has been fascinating to see the auction houses adapt to the global lock-down.

London and Paris have closed the doors of exhibition rooms and while some houses have postponed their sales, other have decided to use this unprecedented opportunity to shift their focus onto online auctions. Until then, only Bonhams had held dedicated online sales between their two main auctions, but for this occasion, Millon et Associes and Chiswick rose to the challenge with overall very positive results.

While Millon and Chiswick choice led to a great success for both auctioneers, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Dreweatts decided to postpone their live auctions until safer days. Auctions will be held the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th June in the above order, but at the time where these lines are written, there is no real guarantee that the sales will go ahead at the beginning of June. Indeed, lock-down is still in effect in the United Kingdom and most businesses are still closed. It will be interesting to see if the houses can actually hold exhibitions and if not, how will the sales go. Buyers might be willing to take risks on low to medium valuations such as ones proposed by Bonhams, Millon and Chiswick, but they might not tempt fate with six figures artefacts.

Left: Timurid Qur’an on Chinese paper, Iran, 15th century. Christie’s, lot 29 [1]; Right: Turquoise glazed reticulated cockerel-head pottery ewer, Iran, Kashan, 13th c. Christie’s, lot 8 [2]

Christie’s will open on the 9th June with a relatively small catalogue of 205 lots, ranging from £600.000-900.000 for an exceptional 15th century Qur’an on Chinese paper decorated with golden landscapes [1], to £1.000-1.500 for a 18th century North African religious manuscript.

Among the most interesting lots, Medieval ceramic reappears after a long absence from the market, with three 13th century “Kashan” ceramics¹: a turquoise glazed reticulated cockerel-head pottery ewer with elegant figurative decoration (£100.000-150.000) [2], a moulded cobalt-blue, black and white jug that announces in many ways the later Iznik production in Turkey² [3] (lot 4, £50.000-70.000) and a deep cobalt-blue ewer with moulded decoration (lot 3, £20.000-30.000).

Left: Moulded cobalt-blue, black and white jug, Iran, Kashan, 13th c. Christie’s, lot 4, [3]; Right: Turquoise glazed pottery pitcher, Iran, Kashan, 13th c. Sotheby’s, lot 98 [4]

Sotheby’s also reintroduces Medieval ceramic with several Kashan ceramics, including a turquoise and black ewer with calligraphic bands, valued £120.000-160.000. Considering the importance of the piece and the fact that it was in two major collections (Matossian and Edwin Binney III), the absence of a real analysis in the online catalogue is a bit disappointing [4].

Left: Lajvardina moulded calligraphic tile (detail), Iran, 14th c. Bonhams, lot 65, [5]; Right: Pyxis, Spain, 12th/ 13th c. Sotheby’s lot 87 [6]

Bonhams got the memo and is also offering a Kashan ewer! The brown and cream bottle bears a nice figurative decoration, and despite having been damaged, it is still very elegant (it was broken and repaired), (lot 63, £2.000-4.000). The auctioneer is also offering a Lajvardina moulded calligraphic tile, probably produced in Iran under the reign of the Ilkhanid dynasty, early 14th century. These deep blue ceramics are called that way for the pigment used to colour the piece, based on crushed lapis-lazuli, ladvar in Persian. Like this one, Lajvardina pieces are usually highlighted with red, white and more particularly gold leaves, which makes them more difficult to fire³. For a few years, these pieces have been rare on the market, only appearing at rare occasions for relatively low estimations. The tile presented by Bonhams seems to be in good condition but given the current lack of interest for Lajvardina, the range £10.000-15.000 seems like a bold choice. Let’s hope this will mark a new beginning for the production [5].

On the 10th June, Sotheby’s will present a catalogue of 303 lots interestingly focused on the Middle-Ages. Auctions from the past few years have seen a shift of emphasis toward the Pre-Modern period (16th-18th centuries) and early Modern (19th century) but for this Islamic Week, Sotheby’s top lots are mostly dated from the 12th to the end of the 15th century. The top item is a wooden pyxis with micro-mosaic decoration and ivory inlays, produced in Spain, maybe during the reign of the Almohad or Nasrid dynasties (12th-13th centuries), valued £200.000-300.000. Though the catalogue makes a compelling argument for the very early date it proposes, by comparing with other (undated) boxes and more importantly with Spanish and North African architectural decorations, caution is always appropriate, and we can wonder if the experts didn’t get too excited facing this never-seen-before box, while a later date, 14th century at the earliest, might have been wiser [6].

Left: Abbasid tin-glazed pottery bowl, Iraq, 9th/10th c. Sotheby’s, lot 96, [7]; Right: Umayyad gold dinar dated 77H./ 696-97. Bonhams, lot 44, [8]

Other reappearance, Abbasid ceramics¹* with three pottery bowls presented by Sotheby's and one calligraphic bowl presented by Bonhams. Like Kashan ceramics, Abbasid pieces, most of the time given to the 9th century in Iraq or Syria, have been quite rare on the market for some time, mostly after a few scandals of forgery. The prices of the pieces go from £6.000-8.000 (Bonhams lot 62) to £40.000-50.000 (Sotheby’s lot 93), depending on the preservation state, the size, the design and the provenance, so it will be interesting to see what type of piece buyers are drawn to [7].

Among the catalogue of 262 lots, Bonhams goes back even further in time with their top lot, a rare and historically significant gold dinar dated 77H./ 696-97, under the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik, fifth caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. Valued for £100.000-150.000, it will be interesting to see who gets to leave with this small part of history [8]. Numerous other golden coins from other reigns and dynasties are also presented, probably coming from the same collection, which constitutes a very good opportunity for numismatists.

Left: Euclid, Elementorum Geometricorum, 1594, Dreweatts, lot 1, [9]; Right: Sub-Saharan Qur’an, 19th c. Dreweatts, lot 47, [10]

Finally, Dreweatts will end the week on the 12th June with a catalogue of 130 lots mostly on paper, including a very rare first edition of Euclid Elementorum Geometricum in Arabic, published in Rome in 1594 [9] (£18.000-22.000). Other manuscripts include some interesting sub-Saharan Qur’ans [10], usually quite rare in more prominent auction houses, as well as ethnographic pieces, such a Qur’anic writing tablet, maybe from Morocco, used by students to memorize verses of the Qur’an (lot 46, £500-700).

Left: Tent (qanat) panel, India, 17th c., Sotheby’s lot 143, [11]; Right: Bahadur Shah seated on the terrace, India 18th c. Bonhams, lot 139, [12]

Despite delayed auctions and reduced catalogues, the selection of this Islamic week is both interesting and intriguing. A lot is happening Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Dreweatts catalogues, and we can already look forward to exciting events, and, of course, going outside. [11] [12]

¹ Named after the city of Kashan in Iran, located south of Tehran, in which a very large centre of production was particularly active during the Seldjuk dynasty rule, roughly 11th- 12th centuries. It continues to be very active until the end of the Safavid dynasty rule in the 18th century.
² The Seldjuk territory was particularly large and included parts of Eastern Turkey, which will later be conquered by the Ottoman dynasty, who rule on the city of Iznik and will mostly control the production of ceramics. In this context, artistic exchanges and transmission are not surprising.
³ Gold disintegrates at more than 500°C and requires a perfectly control environment to fire.
¹* The Abbasid dynasty takes the control of Iraq and Syria and the subsequent Islamic territories after defeating the last Umayyad calif in 750. They will reign until 1253.

This article was brought to you by the Islamic Arts specialist Dr Isabelle Imbert PH.D. in collaboration with


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