Islamic Week in London: Overview of the Most Prestigious Auctions

23 Oct 2018


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

Twice a year, London main auction houses gather for a week dedicated to Oriental arts. This autumn, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonham’s selection is particularly interesting. All three houses offer little known or completely unknown treasures and set interesting new trends that will have to be observed in future auctions.
Bonham’s opens the week on the 23rd with a large catalogue of 220 lots, Sotheby’s follows the next day with a bigger catalogue of 253 lots, while Christie’s finishes the week with 382 lots, including a large selection of carpets.

Traditionally, London auctions open on a selection of 8th and 9th centuries Qur’an leaves on parchment. These items are the oldest in the chronology of Islamic art history and are usually well represented in auctions. This autumn, however, Bonham’s completely removes the section and Sotheby’s reduces it to two lots. Christie’s presents only four lots but opens with a folio from the Blue Qur’an, this exceptional and apparently unique manuscript exclusively composed of gold writing on parchment leaves tinted in lapis blue (1). The manuscript is not signed nor dated but its aesthetic qualities are without equal, so we can expect an interesting battle between private collectors and museums to get it.

To verify if the end of the Qur’anic leaves on parchment is coming to an end, let’s wait and see what result the 3rd lot presented at Christie’s will achieve. The 67 folios section was previously presented at Sotheby’s in 2007 for £60,000-80,000 and sold £60,500. (2) Christie’s estimation drops to £40,000-60,000 and it will be interesting to see if the result follows.

                     

1. Blue Qur’an leaf - Christie’s lot 1, £200,000-300,000

2. Kufic Qur'an section - Christie’s lot 3, £40,000-60,00

This noticeable distrust of auction houses for pre-14th-century material seems to confirm the fact that the spotlight is now on pre-modern productions, namely Ottoman in Turkey, Safavid and Qajar in Iran, Mughal and provincial schools in India. This new trend was already showcased during the spring Islamic week last April but is now being confirmed by the large selection of pre-modern ceramics. Christie’s and Bonham’s both display important ensembles of Safavid tiles from the 17th and 18h centuries (3), but the spotlight gets more especially on Sotheby’s with their two leading lots. The first one is a blue and white Iznik dish (4), produced in Ottoman Turkey during the 15th century. Iznik productions from the 16th and 17th centuries are particularly famous for the brick-red pigment used to decorate a reduced and characteristic decorative repertoire of tulips, peonies, and cypress trees, but the ceramics produced earlier emulate a different kind of inspiration. The use of cobalt blue and white is a direct reference to Chinese porcelains, particularly appreciated by Ottoman collectors, but the repertoire of decorative patterns differs from their oriental model toward more specific designs. The large dish presented by Sotheby’s is mainly composed of an arabesque of Rumi Motifs, while the palette integrates different shades of blue. This specific kind of ceramics is particularly rare, less than ten are currently preserved in public and private collections, which justify its valuation at £300,000-500,000.

             
3. Safavid Tile - Bonham’s lot 41, £3,000-5,000
4. Iznik pottery charger - Sotheby’s lot 134, £300,000-500,000

The second main lot is a tile panel produced in Diyarbakır, in Ottoman Turkey, at the end of the 16th century (5). Composed of twelve tiles richly ornamented, it was designed to fit a mihrab, the traditional niche placed in the Qibla wall of a mosque, toward which Muslims turn to pray. Diyarbakir production differs from Iznik in its decoration, more complex and intricate. This impressive ensemble, reaching 1.36m high, astonishes by the diversity of its decoration and the refinement of its ornament. Like the Iznik plate, it got an estimation of £300,000-500,000.

Iznik ceramics are always heavily represented in auctions. It has been a good investment for collectors for several years, with valuations in London rarely going lower than £3000. Value of Iznik items depends entirely on their conservation state, the quality of their decoration (a piece where pigments have run during baking will be less appealing, for instance) and their rarity. This is why Sotheby’s blue and white charger dish valuation skyrockets while most of the other pieces presented in the same catalogue stagnate around £6000. That being said, it will be interesting to see if the current state of the lira impacts the sales.

Ottoman Turkey is also represented through a few interesting illustrated manuscripts. Ottoman arts of the book have been underrepresented for years, mainly because they have been considered as a sous genre of Safavid and post-Safavid Persian painting. Last spring auction has shown that it is far from being the case with an exquisite erotic manuscript sold £561,000, and this autumn should continue to see prices increase. This should be the case with a folio from the story of Miqdad bin Aswad, copied in 1003/1594-95 and richly illustrated(6). The page was valued by Sotheby’s in 2007 at £30,000-40,000 and sold £120,500; Christie’s more than doubles the estimation by going as high as £80,000-120,000 to follows this new trend.

Late Ottoman prayer books and Qur’ans have been well represented for several years and this Islamic week doesn’t seem to contradict this. Estimations generally never go above £10,000 but are a safe investment. Qajar productions from 19th century Iran have come into a new light in recent years through scientific breakthroughs, exhibitions and of course the opening of Iran to the world under the Obama administration. Where Qajar manuscripts and lacquers were previously seen as charming objects of curiosity, prices have started to rise. That being said, last spring Islamic week offered a large number of Qajar items, especially manuscripts, and most of them were sold without breaking records. This is maybe the reason why this Islamic week selection is more reduced and diversified, including more jewellery and weapons.

                                      
5. Diyarbakir mihrab tile panel - Sotheby’s lot 181, £300,000-500,000  6. Miqdad bin Aswad, 1594-95 - Christie’s lot  225, £80,000-120,000

Finally, all three auction houses offer Mughal and late-Mughal objects and manuscripts. Buying Indian art has become increasingly difficult throughout the years as more and more fakes have reached the market. However, the number of Indian paintings offered during Islamic weeks doesn’t seem to decrease. The same goes from jewellery, particularly represented at Sotheby’s despite being incredibly hard to date with certitude. Bonham’s, in particular, presents a large number of paintings, mainly “sub-imperial” and “provincial” but tends to lower estimations. Christie’s does the same, for instance with a folio from the famous Chester Beatty Tuttinama (172), only valued at £8,000-12,000 despite its historical importance, as well as for a page from the first Baburnama (174) dated by scholars around 1589 and only offered at £15,000-20,000 (7). The comparison with contemporary Ottoman paintings shows well that Indian painting doesn’t have the wind in its sails.

                         
7. Baburnama, c. 1589 - Christie’s lot 174,
£15,000-20,000
8. Riza Abbasi, Seated Youth - Christie’s lot 56, £100,000-150,000

It will be interesting to assist to the auctions and read through the results. Intense fights are expected around the Iznik dish presented by Sotheby’s; the painting by the famous 17th century Safavid painter Reza Abbasi offered by Christie’s for £100,000-150,000 (8); and one of Bonham’s main lot, a Mughal emerald seal made for Marian Hastings, wife of Warren Hastings, governor-general of India from 1773 to 1785, valued only at £20,000-30,000 (9). The wind might as well change for Qajar objects but it is too soon to tell, while I am personally interested to see how the three Samanid dishes presented by Christie’s will do. Produced in Central Asia in the 10th century and characterized by a refined ornamentation in black and red over a cream white background, these artifacts were in every auction until five or six years ago, then disappeared almost completely due fakes completely flooding the market (10). The production reappears here but with the guarantee of a prestigious collector from a prestigious family: the Soudavar. We will see if this insurance convinces the buyers.

                                        
9. Marian Hastings emerald seal - Bonham’s lot
171, £20,000-30,000
10. Samanid calligraphic dish
Christie’s lot 44, £15,000-25,000



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