Auction Catalogues and Reattribution: a Difficult Exercise (blog)

All Islamic Art Historians working on large set of material data will tell you the same, spending hours going through auction catalogues to find the forgotten gem is part of the job. Writing my doctoral dissertation of Indian and Persian flower paintings produced between the 16th and the 18th centuries, I dissected countless of catalogues from the 60’s to recent days, hoping to find the long-lost twin of Mansur’s Tulip (which I didn’t). What I found, however, was a lot of questionable attributions, dating, and deeply cut corners.

This is not the case for all auction catalogues and some houses take very seriously their responsibility to publish accurate analysis of Islamic artefacts, especially for the most prestigious auction lots, but it is common practice to put objects in artificial categories and call it a day. These categories are usually based on one distinctive feature, whether it is a chronological marker such as a ruling dynasty (i.e. Safavid Iran), a city or production centre, loosely attached to chronological range (i.e. Iznik or Kashan), or more rarely another artefact (i.e. The St Petersburg Muraqqa’). Integral part of the catalogue entries, these categories provide an immediate reference to the seasoned reader, but they also constitute a selling argument.

Some productions are indeed more valued than others, depending on market trends. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to produce an expertise for a client who was interested in acquiring an archaeological artefact that raised the difficulty of re-attribution.

Abbasid, Early Islamic, Sasanian: Close Call…

The objects was an elliptical dish on low foot, flared belly and flattened rim, carved in a single piece of rock crystal. The outside body was cut in a symmetrical composition based on two repeating patterns of a palmette of three main double leaves and two smalls at the base, flanked by long looping stamen and a centric pattern repeating on the long sides. The centre of the dish was marked by a double line forming a medallion. The rim was cross-hatched apart from both ends, highlighted by a symmetrical pattern based on repeating lines.

The object had been sold previously as Abbasid (750-1258). Based on the pictures I first received, it was my immediate opinion that the piece was not Abbasid, as its shape and ornementation had no equivalent in known objects and architectural decoration from this period. The other clue was the proximity of this piece with two others kept in the Louvre, discovered in the archaeological settlements of Susa.

Archaeological excavations of Susa, spanning from 1851 till 1979 and led by several teams of mostly French nationality, had focused first and foremost on Ancient and Imperial periods up to the Achaemenid dynasty, destroying upper layers in the process. For this reason, the line between late Sasanian and Early Islamic settlements is today blurry and it is virtually impossible to date precisely artefacts that do not bear any distinctive features (such as Arabic inscriptions).

Stucco relief fragment, Ctesiphon, Iraq, Sasanian, 6th c. MET (32.150.10)

Individual patterns and the overall shape of the piece led me to suspect the piece had nothing to do with Abbasid productions, even in Susa, but could be linked to late Sasanian productions. For instance, the three-leaves palmettes that occupy each sides of the dish, find numerous equivalences in Sassanian repertoire. Palmettes are extremely common in late Antiquity and in Islamic arts, but the structure of these patterns is specific enough to be used as a point of comparison: three leaves doubled in their centre, two additional leaves at the base in the shape of a crude heart, flanked by symmetrical loops. It appears in stucco decoration found in Ctesiphon, the Sasanian capital, as well as Susa in the late Sasanian/ Early Islamic layers.

The same way, the elliptical shape of the dish is a commonplace of late Sasanian art1. Either elliptical or boat-shaped, with or without a foot, these dishes are associate to wine-drinking and can be ornamented lavishly.

Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (57.625)

Though archaeological layers haven’t been preserved, Sasanian occupation of Susa is well documented in primary sources2, revealing that the city was conquered in the 3rd century and rebuilt into a vibrant economic trade centre with Mesopotamia and Fārs. The artefacts found on site, including the two Louvre dishes, suggest that rich merchants were installed in the city. It then declined under the last Sasanian rulers but continued to inhabited under the Umayyad and Abbasid, before being progressively abandoned.

…Or Easy Way Out?

Attributions to particular productions and chronological eras tend to be passed down from dealer to dealer, as if the first publication was the unalterable authority. Because the object had been published in a previous auction catalogue as Abbasid, the attribution was acted, and going against it without any new archaeological evidence would be a challenge. Intellectual honesty aside, reattributing the piece to what I think is its correct production context, or at least questioning the status quo, have a significant impact of the valuation.

Glass fragmentary beaker, attributed to Samarra, 9-10 c. Christie’s 11/04/2000, lot 288

Sasanian and post-Sasanian3 are rare on the market and do not easily find buyer, apart from silver wine-boats with exceptional decoration. The productions are not particularly well studied and raise questions of dating and authenticity. In comparison, glass or rock-crystal objects identified as Abbasid have a lot more chances to reach high prices, sometimes despite questionable attributions. In consequence, it is a safer bet for auction houses and art dealers to put an object as Abbasid. The dynasty lasted more than 500 years and covered a massive territory, so even if doubts remain, attributions do not raise too many eyebrows.

In truth, attributions to Sasanian, post-Sasanian, Omayyad or Abbasid remain speculative. Certainty is rare in early Islamic arts history, but rethinking the importance of attributing unmarked object and opening the door to doubt would constitute a healthier alternative to catalogues too prescriptive. These might leave interested buyers or potential sellers disappointed, should new information arrise that would render the original attribution obsolete.
Whether it was the doubt caused my analysis or the price given by the dealer that changed the buyer’s mind regarding the acquisition, I will not know, but finding the right words to question established historiography was certainly a challenge!

  1. A. S. Melikian-Chirvani, “From the Royal Boat to the Beggar’s bowl”, Islamic Art IV, New York, 1992
  2. See G. Gropp, “Susa v. The Sasanian Period”, Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2005 and associated bibliography.
  3. The term “Post-Sasanian” is attributed to artefacts that cannot be attributed to either Sasanian or early Islamic productions with absolute certainty. It usually encompasses objects linked to Zoroastrianism but found is Islamic occupation layers on archaeological sites, or to objects that more vaguely look Sasanian but cause sufficient doubts.

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