The Islamic week just finished in London, and what a week it has been. Starting on a personal note, it’s been a busy one for me, and I am so grateful to have been able to see so many amazing experts, scholars, collectors and enthusiasts, who make the field of Islamic arts genuinely exciting. And of course, having the opportunity to see so many artworks is a privilege I never take for granted.
This blog article will be in two parts. I will give my thoughts on the main topics here, and will deep-dive more on certain items in the next one, keeping both articles easy to read and quick to write.
All prices include premium.
Now, there is a lot to say about the auctions. Bonhams opened the week with a catalogue of 157 lots and sold only 41% for a total of £471,697.50, while the online auction sold 46% of their 249 for £268,605.75. The next day, Sotheby’s sold 56% of their catalogue of 195 lots for a total of £14,224,727. On the Thursday, Christie’s sold 90% of their 264 lots for £15,989,353, a record for Christie’s London in the past 15 years, only surpassed in May 2019 when three lots were sold for more than £3 million each. On the Friday, Chiswick won the whole week by achieving a white-glove sale in their single-owner morning auction, selling 100% of the 89 lots for £141,361. The afternoon auction also did well with 63% sold of their 360 lots for £327,401. Finally, Roseberys sold 66% of their 418 lots (excluding archaeology) for a total of £736,918, an impressive total.
The downfall of Bonhams
We need to talk about Bonhams first. I am usually quite critical of auction houses and catalogues that are not up to the standard that we should expect, but this is heartbreaking. Bonhams’ Islamic and Indian art department has been in decline for the past 10 years, and this is their worse Islamic week sale so far (excluding secondary and online auctions).
This can be explained by past mistakes, but mainly by a catalogue that felt rushed and incomplete, and lots presented with a number of issues more or less disclosed. I am not going to repeat here what I previously wrote about the importance of providing provenance for the top lots (and ideally not a previous auction catalogue as sole provenance, but that’s beside the point for now), however I’ll add that condition reports should be as precise and thorough as provenance. I will only give one example, as it feels like beating a dead horse, the Mamluk pen-case, the auction top lot valued £90,000-120,000 and remained unsold. Upon close examination, it appears that the silver incrustations were most likely later restorations, the same with the engravings at the bottom of the box. This was not described in the catalogue, and the inlay restorations were barely mentioned in the condition report, while the addition of the engravings at the bottom were omitted. The object looked good in picture and from the far, but the semi-lack of transparency (some later additions were described) and the not so great details up-close discouraged buyers. Now, I am of course not saying that objects should be pristine, obviously, damages and restorations are part of their history, but they should not be concealed shamefully, on the contrary. This is not a problem exclusive to Bonhams, I’ll talk about it more in part 2 of this review.
In contrast, Bonhams’ top sale is a small portrait of a Persian dignitary signed by the famous painter Abu’l-Hasan Ghaffari Kashani (d. 1282/1865-6), who worked at the court of Qajar rulers Muhammad Shah and Nasir al-Din Shah period, and signed this piece in 1262 H./ 1845-46. It also came with stellar provenance and a good catalogue entry full of references. Valued at £15,000-20,000, it sold for £40,620.
I think Bonhams is currently struggling to find its place in a complex and rapidly evolving market. It cannot compete with Christie’s and Sotheby’s as it did in the past, and it’s not in the same market division as Chiswick and Roseberys, so it sits oddly in the middle. The effort of the Islamic and Indian art department to expend their selection, notably by adding a Sikh art section, is truly commendable, but they might need to revamp further, while pushing on provenance and transparency to repair their reputation.
Expected results, good surprises…
Of course, everybody was waiting to see how much would achieve the page from Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnama, offered by Sotheby’s for £4,000,000-6,000,000. Well, it did not disappoint, reaching £8,061,700, beating the record set with another page sold in 2011 for £7.4 millions as part of the collection of Stuart Cary Welch. Two main biders were competing on the phones, so we’ll have to wait until the buyer reveals themselves, if they do. If you want to learn more about this page, you can still listen to the ART Informant podcast episode with Dr Firuza Melville.
A big surprise was the 11th c. Andalusia oil lamp offered with an estimate of £300,000 – 400,000 and sold for £1,608,000. Maybe because I was captivated by so many gorgeous pieces, I didn’t notice this lamp during the exhibition, I completely walked past it! I regret it now, especially because this type of telescopic lamps are incredibly rare.
I wrote in my previous blog that I would wait to see what the market decide regarding the Mughal pashmina carpet valued £2,500,000-3,500,000. It was sold for £5,442,000, also breaking the record on carpet auctions.
More surprisingly were the £1,002,000 achieved by an 8th c. Kufic Qur’an section of 162 folios, sold against an estimate of £350,000-450,000. I wrote a few years ago that Kufic Qur’ans popularity was decreasing, and I admit that I was wrong. I don’t understand why this manuscript did so well, I can only hope the new owner will not disbound it to sell the pages separately. Sotheby’s also did well, selling the monumental Qur’an page for £819,000 (£650,000 hammer, same as Millon’s page sold last June).
Unsurprisingly, Turkish Iznik ceramics did very well. Christie’s sold a delightful 16th century jug with the most amazing lavender colour for £906,000, against an estimate of £120,000-180,000. Roseberys exploded the percentage value of their hexagonal Cintimani tile from 16th c. Ottoman Syria, selling it £114,400, 186.5% from the high estimate of £4,000.
Finally, let’s mention Chiswick, which also had an excellent day on Friday, starting with the very first lot, a lovely cast openwork bronze incense burner in the shape of a lion from 12th c. Khorassan, sold for £11,250. This was included in the fourth part of their single-owner sale, this one achieving a rare 100% of lots sold. In the afternoon, a portrait of a prince from 18th c. Deccan reached £17,500.
… And bad news
After the scandal of Timurid Qur’an, sold in 2020 for £7.016.250, that turned out to have been stolen from Afghanistan in 2019, another huge controversy is coming to Christie’s. The extraordinary 14th century Il-khanid Qur’an scroll, offered for £250,000-350,000 and sold for £1,602,000, has started to make some noise in Turkey, where some write that it was allegedly stolen. It was apparently offered for sale in 2010, but was withdrawn and removed from the online and print catalogue after it was discovered as allegedly stolen. Christie’s put it back for auction this October, 12 years later, most likely because the legal status of the piece changed (supposedly), but Turkish authorities are currently investigating. You can read about this on halk.com.tr and on karar.com.
The catalogue entry only mentions “Djafar Ghazi, Munich” as a provenance, which is thin. Jafar Ghazi was a famous Iranian collector and businessman who acquired a large amount of manuscripts. His collection was dispersed after his passing in 2007. To my knowledge, there is no record on how he acquired this Qur’an, and we can only assume it came to the UK as part of the dispersion, but I imagine it moved legally between Germany and the UK. This case could potentially be bad for Christie’s reputation, which was already not at its highest, but we’ll have to wait for the investigation to finish. More to come, I’m afraid.