The London Islamic Week came and went like a dream this spring! I had planned a lot around it but in the end, life held me hostage and I had to cancel everything, being finally able to go though the catalogues only two days before the first auction.
While being hopeful that the Fall Islamic Week will go differently, I still have the delight of untangling the results of the three main houses. For the first time, I will also discuss Chiswick Auction’s results, as their Islamic & Indian Art sale was held during the Islamic week and offered numerous lots valued between £100 and £15.000.
All results discussed below include Premium.
Bonhams opened the week with 216 lots, including a section of 73 items produced in Qajar Iran. 56.49% of the catalogue was sold for a total of £2.012.679. The next day, Sotheby’s presented 311 lots, of which 57.3% found buyer for £9.914.625. Christie’s broke their own record by achieving £16.031.375, with 58.94% of the 302 lots sold. Finally, Chiswick closed the week with a massive catalogue of 421 lots, of which 61.8% were sold for a total of £44.211. Though this last result doesn’t exceed the million, the success of the auction demonstrates once more the weigh of less prestigious items on the overall market.
Bonhams had some interesting lots and unexpected results, including a selection of Surah copied by the Ottoman calligrapher Isma’il al-Zuhdi in 1217 / 1802-3, valued £3.000/5.000 and sold at £52.562.50. Both calligraphy and illuminations are of exceptional quality and we can only conclude that Bonhams experts doubted their own material by giving a valuation that low. Quick note to whoever put the manuscript reproduction on line: the colophon is upside down.
The same way, an incredibly delicate tulwar hilt and two matching sword belt fittings went for £125.062.50 against an initial pricing at £10.000/15.000. Though the catalogue doesn’t particularly elaborate on it, the provenance of the item, going back to the late 18th century East India Company and its direct transmission to the seller, contributed to romanticise the lot and probably increase its price.
However, Bonhams seemed to have suffered from overconfidence by focusing on the Qajar era. If past auctions have told us anything, is that late productions, namely Qajar Iran and late Ottoman fluctuate greatly. Despite a diversified and interesting selection validated by an introduction written by Robert Hillenbrand, only 30 lots over the 73 presented were sold, most of them within their price ranges or barely above. More importantly, the star item of the auction, an anonymous portrait of Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar dated 1251/1835-6, remained unsold. The estimate was upon request, which is a good way for the department to gather interests, however, it can scare away potential buyer and, let’s be honest, it is not particularly justified. Though portraits of Fath ‘Ali Shah are indeed rare on the market, Qajar portraiture itself is not exceptional. Most of the other full-length portraits from the 19th century remained unsold, while early 20th century paintings did a bit better. Maybe we are seeing here a shift of emphasis toward more recent productions, but the interest for Qajar art remains mixed.
Each Islamic Week, the excitement lies in the competition between Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Last season, the battle was won by Sotheby’s who exploded records by selling the Debbane Charger for more than £5 millions but this spring, Christie’s had not one but three not that secret weapons: an extraordinary Mamluk Qur’an dated 894/1489, sold £3.724.750 and two rare 17th c. “Polonaise” carpets, respectively sold £3.895.000 and £3.724.750. Between the three lots, already more than £11 millions were assured.
A few surprises occurred on top of that, for instance with a “Kubatchi” pottery dish, valued £10.000/15.000 and sold £40.000. While Iznik potteries are numerous in every auctions, Kubatchi wares are more rare, and usually of secondary quality or more or less heavily restored. This lot seems to be whole, despite a chip visible on the back, with a colorful and characteristic decoration that definitely seduced buyers.
Special mention for a very rare gold and silver-inlaid window grill bross produced in Ilkhanid Iran during the 14th c.. Valued £12.000/18.000, it went at £47.500, a price relatively humble considering the rarity and exceptional preservation of the piece. Though this one in particular doesn’t bare any inscription, it can be linked to others in the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, and inscribed in the name of the Ilkhanid Sultan Uljeitu (1304-1317) whose summer capital was Sultaniyya.
The price achieved by this last piece illustrates the difference between Christie’s and Sotheby’s catalogues. Comparatively, Sotheby’s sold less than Christie’s, but the house took more risks in their offer by introducing different types of items, some normally less represented on the market, other not currently in favour of buyers. This is for instance the case with early Qur’anic leaves. Except for a pink North African leave written in maghribi during the 12/13th c., other leaves and bifolio from this category remained unsold.
Some items were also more difficult to apprehend. It is particularly the case of two pages of an Indian Falnamah (book of omens) painted on cloth around 1580. I had good expectations for these two paintings, early Mughal painting on cloth usually doing well, but this series of paintings is actually not popular. This could be due to the fact that documentation on this dismembered manuscript is virtually inexistent, or perhaps the preservation state of some of the pages (I haven’t seen any de visu and Sotheby’s condition reports are famously vague), but the fact is that the house has presented other pages from the same ensemble in the past and buyers never showed a high interest.
Early glassworks timidly reappeared on the market, but where Christie’s priced very cautiously the glass flask and the two marvered glass domed game pieces, Sotheby’s went all the way with a Fatimid carved glass or obsidian chess piece priced at £30.000/40.000. Despite the quality of the item, it did not convince the buyers.
Luckily for Sotheby’s, some lots retained the attention of collectors. One of the most anticipated lot was the portrait of Suleyman the Magnificent by a follower of Gentile Bellini. This painting holds a particular historical importance and though it is unlikely that it was executed by Bellini himself, its aesthetic and technique are very close from the master style. Valued £250.000/350.000, it achieved without surprise £5.323.500.
Another expected result was the Mughal copy of Albrech Durer engraving of Frederick the Wise. Indian reproductions of European designs are usually appealing for their immediate reference, while remaining firmly anchored as “other”. More often, as in the present case, the copy is not completely faithful to the original and the alterations made increase the interest and intrinsic value of the painting. Here, the frame was increased to add a hand holding a book, while the inscription beneath the painting was changed to S. Bernardus, maybe in relation to a saint, maybe to something else. As a result, the lot was sold £105.500, more than four time its valuation.
Ottoman figurative painting never ceases to baffle me these days. While Christie’s, Bonham’s and Chiswick decided to skip this section altogether due to an understandable caution after the last Islamic week, Sotheby’s took the calculated risk to present one painting with a low estimation, £10.000/15.000, sold for £43.750.
Chiswick finished the week with a strong and interesting offer. Despite showing cautions in the valuation, early Qur’anic leaves poorly sold, while other early items did surprisingly well, for instance an Abbasid blue and white ceramic dish, broken and put back together but with an elegant design. Valued £200-300, it went for £4.375.
More impressive is the price achieved by a Moroccan pilgrimage scroll dated 1191/1777. Valued only £500/700, it was sold for £18.125. The same way, an Ottoman talismanic jama from the late 19th century was presented for £400/600 and ended up at £11.250.
Overall, Chiswick selection was more diversified than the three other houses and somehow more adventurous, but risk is more easily permitted with low price items. Paintings produced under the Injuid dynasty are for instance rare on the market, coming from this historically grey area between the Ilkhanid and the Timurid rules, not particularly well documented. Two pages from an Injuid Shahnama were offered for £800/1.000 and achieved £3.500, a price easily justified by the aesthetic quality of the painting and the historical interest of the folios.
Also noticeable was the selection of blue and white Safavid and post-Safavid ceramics. After the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644, Iran took over the production of blue and white ceramics bound for the European market. Nevermind that China produced porcelain while Iran could only make siliceous potteries due to the absence of kaolin, the production knows a great success in Europe and the preserved pieces are numerous. However, they are not particularly popular on the market these days, the focus being on blue and white Iznik. Seven of the twelve lots presented found a buyer, mostly within their range but with a few noticeable exceptions like a highly decorative 18th century inkwell, sold £4.000 against a valuation at £800/1.200.
I already look forward the next Islamic week. First because I hope to be able to actually attend, but also because I am curious to see how things will evolve. For instance, the inclusion of early glassworks in Christie’s and Sotheby’s catalogues might be an interest sign, though time will tell.