Islamic Week, Spring 2023: Expending the Field (blog)

Spring is here, and with it came auction catalogues! London houses have once again presented a great selection of amazing objects, including some things expected, and some really not. The first major surprise came from Bonhams. For the first time in… forever, probably, Bonhams is not participating in the Islamic week, their auction being pushed to the 23rd May. This is most likely due to the Parisian auction held by Bonhams Cornette de Saint Cyr (a.k.a. Bonhams Paris) on the 6th April, with a catalogue of 144 lots. Understandably, it would have been a struggle for the experts to carry two auctions less than a month apart. At the time I am finishing this article, the auction made  €229,792.50 (including premium) with 75% of lots sold. Congratulation to the team for these results.

London Islamic week will start on Wednesday 26th April at Sotheby’s, which will present a small but action-packed catalogue of 175 items, including 40 carpets. The 27th, Christie’s will offer 240 lots, including 70 carpets. On Friday 28th, Chiswick and Rosebery’s will hold their auctions at the same time, Chiswick with two catalogues: part 5 of their single-owner sale in the morning with 90 lots, and 335 lots in the afternoon, and Rosebery’s with one catalogue of 528 lots including 56 archaeological artefacts and 33 contemporary art pieces.

Tortoiseshell fan, Hungary, Ottoman provinces, or Russia, 19th c. Chiswick lot 366, £2,000 – £3,000

Moving the Borders

Qur’an, Roseberys 316

This spring, the inclusion of several artefacts gives an impression that the field of Islamic and Indian art history is expending, shedding light on productions usually considered to be at the edges of the Islamic world. Sotheby’s presents two fragments of Qur’an in bihari script produced in pre-Mughal India: 35 illuminated folios which would have deserved a longer notice for their connexion with folios from other collections such as the Khalili (QUR602) and the Louvre (MAO937), valued at £26,000-35,000, and 5 folios from a different manuscript, decorated with very particular polychrome vegetal illuminations, offered for £15,000-20,000. Christie’s presents two illustrated folios from a Khusro nameh of ‘Attar, attributed to 15th century India (previously attributed to Southern Iran), “Imam ‘Ali fighting a Lion” for £7,000-10,000, “Hurmuz healing Jahan-Afruz” for £5,000-7,000. Rosebery’s shows three manuscript fragments: a juz, three folios, two folios, all for very small prices. Sultanate manuscripts never achieve incredible prices, but the presence of this many in the sales might be the beginning of something.

Collection of prayers, 19th c. Nigeria, Sotheby’s, lot 7, £4,000-6,000

Sub-Saharan manuscripts are also given the spotlight by Sotheby’s and Roseberys. These are usually reserved to mid-range auctions, and it is rare to see them included in top-end catalogues. Islamic art in Sub-Saharan Africa is a fairly new field that is expending slowly, so it is good to see it being given some well-deserved attention. Two beautiful Qur’anic manuscripts with their carry case from Nigeria or Chad are offered at Sotheby’s for £8,000-12,000 (lot 14 and 16), and an illuminated collection of prayers from 19th century Sudan is valued at £4,000-6,000. Additionally, an unusual wooden Qur’an board from Somalia is given at £3,000-6,000. Roseberys offers two Ethiopian Qur’an manuscripts with lavish decoration, as well as compilations of prayers likely copied in 19th century Horn of Africa.

Christie’s is offering a wonderful concertina manuscript from 19th century Burma (today Myanmar) with a rich and intriguing iconography for £1,000-1,500, which would have deserved more explanations, as well as a “Siirt” silver-inlaid bronze candlestick from 14th century Anatolia with Armenian inscriptions that illustrate perfectly the movements of artefacts in and out the borders of the Islamic world. Two Armenian artefacts are also offered at Chiswick, a Qajar brass tray and two crucifixes, and a complete Armenian gospel at Roseberys. 18th century Greek-Ottoman, Syriac, Coptic and Hebrew productions are also represented, all being parts of the large and undefinable Islamic world. Finally, Roseberys will present juz‘ of Chinese Qur’an manuscripts, as they have done for several seasons.

With the increasing difficulty to source new objects for a developing market, expanding the field appears a necessity. The progress of academic research also give light on previously unknown productions, highlighting their aesthetic and historical value. This is a win-win for both parties, and potentially a good investment for buyers, as these objects will most likely gain value in the next years.

A concertina of iconographic motifs, Burma, 19th c. Christie’s, lot 103, £1,000-1,500

Pushing the Chronology

Geographical boundaries are not the only one being pushed this season, it also feels like the chronology is expending. Persian paintings illustrate this well, with a qualitative selection of a large range of historical productions, starting with the 14th century until the 2000s. Two folios of the same Shah Nameh produced in Persia in 741/ 1341 (under the Inju dynasty) are presented, “Faramarz lifts Surkha, son of Afrasiya, from the saddle” offered by Christie’s for £8,000-12,0000, “The fight between Nowzar and Afrasiyab” offered by Roseberys for £6,000-8,000.

For the 15th century, Chiswick is offering an illustrated Shah Nameh page from Western Persia (£300-500), as well as Roseberys, presenting a restored page from an unidentified manuscript (£1,000-1,500), Christie’s an extraordinary full-page painting from Timurid Herat (150,000-200,000). 15th century Persian painting for every budget! The 16th century is represented by a painting from a manuscript Akhlaq-i Muhsini of Husayn Va’iz al-Kashifi (Sotheby’s, £10,000-15,000) and of course, a new page from the Shah nameh of Shah Tahmasp, a folio illustrated by a nocturne combat scene, offered at Sotheby’s for £4,000,000 – 6,000,000, the top lot of the season. In its centre, Bizhan slaying the Turanian leader Nastihan, surrounded by the Iranian army chasing the rest of the raid. As always, the level of details on the painting is astonishing and there is no doubt people will queue to see the page. The previous page sold at Sotheby’s last season achieved £8,061,700, the year before one sold at Christie’s for £4,842,000, I am therefore very curious to see if prices will continue to increase. Usually, fight scenes sell for less than other types of illustrations, but this is the most sumptuous Persian manuscript ever created, so the rule might not apply. If you want to learn more about this extraordinary manuscript, you can listen to the episode of the ART Informant podcast with Dr Firuza Melville.

Signed Mu’in Musavvir 1087/1676 (detail), Christie’s 52, £40-60,000

Two pages signed by Mu’in Musavvir are offered by Christie’s. He’s not the most famous painting of the second half of the 17th century, but his work has been well studied, in particular by Dr Massumeh Farhad, so the pages should sell well (here and there). A beautiful oil painting signed by Muhammad Baqir, one of the stars of the 18th century, who notoriously collaborated to the decoration of the St Petersburg album, and dated 1173/ 1659-60 is also at Christie’s for £150,000-250,000. Zand productions are not the most studied, but this painting seems like a safe bet. Lots of Qajar gol o bolbol and beautiful ladies are offered everywhere (as well as couples in compromising positions and a puzzling “ring of 10 intertwine youths” at Chiswick!), and interestingly, late 19th and early 20th century paintings, such as the portrait of Zahir al-Daula, son-in-law of Nadir al-Din Shah Qajar, dated 1301/ 1884 (Christie’s, £120,000-180,000), and another portrait from the same time, this time of an unknown dignitary (Chiswick, £2,000-3,000). Several Iranian artists are represented at Roseberys, including Maryam Shirinlou (b. 1966) who has been doing solo exhibitions since the 1990s.

The inclusion of Persian painting from different eras is not new on the market, but the offering is particularly consistent and will most hopefully show what will be the trends going forward, especially for later periods.

Shah nameh of Shah Tahmasp, fol. 328r. Sotheby’s lot 41, £4,000,000 – 6,000,000

Trendy Blades

The Army’s Conquest, Sotheby’s lot 94

Arms are clearly having a moment in the sun this spring. They already shone bright last year in Paris, with category white-glove sales at Artcurial and Millon, so we can expect high success in London as well. Christie’s top lot is a 17th century Mughal gem-set dagger with impeccable provenance: it was first in the hands of Lord Robert Clive of Plassey (or his son), and last in the al-Thani collection (Qatar reigning family), which is partly exhibited in the Hotel de la Marine in Paris1; an impressive pedigree! Value at £300,000-500,000, it is remarkable for its atypical proportions and the uniquely large stones that ornate the hilt. To be noted that other Indian lots come from the al-Thani collections (67 to 76), all the highest quality. I am particularly excited to see the 18th century silver and gilded durbar set (£250,000-350,000)

Speaking of pedigree, Sotheby’s present two historical swords: one gilt-mounted sword with ruby eyes and scabbard from Tipu Sultan’s armoury (£200,000-300,000), and the beautifully simple personal sword of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (r.1658-1707): ‘The Army’s Conquest’ (£150,000-200,000), Chiswick also includes two Indian blades among the top lots, a 19th c. “Sosun Pattah” ceremonial sword (£4,000-6,000) and an 18th-19th c. jade-hilted “khanjar” with garnet beads (£4,000-6,000). Several other swords and blades are presented by the four houses, so it’ll be interesting to see if the success encountered in Paris in winter 2022 will be duplicated here. Maybe swords are the new manuscripts?

My Top 5

To finish, someone asked me on Instagram what are my 5 favourite items this season, and I thought it would be a fun way to end this article. Here they are, with little explanation and in no particular order:

  • The page of Shah Tahmasp’s Shah Nameh. Obviously (Sotheby’s, lot 41)
  • Five pages from a Qur’an produced in Sultanate India. I posted about it on Instagram, they really caught my eye. Only one other page of this manuscript has surfaced so far, presented at Rim Encheres earlier this year 2. The illumination design and colours are simply exquisite (Sotheby’s, lot 4)
  • “Solomon with the Queen of Sheba”, Timurid Herat, mid-15th c. I adore Timurid painted productions (illustrations and illuminations), and this scene, with its profusion of figures, elements and gold, simply makes me happy. Look in particular at the Queen’s expression looking at Solomon, we all deserve someone who looks at us like that (Christie’s, lot 25)
  • An illustrated Tarikh-i Dilgusha-yi Shamshir Khani, Lahore or Kashmir, 19th century. This text, which is basically an abridged version of Firdosi Shah Nama, was written by Tavakkul Beg in 1063H/ 1653 and encountered a certain popularity in India3. Kashmiri 19th century paintings are a hit or miss, to say the least, but the 24 illustrations in this manuscript are really nice. (Chiswick, lot 434)
  • “A lady writer with hookah”, Pahari school, Kanrga or Guler, North India, mid-19th c. Powerful feelings emanate from this scene, art resonates. (Rosebery’s, lot 94).
Enamelled gold lid, Persia, 19th c. Chiswick, lot 42, £500-700
  1. Parts of the collection were sold at Christie’s New York in 2019
  2. Thank you to Rim Mezghani for the reminder
  3. Pr Charles Melville dedicated a paper to the topic, available on Academia

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