April, what an exciting month. Spring is here, Manchester baby geese are being born (and their mother are attacking passer-by), and the Islamic week is held in London!
Every six months, experts, specialists and Islamic Arts enthusiasts gather on King Street and New Bond Street to examine, judge and discuss the new and old wonders offered to the highest bidder. What are the stars this year? Are new trends rising? Let’s take a look!
Bonhams open on the Tuesday with 368 lots. Most of them are manuscripts and isolated paintings from the 16th to the early 20th century, with the exception of the now classic 8th-9th centuries Qur’an pages. Bonhams pre-16th century generally lacks originality but balances it with some very interesting pre-modern and modern pieces. Among them, two in particular caught my eye:
This book of prayers was written in Arabic in Ottoman Turkey by Abdul-Qadir al-Hisari
in 1180 H/1766-67. It contains the names of God and the Prophet, as well as Hilyehs of the four Caliphs. The calligraphy is of good quality but the manuscript stands out by the unusual diagrams, including the sword of the Imam ‘Ali and Noah’s Ark. Estimation £2000-£3000.
The Goa production of Christian figures in ivory is nothing new but the St John the Baptist presented in lot 276 is particularly elegant. This production ranges from the 15th to the 19th century and its quality is uneven. However, the experts at Bonhams were not blind to this figure inherent charm and gave it a higher estimation than usual: £4000-6000.
Sotheby’s auction is full of promises. 105 of the 206 entries are manuscripts, some of them quite amazing. Among them, it is worth mentioning a gorgeous Ottoman erotic manuscript dated 1232/1817, probably produced for a unidentified patron depicted in several paintings (lot 105, £250,000-£232,000). The study of Ottoman arts of the book is still underrepresented, mainly because it has been considered for decades as a sous genre of Safavid and post-Safavid Persian painting. Evidence is that Ottoman painting is everything but a sous genre and for everything who still has doubts about the inherent quality of it, just take a look at this manuscript.
My personal favorite is a bilingual print of the Qur’an made in Hamburg in 1694. This item is not particularly interesting for its aesthetic features, though the Arabic script is interesting, but its historical and historiographical value is higher than the little £1,000-£1,500 estimation it was given. This print is one of the oldest edition of the Qur’an in the Christian West. It is due to the theologian Abraham Hinckelmann (1652-95) who had already printed a monolingual edition of the Qur’an in 1693 but insured the diffusion of the text by adding a Latin translation.
Finally, Christie’s King Street opens its sale on the 26th by nine Qur’anic folios unrecorded folios. It is always exciting when a new item appears on the market, and these small and antique fragments – 11.1×12.7cm, datable 8th century – are particularly important for Qur’anic studies. It wouldn’t be a surprise that a museum jump on this occasion and preempt the lot.
The selection of Western Islamic art offered after this is interesting and of high quality, especially the golden Fatimid gold armlet miraculously preserved.
I am always a little bit flustered by collection of ceramics, especially architectural, from the end of the 19th century. The collection of Lockwood de Forest shines by its coherence but brings the question of this acquisition – the same way does the Timurid tiles collection of Mnavzagan Pridonoff presented at Sothebys (lots 106-110). Even tough the catalogue partly specifies the amount of money spent by de Forest, we are left to wonder if his reputation as a collector of architectural ceramic and the price he was ready to put on a tile didn’t speed the destitution of historical monuments. Bearing that in mind, what should we do with such collections? They constitute an important part of Islamic Arts historiography but, as well as so many more Western gathering of artistic artifacts, the ethic behind them is debatable.
The focus has switched these past years from Medieval productions to Pre-modern, namely Safavid, post-Safavid and Ottoman. Indian Islamic Art is still very 17th Mughal focused but the light brought recently to post-Mughal art by academics and the increasing rarity of Mughal pieces could bring the emphasis to change.
The taste for later pieces is demonstrated in the Christie’s catalogue by the wide range of Qajar and Ottoman items. No less than 28 entries from 18th and 19th centuries Iran, including heavily decorated Qur’ans, oil paintings, lacquered boxes and enameled jewelry.
Fun fact, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s are presenting a version of Titian’s portrait of Caterina Cornano, Saint Catherine of Alexandria (Galleria degli Uffizi). Both paintings are similar in size but Christie’s dated the execution from the 18th century, while Sotheby’s painting seems to be more recent. Christie’s version is more refined, especially the use of shadows and the pose of the figure. One has been given an estimation from £8,000 to £12,000, the other only £5,000-£7,000, the message is clear. As well, it seems that Sotheby’s mistakenly identified the portrait as one of Roxelana, wife of Sultan Süleyman, also depicted by Titian around 1550 and given the name of La Sultana Rossa (Ringling Museum). Someone didn’t do their homework !
It will be interesting to read the results of these tree auctions and see what has been the rising stars or complete flops of the Spring Islamic week. Stay tuned !