London’s auctions are over, it is now time to debrief! Most importantly, for me at least, it is time to see if my predictions were right. Let’s avoid any unnecessary suspense, they were, for the most part.
If you don’t know what I am talking about, go read my quick overview of Bonham’s, Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions here.
Bonham’s auction wasn’t particularly successful, a lot of lots were left unsold, especially the paintings. The selection was interesting and in accordance with Bonham’s lines of business, directed towards less impressive items but still of good quality. Goa 17th century saint John wasn’t sold, which is quite unexpected but could be explained by the restrictions on ivory trade in several countries like the US and France. That being said, the interdiction doesn’t apply to objects made before 1975, but it would be interesting to compare with the trade of Chinese ivory artifacts to see if the market has fluctuated since China announced its intend to forbid ivory trade.
The book of prayers written in Ottoman Turkey by Abdul-Qadir al-Hisari with its intriguing diagrams was sold for £2800, which is not too bad considering the fact this is not a popular text.
As expected, late illuminated manuscripts from the 19th century did pretty well, especially those from Qajar Iran. The selection was of homogeneous quality and most of them were sold without achieving very high prices.
The surprise with Bonham’s auction was the price reached by a single folio from a Mamluk manuscript on horsemanship, showing two lancers engaged in combat. Initially the item was estimated £3,000-5,000 but was sold £47,000. Unless their illuminated counterparts, Mamluk illustrated manuscripts are rare on the art market. They are not particularly common in public collections neither and are generally difficult to date and locate. Seeing so much as one isolated page bearing a painting reaching the public market is always a special occasion. The painting doesn’t seem to have suffered from any repaints and is quite elegant, while the writing is equally harmonious. That being said, I must admit that I was not expecting this much enthusiasm.
My favorite item presented during Sotheby’s auction, a bilingual print of the Qur’an published by Abraham Hinckelmann’s in 1694 achieved £10,000, a very honorable price in comparison to its initial estimation, £1,000-£1,500.
Without any surprise, the Ottoman erotic manuscript dated 1817, star of the show, was sold way above its estimation price and achieved £561,000.
Also not really surprising, the £333,000 achieved by this gorgeous Timurid monumental cut tile mosaic mirhab panel ensemble, composed of eight pieces. Though the story on how these fragments arrived to Europe can be debated, their overall quality and representativeness (yes, that’s a word) of Central Asiatic architectural decoration make them truly remarkable. The mirrored calligraphy in the center of the arch is simply a wonder.
Overall, metallic items didn’t reach high prices except for a few exceptions, neither Iznik potteries from the 17th century. I am tempted to say that prices didn’t really go crazy because we have seen enough brick red tulips and black scrolls, but that might be my own perception of 17th century Iznik ware that makes me scream “enough” at every auction.
However, it was expected that the 1545-1555 blue and white flask would do good, and it didn’t disappoint, being sold £669,000 (estimation £60,000-£80,000). This kind of flask was quite common in the Islamic world and was used during the Hajj to store water from the Zamzam river. The shape is actually way older and examples can be found during the late Antiquity and the first century of Christianity when containers like this one were used to carry water or oil from pilgrimage sites. However, never before was seen a flask in Iznik ware, and even less from the 1545-1555 production period, characterized among other things by the limited color palette imitated Chinese porcelains. This production always breaks records during auctions and this one is no exception. The charming decor of jumping animals must have helped as well!
The portrait falsely identified as Roxelana was sold £16,250, against its counterpart presented at Christie’s and rightly named after Titien’s original painting, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, sold the next day for £75,000.
Christie’s opening lot, an ensemble of nine unrecorded Qur’an folios made £596,750 and put all the other lots to shame but it was well deserved. The not so close second was the Fatimid golden armlet sold for £446,750. I would have loved to see it before it disappears behind a window (provided that it was preempted by a museum), and even more holding it in my hands to evaluate its weight! That’s the good thing with auction exhibitions, you can examine everything from up close.
It seems that 19th century Ottoman illuminated manuscripts are not particularly trendy right now, compared to their Qajar counterparts, as many were left unsold. Some of them were of great quality but the fact that Turkish codicologie is still at its formative stage doesn’t help, as a lot of calligraphers and painters named in the notices are not particularly famous. This probably stopped the gorgeous Qur’an copied by the master Yahya Hilmi in 1293/1876-77 to find a new owner. Though Yahya naskhi script is a pure wonder, as well as Osman Yümni illuminations, not to mention the perfect state of conservation, it seems that the estimation, £350,000 – £500,000 was too high, even for a manuscript this quality.
Overall, these three auctions confirm the new trends centered on pre-modern and modern periods. Geographical focus remains on Iran, Central-Asia and Turkey, with a clear fall of African’s pieces, either North and Sub-Saharian. As well, Chinese productions are pretty much absent, while we used to see a few years back pre-modern Chinese illuminated Qur’ans in every auctions.
It will be interesting to observe how things evolve in future auctions. Next London date in October !