The Last before the Next: October 2019 Islamic Week in London

I have been looking forward this Islamic Week all summer. Though reading through auction catalogues and feverishly discovering what items major houses will have managed to put on the market is always an exciting time, I can’t help but wonder if this particular Islamic week doesn’t mark the end of an era. This gloomy thought is of course linked to the Damocles sword that is the very real possibility of a no-deal Brexit, hanging over the head of London market, ready to cut prices in half.
A complete absence of thoroughly agreed legislation would be catastrophic for the market – any market – while the impact of the British government tribulations have already started to show on the British Pound value.


Since the last Islamic week in April 2019, the Pound has continued to plunge. This decline is not necessarily a bad thing for buyers coming from outside the UK, and it is going to be interesting to see if they’ll take this opportunity to acquire more for less, while the market is still standing.

The fact is, no one knows what will happen on 31st October, and speculating here would be pointless. After the Conservative conference was held last week in Manchester, a new proposal was expected, as the deadline gets closer every day, but it now seems that the European Union will no budge, especially wen it comes to the very delicate and historically charged question of the Northern Ireland backstop. Though a no-deal Brexit has been ruled illegal, it is impossible to predict what Boris Johnson government will do.
The British art and antiques market is the second largest in the world (between the US, 1st, and China, 3rd), and the uncertainty around Brexit doesn’t seem to have impacted this ranking so far, but an absence of agreement with the EU would necessarily imply a renegotiation of VAT taxes, as well on passports and border checks. Currently, the UK import VAT on art is the lowest in Europe with only 5%. This will necessarily change with a no-deal Brexit, though there is no doubt the UK government will try to maintain London position as first European hub for art trade.

While experts argue about what could and will happen, let’s focus on what is. Bonhams will open the week on the 22nd October with a catalogue of  222 lots, continuing to slowly switch focus toward later Indian art. On the 23rd, all eyes will be on Christie’s and their 295 lots. April week was particularly successful for Christie’s and it will be particularly interesting to see if the two folios from Sultan Abu Sa’id Nahj al-Faradis will be enough to keep the house on top. This will certainly be a delicate operation, as Sotheby’s is getting as many manuscripts as possible with the partial sale of the so-called Shakerine collection on the 24th, including 94 lots. The afternoon session will also include a lot of manuscripts and paintings, but not only, and will include 219 lots. Finally, Chiswick will close the ball on the 25th with a selection of 296 lots.

Sub-Saharan Qur'an Bloomsbury Ethiopia
Sub-Saharan Qur’an copied by Rasul Muhammad Sali’Allah, 1260/1844. Bloomsbury, £3.000/5.000

Indeed, manuscripts and paintings are the focus point of this Islamic week. Let’s mention here Bloomsbury online auction on the 22nd October with a catalogue of 120 manuscripts and paintings, mostly of secondary quality but with some nice surprises such as a large Sub-Saharan Qur’an dated 1296/1879, ornamented with characteristic illuminations and filled with marginal annotations (£3.000/5.000).

All eyes will of course be on the 94 lots from the so-called Shakerine collection presented by Sotheby’s , including some true splendors, such as an Safavid Qur’an from the first half of the 16th c., illuminated with a rare finesse that shows a direct link with its Timurid predecessors (£80.000/120.000). To be mentioned as well a large Safavid Qur’an from mid-16th c., written in a variety of scripts and colors on white and thin folios measuring 50.6 x 33 cm (£200.000/300.000). The manuscript is described as “monumental” in the catalogue, a misleading denomination when one has in mind real monumental Qur’ans produced under the Mamluks, between 70 x 50 cm to an extravagant 108.5 x 82 cm for the biggest. The Shakerine Qur’an is large, nothing more.
One of my personal favorites is a 19th c. Indian collection of prayers including Dala’il al-Khayrat. Though we can regret the absence of a more detailed description in the catalogue, let’s highlight the rarity of such manuscripts produced in this region.

Safavid Qur'an Sotheby's
Safavid Qur’an, first half 16th c., 33×21 cm. Sotheby’s £80.000/120.000

Sotheby’s continues in the afternoon session with no less than 64 manuscripts, folios and paintings, including a page from the Blue Qur’an valued at £400.000/600.000 but with a provision of only £85.000 (!). The selection is more diverse in the afternoon, with some very interesting scientific texts such a copy of Kitab al-asbab wa’al-‘alamat written by Muhammad b. Abu Bakr al-Nishapuri in 594/1197, during the lifetime of the its author, Najib al-din al-Samarqandi who died in 1222 (£80.000/120.000). This example of direct transmission is particularly precious, while the manuscript seems to be in an exceptional state of preservation.

This selection of very high quality is put to shame by the two folios from the Nahj al-Faradis commissioned by Sultan Abu Sa’id Gurkan of Herat around 1465. Written in Khawrazmian Turkish in a very refined and characteristi script, both folios are illustrated on both sides. Lot 38 shows the Prophet Muhammad on al-Buraq arriving to the Second Heaven and the Prophet on al-Buraq meeting the Angels of Bounty. Lot 38 constitutes a fascinating counterpoint with the Prophet and the angel Gabriel visiting the Hell for Misers on one side, the Prophet and the angel Gabriel visiting the Hell for False Flatterers on the other. The refinement of the line and the purity of the pigments are almost without comparison in the 15th century Persianate lands. Both pages are valued £700.000/1.000.000 and there is no doubt Christie’s will break records.

Nahj al-Faradis Sultan Abu Sa'id Gurkan Christie's
Nahj al-Faradis commissioned by Sultan Abu Sa’id Gurkan, c. 1465 (detail). Christie’s lot 38, £700.000/1.000.000

I’ve been wondering about Kufic Qur’an pages for a while now but it seems that, despite a complete saturation and a real lack of traceability, pre-Ilkhanid Qur’anic folios have become a safe bet. Christie’s third most expensive lot after the Nahj al-Faradis pages is a group of 76 pages from a dismembered Qur’an previously in the al-Farsi collection. Large sections of 8th c, Qur’an such as this one are extremely rare and we can expect a exciting betting competition.
Other auctions also offer Kufic Qur’an pages, including Bonhams whith a bound group of ten leaves valued at £80.000/120.000. Pretty ambitious estimation, knowing that Sotheby’s 76 pages are only given at £400.000/600.000.

Speaking of Bonhams, beside the usual manuscripts and Iznik ceramics, I was pretty impressed by thecourageous selection of later Indian paintings, whether on paper or oil on canevas. The group of sketches from the workshop of Raghavji Mazji produced in Bhuj (Gujarat) at the end of the 19th c. possesses an organic aesthetics that can only be found in preparatory drawings.

Preparatory Drawing  Raghavji Mawji Bhuj  Bonhams
Preparatory Drawing by the workshop of Raghavji Mawji, Bhuj, late 19th c. (detail), Bonhams, lot 166, £20.000/30.000

Not to mention the ensemble of oil paintings showing Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru, and Guru Arjun, fifth Sikh Guru from the late 20th c. , that confirm that Bonhams is shifting his focus toward a new kind of “Islamic art”, further from the academic classifications based on the distinction “Medieval” and “Pre-modern”. Though this renewal is needed in a field that is becoming increasingly crippled by self-imposed limitations, I am not completely sure the buyers are ready to follow. Bonhams has been struggling for a while to rewrite its narrative and finds its place between Christie’s and Sotheby’s, being relagated to the third row, however, though the London market continue to strive, the wind might eventually turn. A discussion with a gloomy art dealer, years ago, had left me with the thought that “there is nothing to sell anymore”, and while it is obviously not true, Brexit might make things a bit more difficult for major auction houses.

However, let’s not abandon all hope just yet! Plenty remains to be discovered and offered to the public, the Taslimanic Jama from 15th/16th c. Sultanate India sold by Sotheby’s being a prime example. At first sight, I thought it was the same shirt sold in 2010 but it is apparently not. These talismanic shirts, covered in behari script invocations (that is how we know they’re from Sultanate India) possess a great historical value and are still surrounded by mystery regarding their production.

Seated Female Ruller, Kashan, Sotheby's
My favorite item from this Islamic Week! Seated Female Ruller, Kashan, 12th/13th c. Sotheby’s lot 212, £10.000/12.000

Finally, I haven’t mentionned any lots from Chiswick yet, and this is a mistake I will correct right away, as the low-price selection is both intriguing and exciting. I will not talk about the four bidri silver and copper-inlaid Charpai legs that might or might not look like tiny robots but I will, however, mention the portrait of a young lady located in Faizabad (though I have my doubts) and dated 1112/1700-1701. Considering the preservation state and the aesthetic quality of the page, I am not completely sure why it is only given for £600/800.

I will be in London from the 21st to the 23rd and I cannot wait to take the pre-Brexit temperature of auction rooms. Will this week be business as usual, or will we be witnessing a part of history? We’ll find out very soon!

A portrait of a Young Lady, Faizabad, Chiswick,
A portrait of a Young Lady, Faizabad (?), 1700-1701. Chiswick, lot 367, £600/800