Welcome back for the part 2 of this Top 20, in which we will explore the 12 most expensive pieces of Islamic art ever sold. Yes, 12, despite Part 1 already covering numbers 20 to 11. When initially drafting the list, I forgot to number one of the entries, and I then found another piece which I had completely forgotten about (it was sold in 2010, to be fair). Let’s not dwell too much on my methods, hope that I haven’t forgotten anything else (I might have, in all honesty), and let’s consider these as two bonus entries in this Top… 22! For reminder, I purposefully excluded the “Maharajas & Mughal Magnificence” auction held at Christie’s New York in June 2019, which was composed of jewelled pieces, gems and paintings from the Al-Thani collection, some being questionably “Islamic”. As well, I only went back to 2010 for ease and I did not take into account inflation, so the prices discussed here and in part 1 are as they were at the time of the sale. Without further delays, let’s jump in!
All prices include premium. Click on the auction date and estimate to access the catalogue notice.
12 (Bonus entry) – £ 4,521,250: A Mamluk silver & copper-inlaid brass candlestick, Egypt or Syria, 1340-5
Starting with the only Mamluk object in this list, this silver and copper-inlaid brass candlestick, remarkable for several reasons. The shield-shaped blazon is that of Tuquztamur al-Hamawi, a mamluk who had known a prodigious ascension from slave to cup-bearer of the sultan Ibn Qala’un, to Viceroy of Syria from 743/ 1342 till 746/ 1345. His mark is found on a number of objects listed in the auction catalogue. Interestingly, the inscription on the candlestick mentions Qushtumur, Tuquztamur’s major-domo and not Tuquztamur himself. The blazon is made of silver and a thick layer of red copper, which is not the most common feature of Mamluk brass objects and really highlights the coat of arm among the beautiful decoration of vegetal elements. The candlestick was in Europe in the 19th century, where it disappeared in private collections after being sold in 1897.
11 (Bonus entry) – £ 4,842,000: “Rustam kicking the boulder”, Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnama, Tabriz, c. 1530
This is the first page in this top 20 of the infamous Shahnama made for the Safavid king Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524-1576). It was presented by Christie’s in 2022, more than 10 years since the last page sold, which, unsurprisingly, created a lot of excitement. This manuscript is considered as the peak of refinement of Persian painting, and the results of centuries of aesthetic research by makers working under a royal patronage. Consequently, there are four pages of Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnama in this top 10 alone, an impressive number considering there is no other Persian manuscript nor painting in the whole top 20.
For a bit of context, the manuscript was started for the first king of the Safavid dynasty, Shah Isma’il (r. 1501-1524) and finished for his successor. Very quickly after its completion, Shah Tahmasp gifted the manuscript to the Ottoman sultan Selim II (r. 1556-1574) who added it to the royal collection in Topkapi palace. The manuscript stayed there until the beginning of the 20th century, when pages mysteriously appeared on the French art market in 1903. The whole history of the manuscript is explained by Dr Firuza Melville, director of research of Cambridge Shahnama centre for Persian Studies in an episode of the ART Informant dedicated to the Shahnama and recorded on the occasion of the sale of another page. The page itself dazzles by its level of precision and the number of intricate details on every elements. The use of a large amount of gold, speckled in the margin and to signify the sky, as well as silver to depict shimmering water (now blackened due to unreversible oxidation) highlight the immense luxury of the manuscript, but the circular composition with the hero Rustam at its centre also shows some weaknesses, Rustam position being a bit awkward. This might explain why the page “only” sold for £4.8M despite the general enthusiasm for the sale.
10 – £ 4,875,800: “Bizhan slays Nastihan”, Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnama, Tabriz, c. 1530
This second page of Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnama was sold in the last spring Islamic week. After the sale of the aforementioned “Rustam kicking the boulder” page at Christie’s, other owners became inclined to sell. Sotheby’s offered this page with an estimate of £4 – 6 millions following the success of that first page, and more especially the record-breaking sale of another page presented later in this ranking. As I wrote in my overview of the Islamic week, “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”. In the end, the rule did apply and the page sold on the lowest range of its estimate (bearing in mind the final price includes the buyer’s premium of around 14%), despite being a night scene, generally more visually sticking than day scenes, and a level of details that makes this page a perpetual rediscovery.
9 – £ 5,323,500: Portrait of Suleyman by a Follower of Gentile Bellini, Venice, c. 1520
This is where we enter the realm of the surreal, starting with a surprise. Indeed, I was not expecting this portrait of Suleyman to make the list. Valued £250,000-350,000, it sold for more than 15 times its high estimate, which is slightly puzzling given the absence of signature or date. The painting illustrates the blurry and arbitrary definition of “Islamic arts” on the art market, as well as the central role of catalogue notices in sale strategy. I am not a specialist of 15th century Venetian painting and have no opinion on the attribution, including whether this painting is the long lost model for Albrecht Durer portrait of the sultan made in 1526 (musée Bonnat, Bayonne), but I am certainly intrigued by this painting thanks to the thorough research and precise description in the catalogue. This painting could have gone unnoticed if sold in an “Old Masters” auction, instead, it made the list! I wonder if it was bought by an Islamic art or a Renaissance painting collector.
8 – £ 5,359,950: A blue & white Pottery Charger, Iznik, Ottoman Turkey, c. 1480
When this extraordinary ceramic plate was presented at Sotheby’s back in 2018, everybody was expecting to sell quite well given the obvious aesthetic qualities of the blue and white decoration. Sold for more than 10 times is high estimate, the “Debbane charger”, named after its previous owner, is one of the rare examples of Iznik ceramics produced in Ottoman Anatolia during the reigns of Mehmet II (‘the Conqueror’, r.1451-81) and his son, Bayezid II (r.1481-1512). Only four other large dishes of that type are known, all with a similar decoration of central floret surrounded by split-palmette rum‘ motifs and hatayi flowers in two shades of blue and white. The production of these dishes is very limited in time, usually dated to the 1470s and 1480s, and shines for its technical and aesthetic prodigality. The estimate was surprisingly conservative but it certainly helped Sotheby’s in breaking a record.
7 – £ 5,442,000: A square Pashmina Carpet, Mughal India, c. 1650
The estimate and overall price of this 17th century carpet, produced in northern India, are justified by the rarity of Mughal carpets, especially complete ones, the excellent state of preservation and careful restorations, and the unusual square format. It was most likely made during the reign of emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628-1658), during which floral designs spread (pardon the pun) to all artistic media, including architecture such as the Taj Mahal, album painting (my book will come out one day), and, of course, textile. This carpet was published and exhibited in the 1990s and 2000s, which seems to have compensated the provenance only going back to 1991 in the eyes of buyers.
6 – £ 6,201,250: A Kerman ‘vase’ carpet, Persia, 17th century
This is the lot I had forgotten about… Sold in 2010, it held the record of most expensive carpet in the world for a few years. Valued at £200,000-300,000, it sold for more than 17 times its high estimate, which is remarkable by itself, but the most spectacular is definitely the vibrant blue used in an usually large quantity to enhance the branches of saz leaves. The term ‘vase’ carpet was first coined by carpet scholar Dr. May Beattie, in reference to the vase motif inspired by Chinese design, not visible on this carpet but on others such as one in the Saint Louis Art Museum. The term also refers to a specific production in the Kerman region during the 17th century, characterised by its technique, which I will abstain from trying to explain, carpets not being my forte. This one was in an European collection in the early 20th century and was published in Pope’s A Survey of Persian Art in 1938. An impressive carpet with an impressive pedigree.
5 – £ 6,632,400: A gold and silver-inlaid brass Candlestick, probably Mosul, circa 1275
This candlestick was maybe made in Mosul after the city conquest by the Mongol in 1262, and belongs to a group of similar facetted candlesticks with concave body, this one being exceptional for the large scale of the figures animating the facets. Made by an anonymous maker, it bears no date nor dedication, just phrases of benediction. It is a deceptively small object, the base being only 30cm in diameter, but it is quite remarkable for the quality of its ornamentation and the overall state of preservation. It came with an European provenance dating back to the 1960s and was previously sold in Paris in 2003 for a price I couldn’t retrieve.
4 – £ 7,433,250: “Faridun tests his Sons”, Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnama, Tabriz, c. 1530
This page was part of the sale of Stuart Cary Welch’s collection in 2011, a few year after his passing. A pioneer in many aspects of Islamic art history, SC Welch started collecting Islamic and Indian art very early, and by the end of his life, he had amassed one of the most comprehensive collections, of works on paper in particular. This folio of Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnama was the crown jewel of his collection, Welch writing: “acquiring it: the costliest acquisition I had ever made. Terrible effort, but successful (a Triumph!) – “
The scene depicts the hero Faridun, in the guise of a Dragon, testing his three sons on their way back from Yemen, where they married the three daughters of the king. The dragon is shown descending from a rocky mountain, facing the three brothers: the eldest is fleeing (“No wise man fights with dragon foes“), the second has drawn his sword to fight (“If combat’s needed I can fight“), the youngest is yelling at the beast (“Out of our path, fell monster, step aside“). The painting is a masterpiece of narration, highlighted with the luxury and level of detail that characterise the whole manuscript. Given this, the rarity of Shahnama pages on the market at the time, and the prestigious provenance, the result was not a surprise.
3 – £ 8,061,700: “Rustam recovers Rakhsh”, Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnama, Tabriz, c. 1530
Here is the most expensive Persian painting ever sold, and unsurprisingly it is a page from Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnama. It was previously sold at Christie’s in 1988 and only reappeared in 2022 after the successful sale of another page (#9). The scene depicts the moment when the hero Rustam discovers his horse Rakhsh amongst Afrasiyab’s herd. Rustam, dressed in his leopard-skin cap, frees the royal herd, to the surprise of the royal herdsmen. Rustam was given the chestnut horse by his father Zal who had promised to find him a horse worthy of his warrior status. According to Rustam “Its body was a wonder to behold,Like saffron petals, mottled red and gold; Brave as a lion, a camel for its height,An elephant in massive strength and might”. The painting is striking for its lyricism and its bright colour palette, especially the vibrant lapis blue that constitutes the sky. Dr Firuza Melville talked about this marvellous page in the ART Informant podcast.
As mentioned in the introduction, I only went back to 2010 in this ranking, however this list would not have been complete without mentioning the sale of the Abbasid Ka’ba Key and the controversy that followed. For a few years, this artefact was the most expensive Islamic art object ever sold, bought at a time where Saudi Arabia and Qatar were throwing millions at the market to constitute their collections (before 2008, the record was held by a 10th century Umayyad bronze fountainhead in the form of a hind, sold at Christie’s in 1997 for £3.6 millions, now in the Museum of Islamic art in Doha (acc. MW.7.1997).
Less than 60 Ka’ba keys are known, all in public collections, so the apparition of this Abbasid key from an anonymous Lebanese collection was an exciting surprise for everybody. It was believed to be the second oldest key in existence, dated less than 20 years after the oldest one (now in Topkapi palace, Istanbul). It was sold for £9.2 millions, over 18 times the estimate, but only 2 weeks after the sale, doubts were raised regarding its authenticity, prompting Sotheby’s to annul the result. The key was brought to the British Museum for further analysis and was given back to its initial owner shortly after: it was a fake.
2 – £ 14,080,900: The Bedchamber Sword of Tipu Sultan, India, 18th Century
Valued at £1,500,000, the bedchamber sword of Tipu Sultan recently sold for almost 10 times more. The sword itself is of great quality and in an almost pristine state of preservation, but let’s be honest, this price is hardly justified. The sword was ‘found’ in Tipu Sultan’s private apartments after his death in 1799 and offered to the Major General David Baird. It remained in his family until 2003 when it was sold in London for £150,000 (against an estimate of £150,000-250,000). Bonhams recognised the craze for everything Tipu Sultan and presented the sword 20 years later for 10 times the estimate, and it became the 2nd most expensive Islamic art object ever sold. In the mind of many, Tipu Sultan represents the fight against oppression led by corporate greed, so the irony is not lost that his possessions now make millions of pound on London art market.
1 – $33,765,000: The Clark Sickle-Leaf carpet, prob. Kerman, Persia, 17th Century
Here it is, the most expensive Islamic art object ever sold at auction, the so-called Clark sickle-leaf carpet, from the same production as the blue carpet aforementioned (#6). Sotheby’s wrote a very comprehensive entry that I will not paraphrase, I encourage you to give it a read. This carpet is striking by the size of its motifs, especially the long saz leaves that divide the space, as well as its bold red colour and its almost perfect state of preservation. Not to mention its provenance: this carpet was exhibited at least 9 times in 60 years, and published countless more, Arthur U. Pope writing in 1939: “The Clark-Corcoran carpet is definitely the finest of the group, and is surely one of the outstanding examples of Persian carpet weaving.” (Survey of Persian Art, vol. VI, 1939, pp. 2385-2386, quoted from Sotheby’s catalogue). According to the author, this carpet would have been woven as a dais for the shah’s throne. This was never confirmed but the image stuck for many years. So, would you have paid $33.8 millions for it (£26.5M; €30.8M in today conversion)?