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Business as usual in London

Susan Moore reports on how the market for Islamic art is still flourishing

26 April 2003

12:00 AM

26 April 2003

12:00 AM

There is a certain irony in the fact that the art market least affected by the fallout of 11 September was probably Islamic art. After all, the big players in this small, specialist field are unlikely to have incomes dependent on the Western stockmarket – and they are as rich as Croesus anyway. Biggest of all is Sheikh Saud bin Mohamed al-Thani, cousin of the Emir of Qatar, who has spent hundreds of millions in just five years – hoovering up everything from Islamic metalwork to Mamluk glass, manuscripts, Isnik pottery, and Indian and Arab jewellery, much but not all destined for a projected national museum and library. He is reputed to have paid a nine-figure sum for the collection of metalwork belonging to Jusim Homaizi, a great deal of which the latter lost during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

As for the current Iraqi conflict, Qatar has displayed a certain skill in riding two horses, as host to both the coalition headquarters and Al-Jazeera. Perhaps the principal major buyer who might be otherwise preoccupied is Sheikh Nasser al-Saba, an avid collector of early Islamic and Indian jewellery and jewelled objects, plus glass, pottery and metalwork. His day job is in the Kuwaiti government. But, so far at least, it seems that it is business as usual as London builds up to its Islamic sales. All the usual suspects are already circling their prey.

And what intriguing prey it is. Once again, Christie’s has pulled out of the hat another spectacular early Islamic bronze beast. This time it is gilded, and a bird –probably a cockerel – crafted as a fountainhead and believed to originate from 10th- or 11th-century Spain. This 14- inch-high beady, strutting creature – how fierce he would look with water gushing out of his beak – is part of an extraordinary unknown menagerie which has been disgorging creatures one by one over the last decade. Apparently they come from an old, noble European collection – even the auction house does not know which one.

First in 1993 came a monumental lion that seems to belong to the same, enigmatic group of large-scale early figural bronzes as the famous griffin of Pisa and the Cordova stag. Christie’s had been instructed to sell it if it would realise £30,000 or more. Offered with an estimate of £300,000, it fetched £2.4 million. No Islamic work of art had ever made more than a million.


In 1997 came a hind, like this cockerel also a fountainhead and probably a product of Umayyad Spain – she fetched £3.6 million, a record for any Islamic work of art. There followed a lampstand, then a massive lion-headed doorknocker (£1.4 million). That, we were told three years ago, was that – the ark was empty. Now out flies a cockerel. From the first, these unrecorded rarities have inspired passionate scholarly debate as to their origins. Some have argued the case for Spain, others for Sicily or Fatimid Egypt, and for the even more complex cultural melting pot of southern Italy. One or two have even denounced some as fake. As the creatures continue to emerge, the secrecy surrounding their more recent origins becomes more of an issue. It is rather appealing to imagine some rather superior home industry knocking them out every year or two, but the pieces themselves just do not fit the bill as forgeries.

This cockerel, for instance, relates closely to three peacock aquamaniles which are generally attributed to 10th- or 11th-century Spain, and, in terms of the gilding and engraving, to the ‘Monzon lion’ aquamanile in the Louvre. It is tempting to see it too as a fountainhead from the marble basin of Constantinopolitan origin described by the 17th-century Arab historian al-Maqqari as at the Umayyad palace of Medina al-Zarha near Cordova and adorned with 12 golden bird or animal fountainheads, one of which was a cock.

As those who visit the great mosque at Cordova soon realise, the highly civilised Umayyads drew from the traditions of both East and West, assimilating Roman, Byzantine and Sassanian Persian elements into their art even before their move to Spain in the early 8th century. Although the cockerel is stylised – the wings almost abstract – and the scrolling meandering engraving is typically Islamic, the figure is unusually animated and characterful: its long neck bends to one side, the head very slightly to the other. Although more impressive than appealing, it is little wonder that he has garnered so much interest – even from Christie’s clients who have never previously bought an Islamic work of art (such is the power of the cover slot on Christie’s International Magazine).

Revealingly, there were seven different bidders or underbidders for the previous four bronzes. The lion went to Sheikh Saud, the hind is currently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the doorknocker was acquired by the David Collection in Copenhagen. When the cockerel comes to the block on 29 April, few doubt he will make his £1 million estimate.

Of course, there is not just the cockerel to tempt buyers. On 30 April, Sotheby’s offer a superlative gold and silver inlaid brass Persian pencase – one of the most important pieces of inlaid metalwork to come onto the market in years. Its rare inscription dates it to the late 13th century and, better still, reveals it to have belonged to a famous politician and patron of the day, Shams al-din Muhammad Juvaini, chief minister to Genghis Khan’s grandson, Hulegu. This pencase, an emblem of state, is expected to realise a princely £300,000-£500,000. Another coup is a 10th-century Persian glass flask that ranks among the most substantial and beautiful pieces to survive intact from this period. It is expected to realise over £250,000.

But not everything in these Islamic art sales requires a sheikh’s ransom – or costs one – as Bonhams’ massive, 475-lot bazaar of a sale on 1 May ably demonstrates (estimates start at £100). Cover lot here is a rare and exceedingly fine sardonyx portrait cameo of the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan, believed to date from around 1630. It appears to belong to a small group of highly accomplished cameos made or derived from the work of European craftsmen working at the Mogul court. This small gem, the ultimate luxury item, was bought as part of a job lot of ten items at a country house sale at Sotheby’s last year for £600. Now it bears an estimate of £40,000-£60,000.


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