LONDON - In the wake of Sotheby’s successful sale of Arts of the Islamic World earlier this year, which realised £4.4 million, the second biannual auction of Islamic art on Wednesday, October 24th, 2007, is set to generate huge interest among collectors and connoisseurs. The auction, which comprises more than 400 lots, is rich in rare and important works of art, including Qur’anic manuscripts, textiles, metalwork, astronomical devices, weaponry, ceramics, glassware and paintings that span from the rise of Islam in the 7th century through to the great ruling empires (Ottoman, Safavid and Moghul) in the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The sale will be the most important of its kind ever to be held by Sotheby’s and is expected to realise in excess of £5 million.
One of the most important works in the forthcoming sale and a highlight of the Qur’anic manuscripts offered is a large Qur’an leaf in gold kufic script on blue vellum, from North Africa or Southern Spain. The leaf, which is from an exceptional manuscript known as the Blue Qur’an, was – when complete – likely to have been one of the most luxurious and important manuscripts of the Qur’an produced in the early medieval period in the Islamic world, and dates to the 9th/10th century. Other examples of dyed vellum are known, but rare, and yellow was the more usual choice of colour. In addition to being luxurious, the colour blue was probably symbolic, and the combination of blue vellum and gold script were possibly meant to rival the most exquisite manuscripts of the Byzantine empire which were dyed purple or blue. Many hypotheses exist as to the exact origins of the Blue Qur’an, but it was most probably produced in the Western Islamic world, and the patron of such a luxurious manuscript was likely to have been a ruler of enormous wealth and ambition. One section of the manuscript is in the National Library of Art and Archaeology in Tunis, while detached leaves or fragments can be found in various public and private collections. The offered leaf is estimated at £70,000-90,000.
The auction will include a fine group of ten Ka’ba cloths, which is highlighted by a magnificent Ottoman silk, velvet and metal thread calligraphic band (hizam) from the holy Ka’ba at Mecca, which dates to the early 20th century. The four walls of the Ka’ba are covered with a curtain (kiswa) with the shahada outlined in the weave.
About two thirds of the way up runs a gold embroidered band (hizam) covered with Qur’anic verses. Each year the old kiswa is divided up and distributed to honoured pilgrims. The band is in excellent condition, measures almost seven metres in length by and is estimated at £120,000-160,000. Only one other hizam of such exceptional quality has appeared on the market in recent years and was sold in Sotheby’s saleroom earlier this year. Another important curtain in the group, from the internal door of the Ka’ba, dates from A.D. 1903-4 and is estimated at £80,000-120,000.
One of the most noteworthy works in the metalwork section is a large, early 14th-century Mamluk gold- and silver-inlaid brass candlestick from Syria or Egypt (illustrated right). The workmanship of the candlestick is of the highest quality and can be considered some of the most prestigious metalwork produced under Islamic rule. Both the shape and decoration are typical of 14th-century Mamluk candlesticks. By the period when this candlestick was produced, the figural compositions that had characterized earlier Mamluk metalware had been replaced by a more austere taste for large calligraphic panels. The decorative details include chinoiserie motifs, such as the lotus form which the Mamluks had begun to use in the early 14th century, perhaps resulting from their interaction with Ilkhanid works which naturally brought an influence of the senior khanate in China. The candlestick is estimated at £100,000-150,000.
Among a group of 15 Islamic and Indian astronomical devices in the sale, a fine example is an elegant astrolabe by Alî Ibn Sâdiq Al- Qummî, dated to circa 1800. Astrolabes, which are two-dimensional models of the heavens, were used as navigational instruments with which the direction of Mecca could be ascertained for prayer, as well as to tell the time of day. Technically sophisticated, the Iranian astrolabe being offered is a beautifully-executed example and is typical of the astrolabes of the maker. The instrument is testament to the fundamental contribution of the Muslim world to science and is estimated to realise £15,000-20,000.
Among the arms and armour in the auction, and from an important collection, are two highly decorative Mughal jade-hilted daggers. The first is a gem-set dagger and scabbard from circa 1800 from India, which is estimated at £15,000-20,000. The dagger possesses a straight watered-steel blade with central ridge and swollen tip, and the jade-hilt is inlaid with gold floral decoration set with emeralds, diamonds and spinels. The second is a double-edged dagger, which is decorated with calligraphic inscriptions both on the pale green jade of baluster hilt and the slightly curved blade dagger. It was produced in India in the 17th century and is estimated at £15,000-20,000.
In the section dedicated to portraits, a major work is a portrait of the Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II, ‘the Conqueror’ of Constantinople. The portrait, which is exceptionally rare, was executed in Venice some 30 years after the prototype by Gentile Bellini at the National Gallery in London, and is one of the few Western images of an Eastern potentate by a European artist. The painting, which updates Bellini’s composition with a fashionable cross-shoulder glance in the manner of Giorgione and Titian, encapsulates Mehmed’s self-image as a ruler whose empire spanned both East and West. The triple crowns motif refers to the three Ottoman realms of Greece, Trebizond and Asia. It is estimated at £200,000-£300,000.
Another important work to be offered for sale is an extremely rare and important Spanish ivory-revetted micro-mosaic gaming board, with a recessed backgammon board. Produced in Andalusia, it is a fine example of luxury ivory and micro-mosaic work from Nasrid Spain. Exposed areas of the wooden frame reveal that scraps of medieval parchment were introduced as an underlay or ground to improve the adhesion of the mosaic overlay. These vellum scraps bear traces of verses from a psalter which are printed rather than hand-written, and since printing was only briefly used on parchment in the second half of the 15th century, the object can be securely dated to the late-15th century. The tradition of inlaying ivory and other materials into wood was a highly specialised technique developed in Muslim workshops in the Umayyad period recorded in both Spain and North Africa, and the inlay on Nasrid-period examples is typically made up of polygonal tessarae of ivory, bone, metal, wood and sometimes, though not in this instance, mother-of-pearl arranged in geometrical patterns. The gaming board is estimated at £40,000-60,000.
Other noteworthy highlights in the sale include a rare and beautiful Mamluk micro-mosaic panel, estimated at £120,000-125,000, and two decorative enamel and jewel encrusted boxes which are respectively estimated at £30,000-40,000 and £35,000-50,000.