Fatimid ewer sells for £220,000 in provincial British auction
Miscatalogued as a 19th-century French claret jug, it was estimated at £100-200 and is worth around £5 million
By Lucian Harris | From Web exclusive | Posted: 21.1.08
LONDON. Signalling one of the most remarkable chance discoveries in years, an 11th-century Fatimid rock crystal ewer, with a market value of up to £5m, surfaced in a British provincial auction on 17 January where it was estimated at £100-£200. Described by Lawrences auctioneers of Crewkerne, Somerset, as a 19th century French claret jug, the piece eventually sold for £220,000. The surface of the ewer is relief cut with mythological animals, birds, and vegetable motifs, and it has European silver gilt and enamel mounting, possibly of Austro-Hungarian origin.
Fatimid rock crystal ewers are considered among the rarest and most valuable objects in the entire sphere of Islamic art, with only five known to exist before this extraordinary appearance. Indeed this is the first time one has ever known to have appeared at auction. The last one to surface on the market was purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1862.
One dealer who described the crystal ewer as a “Holy Grail” of Islamic art ruefully recounted how he had looked at the sale but failed to identify the ewer from the small, indistinct photograph of a “claret jug” on the website of the auction house. “I’ve spent my whole life hoping to find one” he said. “This may be the biggest sleeper ever to appear on the Islamic art market. It seems strange that it stopped at £220,000.”
Al Maqrizi, the Egyptian writer who chronicled the history of the Ismaili Fatimid Caliphate in the early 15th century, recorded eye witness reports of a large number of rock crystal artefacts in the Fatimid royal treasury in Cairo which was looted by mutinous troops in 1067-68. However, under Saladin, the Sunni Ayyubid ruler who conquered Egypt and succeeded the Fatimid Caliphs in 1171, a wave of iconoclasm saw these beautiful objects with their animal motifs destroyed en masse, thus ensuring their great rarity.
The ewers and other vessels which did survive were thought to have been carried back to Europe from the Holy Land by crusaders and ended up being used as reliquaries in churches.
There are around 180 rock crystal pieces known today, the majority being small items such as pendants and kohl bottles. A rudimentary bevel-carved rock crystal molar flask, only 2.57 cm high, sold at Sotheby’s London Islamic art sale last October for £558,100.
In addition to the five (and now six) ewers, three or four smaller oval flasks are known including one in the V&A, one in the Freer Gallery in Washington DC, and one in the Keir Collection, London which was bought at Sotheby’s in 1986 for £280,000, a record for an Islamic object (work of art) at the time. The oval flask in the Freer has a 17th century gold and enamel setting seemingly very similar to that of the Crewkerne ewer. It is described by the museum as dating from the reign of the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II.
Comparison with this group of small oval flasks emphasises just how much the larger, thin-walled, narrow-necked ewers, with their deep-cut reliefs of animals and plants, represent a remarkable and almost unprecedented feat of hardstone carving, justifying their reputation as being the pinnacle of the arts of the Islamic world.
With the exception of that in the V&A, all the other existing ewers remain in ecclesiastical collections. The treasury of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice has two, one of which bears an inscription to the Fatimid Caliph al Aziz (r.975-996) and is closest in style to the one which has just appeared in Crewkerene. Another with an inscription to his son Caliph al Hakim is in the Cathedral of Fermo in Italy. A further one was in the treasury of the Abbey of Saint Denis in Paris and is now in the Louvre. Disaster befell the final known ewer which was from the Pitti Palace collection in Florence and had an inscription to Caliph al Hakim’s general, Husain ibn Jawhar. For many years it had been on display in the Museo degli Argenti and in 1998 it was accidentally dropped by a museum employee, shattering it irreparably.
Key to Mecca's Kaaba sells for $18M
Price a record for Islamic art at auction
Friday, April 11, 2008
CREDIT: Sotheby's, Reuters
A 12th-century key to the Kaaba in Mecca sold for $18 million at auction.
CREDIT: Bonhams, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images
A dagger owned by the builder of the Taj Mahal brought $3.4 million.
A 12th century key to the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest site in Islam, sold Wednesday for $18.4 million Cdn, a record for an Islamic work of art at auction.
The Abbasid period key, made of iron and measuring 37 centimetres long, sold at Sotheby's in London for more than 18 times its pre-sale estimate and was bought anonymously. It is the only known example to remain in private hands.
The key, one of the ultimate symbols of religious power, is engraved with the words: "This is what was made for the Holy House of God during the time of our lord the Imam son of Imam al-Muqtadi Abu Ja'far al-Mustansir Abu'l-Abbas 573."
It was the highlight of the auctioneer's Islamic sale, which realized $43 million, a record for an Islamic art auction.
"Remarkably, the sale realized more than the Islamic department's annual total in 2007, demonstrating beyond doubt the burgeoning and international demand for Islamic art," said Edward Gibbs, head of Sotheby's Islamic art department.
The previous record for a work of Islamic art sold at auction is believed to be a bronze fountainhead in the form of a hind dating from mid-10th- century Spain. It sold at Christie's in 1997 for $6.8 million.
At a separate London auction held at Bonhams on Thursday, a rare dagger that once belonged to 17th-century Mughal emperor Shah Jahan sold for $3.4 million Cdn, four times the estimate.
The work, inscribed with the emperor's name, title and date and place of its manufacture, is one of two daggers known to have been personally owned by the man who built the Taj Mahal. It was sold at Bonhams's Indian and Islamic sale.
On Tuesday, Christie's held its London Islamic auction which fetched $24 million, including a leaf from a mid-seventh century copy of the Koran sold for $5 million.
It was a new world auction record for an Islamic manuscript, the company said.
In addition to the example sold at Sotheby's this week, there are 58 recorded Kaaba keys, all held in museums.
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