Of all art markets, none is more of a roller-coaster ride than that of Islamic art. Perhaps the only thing consistent about it is that great peaks are followed by deep troughs. In the last year or two, the market in Islamic art has been on the up following a dip, but I doubt anyone anticipated the new heights it would scale at London’s Islamic Week in April.
Susan Moore, Wednesday, 1st June 2011
The season did, of course, offer exceptional opportunities. On 6 April, Sotheby’s London offered Part One of the celebrated collection of the late Stuart Cary Welch (1928–2000). The sale included a leaf from the celebrated Houghton Shahnameh (Fig. 1), arguably the greatest Persian – or any other – illuminated manuscript ever produced (see the April issue of Apollo). It came to auction with an estimate of £2m–£3m but seven eager bidders pushed the price to £7.4m, a new auction record for an Islamic work of art.
At it happens, that price was not in the least surprising. What astounded were the prices paid for other Moghul or Indian miniatures. Several, like the refined early 16th-century painting Five Holy Men, attributed to the imperial portraitist Govardhan, soared 10 times over estimate (in this case, realising just under £3m). Others sold for 100 times their pre-sales estimates. Most notable among these was the ingenious calligraphic prancing horse constructed out of The Throne Verse, one of the most popular passages in the Qur’an.
It has been suggested that the mighty steed symbolises God’s omnipotence and omnipresence while its relatively miniscule rider represents the human soul. Executed in ink, watercolour and gold on paper by an anonymous artist of the Deccan in around 1600, it changed hands for just over £2m.
There is no precedent for such prices, and it is presumed that the cream of the crop went to Qatar, including the Shahnameh. The Cary Welch sale totalled £20.9m and was 99.9 per cent sold by value, but it was not the only auction to find huge prices. Coin specialists Morton & Eden, for instance, found a huge £3.7m (estimate £300,000–£400,000) for one of the rarest and most prized Islamic coins, a Umayyad gold dinar. Dated to the equivalent of 723 AD, the coin is made from gold sourced from the Caliph’s own mine, located in present-day Saudi Arabia. Bonhams, too, found £1.4m for the monumental portrait of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir painted in 1617 and attributed to Abu’l-Hasan (illustrated in the April Apollo). It goes to an anonymous Middle-Eastern museum.
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