Published On:19 October 2012
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

Squeezing Cultures Under One Umbrella

By Souren Melikian

London: When half a dozen art market categories are wrapped up under a single meaningless denomination like the “Arts of the Islamic World,” as was the case in London last week, it is unwise to draw clear conclusions. But it was difficult to escape the impression that a crisis is in the making.

Sotheby’s has long been the front runner in the arts of the many cultural areas so glibly lumped together under the banner of religion — the Arab world, the Iranian world, Hindustan as India was called until and even under British colonial occupation, Ottoman Turkey, the Muslim communities of China and a few more. And yet on Oct. 3, 56 percent of the lots that came on the block remained unwanted. Such a miserable showing had not been witnessed in a long time.

True, the total sold, £3.82 million, about $6 million, was substantial and a few extremely high prices were paid here and there, albeit in a strangely dull atmosphere. The first gem that could have triggered furious competition was a manuscript of a long Arabic poem copied by a great Turkish calligrapher, Muhyi ad-Din al-Amasi. No other example of the master’s work has been recorded and the magnificent illumination points to an imperial commission. But the unique volume failed to match the high estimate at £127,250.

Even less enthusiasm was displayed over a supposedly “highly important Fatimid jar.” While it realized the highest price of the day, £289,250, the jar sold well under the lower end of the estimate. Buyers appear to have become more careful with their money. The lack of enthusiasm might reflect the reservations that some had about the age of the piece. The fact that the Arabic inscriptions on the body of the jar reproduce several times the same word, ’izz, (might), followed by letters that make no sense, inspires little confidence in a vessel considered to date from the 10th century.

More worryingly, while the next five highest prices greeted works that raised no questions whatsoever, these too sold at, or below, the lower end of the estimate. Overambitious estimation partly explains it — £121,250 is not an ungenerous price for a badly torn page of an early Koran, possibly from the eighth century.

A second factor may have come into play concerning Koranic pages. Six of these, torn away from ninth-century manuscripts in the Kufic script, failed to sell in a row. A first in auction annals, it was, however, not entirely surprising.

Tearing up Koran manuscripts is sacrilegious in the Muslim tradition and anyone taking a close look at Sotheby’s catalog would have seen that lots 3, 4, 5 — a double page — and 6 came from manuscripts that have been recently or still are being ripped apart. To quote the entry of lot 3 “various other folios from this Qur’an displaying the same strong aesthetic features have come to auction, including a leaf sold in these rooms 5 October 2011, lot 54; 14 April 2010, lots 1 & 5; 1 April 2009, lot 2.” And the enumeration went on. Perhaps buyers from the Arab peninsula, who used to bid enthusiastically on these, now reckon that acquiring such leaves makes them complicit in the injury caused to the sacred text.

At intervals, different problems had an equally inhibiting effect. A “gold cup with incised and pin-pricked decoration, Central Asia, 14th century” did not attract a single bid. Bidders may have been disturbed by odd decorative details like the crescent moon upside down enclosing a blossom that have no known parallels. Or they could have worried that the traces left on the thin walls in the course of hammering were not removed by planishing as might be expected at that period.

A day later, Christie’s did better. Sales added up to £4.52 million. But a third of the lots went under. Evidence that the market is stalling in part because of wild estimates was provided by the first 47 lots. They came from a collection auctioned to benefit Oxford University, giving the assurance that there was no speculator in the background trying to push up prices through steep reserves. Even so, 16 of the 47 lots found no takers and only a few were furiously disputed on account of their splendor or importance.

A leaf from a Persian manuscript of Sa’adi’s Golestan (Rose Garden) signed by the famous Mahmud Mozahheb and dated 968 (1560-1561 A.D.) rose to a gigantic £313,250, more than doubling expectations. A painter and illuminator from Herat, Mahmud had been forcibly taken by the Uzbek invaders to Bokhara, the seat of their Sheybanid dynasty. The Sheybanid ruler was eager to build the Central Asian city into an up-to-date Iranian-style capital of the arts. The page reveals the enduring legacy of Behzad, the most celebrated Iranian master. Touches of West Iranian influence, like the white cloud trail in the deep blue sky, interestingly suggest that the Uzbek capital was aware of modern artistic trends in Safavid Iran.

Bizarrely, another page from the same manuscript with a painting also signed by Mahmud Mozahheb and dated 1560-1561 made only £181,250. More beautiful, it is inscribed with the name and titles of the Uzbek ruler in the frieze running at the top of the palace. It should have been the more expensive of the two, but price inconsistency is typical of a market where there are few collectors, and fewer still with a fine understanding of art and culture in their area of interest.

Later, three remarkable paintings from a late 16th-century Mogul manuscript of the Persian chronicle of Timur’s campaigns all sold below the low estimate for £43,250 — each to different bidders. They are not really signed, as the catalog states, but attributed. The signing formulae mentioning Nand Gwaliyari (transcribed “Gwaliori” in the catalog), Bhur (Bhora) and Shankar are all written in the same beautiful hand, probably that of the calligrapher who copied the text. This makes the attributions entirely reliable. Few seem to have realized the historic opportunity that acquiring such paintings represented.

In the large section that followed the donation to Oxford, overestimation wrought havoc. The disparate character of unrelated works of art from too many different cultures did not help.
Occasionally, extravagant prices were paid here too. If some can, in a pinch, be explained by the magnificence of the works, the discrepancies between lots of comparable significance were absurd.

A hugely important painting interpreting a Western model was signed by an enigmatic artist, ’Aliqoli Jobbadar. The inscription stating that he did it “in the royal capital Qazvin [northwest of Tehran] in Rajab 1085 (=October 1674)” provides a major geographical anchoring point for the painter’s oeuvre, hence the price £151,250, two and a half times the estimate. Next came a leaf carrying on one side an admirable painting in the manner of the Iranian artist Mohammadi done in the 1560s and on the other side a superb painting by an anonymous Mogul master of the 1580s. That tripled the estimate at £373,250.

Inexplicably, a third leaf, which was also important, did not even match the low estimate at £67,250. On one side, a remarkable drawing of Emperor Shah Jahan holding up a jewel dates from the mid-17th century. On the other, a painting of the 1590s comes from a Mogul manuscript of one of the Persian translations of Sanskrit texts ordered by Emperor Akbar so that his court could understand them.

The entire sale was hit and miss. In another typical sequence, this time concerning Turkish art, a beautiful revetment tile painted with turquoise and blue blossoms around 1530 brought a modest £10,625. Next, a fine blue and white tray from Iznik was unsold at £45,000, and then, a strange blue and white ewer ascribed to “Ottoman Turkey, circa 1510” shot up to £373,250. Neither the design on the body nor the handle find parallels in the vast number of Iznik vessels, which induced some to entertain doubts about its actual period.
Clearly, a great deal remains to be learned about the many art forms of the civilizations grouped under the “Islamic” umbrella. No wonder prices make little sense on the auction scene.

(Courtesy: The New York Times)

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Posted by Indian Muslim Observer on October 19, 2012. Filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Feel free to leave a response

By Indian Muslim Observer on October 19, 2012. Filed under , , . Follow any responses to the RSS 2.0. Leave a response

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