LONDON.- One of the rarest and most desirable works of art from the Islamic world, a carved rock crystal ewer from the Fatimid Royal Treasury, dating to the late 10th to early 11th century AD, will be offered at the strongest sale of Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds ever staged at Christies, on Tuesday 7 October 2008. Estimated to realise in excess of £3 million, this Fatimid ewer is one of only seven fully carved known surviving examples and the first and only one to be offered on the open market. This is an historic opportunity for private collectors and institutions around the world. The auction overall, which includes an extraordinary combination of outstanding works of art, spans a wide range of geographical areas, materials and time and is expected to realize in excess of £11 million.
FATIMID CARVED ROCK CRYSTAL EWER
Few objects evoke the richness of mediaeval Islamic culture as much as the small group of carved rock crystal ewers made for the court of the Fatimid rulers of Cairo in the late 10th and early 11th centuries. One of these is the treasure at the centre of this sale. It is further embellished with enamelled gold mounts, made in 1854, by the French silversmith Jean-Valentin Morel, who was appointed Goldsmith to Queen Victoria in 1852 (estimate: in excess of £3 million).
Fatimid rulers conquered Egypt in 969 and renamed their new capital city Al-Qahira (The Triumphant), which remains the Arabic name for Cairo. Ewers were amongst the works of art made in varied media to reflect this name through their cultural opulence. Such lavishness could not be maintained indefinitely and by the mid 11th century the state had become so impoverished that much of the Royal Treasury had to be sold, explaining the sudden dispersal of these ewers; a fire sale which was recorded by a Fatimid Treasury official in Kitab al-Dhakhaiir wal-Tuhaf (The Book of Gifts and Rarities).
Carved from a single piece of flawless rock crystal, which is as hard as toughened steel, the ewers were hollowed out and then carved by hand with extraordinary finesse, leaving a surface in the thinner areas that is only a couple of millimeters thick. Almost all surviving examples have come through cathedral treasuries and each is decorated with animal groups associated with hunting, surrounded by arabesque designs. Of the other six examples, one is in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, having been bought privately in 1862 (decorated with a hawk attacking a deer); two are in the treasury of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice (one decorated with a lion, the other a ram); one is in the Cathedral of Fermo, Italy (decorated with a falcon); another is in the Louvre, having been in the treasury of the royal Abbey of Saint Denis, Paris (decorated with a small falcon), and one well-documented ewer (decorated with falcons) which was stolen from the museum in Limoges in 1980. In 1998 another example in the Pitti Palace, Florence (decorated with partridges), was apparently broken beyond repair. The Fatimid ewer being offered in this sale is decorated with cheetahs with linkchains.
FURTHER ISLAMIC HIGHLIGHTS
Amongst the further highlights in this outstanding sale are Islamic works from the mediaeval period, including a carved ebony pen box with outstanding bronze mounts and a central inscribed ivory panel encouraging the reader to open the lid. This is attributed to the same extraordinary Fatimid dynasty as the ewer (estimate: £400,000-600,000). From the same period, but from even further west are two capitals from the Umayyad capital city of Cordoba (Medina al-Zahra) in Andalucia (estimate: £120,000-180,000 and £50,000-70,000), together with the base for a column (estimate: £80,000-120,000). Exactly contemporary with these, are five rare Umayyad Andalusian wooden beams that were carved for the Great Mosque of Cordoba in the 10th century. These beams are being sold with the full authority and agreement of Cordoba Cathedral Council. Each one is just under 6 metres in length and deeply carved with floral and strapwork designs, on three out of the four sides, including trefoil and diamond motifs. Considering their age, their original surface is remarkably well preserved. The estimates for the beams range between £150,000-£250,000 and £300,000-£500,000.
Another masterpiece offered for sale is a remarkable silver and copper inlaid bronze incense burner which was made in Damascus around 1230 by Muhammad Ibn Khutlukh al-Mawsili, a master metalworker whose only other work is in the British Museum; it is expected to realise in excess of £1,000,000 illustrated right. A magnificent massive carved arcaded panel with extraordinarily intricate interlaced designs coming from 13th or 14th century Merinid Morocco (estimate: £300,000-400,000) is another key work.
Later Islamic works are also well represented and exemplified by the library of the late Djafar Ghazi; a collection of manuscripts and calligraphy by the very best Persian and Turkish masters, many of them specifically commissioned for Sultans, Shahs and Amirs in their gilded palaces. Central works in the library, which are offered in this sale, are two manuscripts made personally for Sultan Mehmet II, the Conqueror of the most famous city in Christendom, Constantinople in 1453, (estimates: £50,000-70,000 and £30,000-50,000). One of the best kept secrets of the Islamic collecting world, this private library was housed in the unlikely location of a top floor flat of an apartment building in Germany. Other collectors knew it was there but nobody had seen it, or been allowed into the apartment for years. Also from Ottoman Turkey is a superb collection of Iznik tiles, mostly collected in Alexandria in the first half of the 20th century. One tile depicts the holy shrine of Mecca, and identifies all the individual buildings around the compound, painted in around 1640 and, exceptionally, signed by the artist (estimate: £150,000-250,000).. The condition, colour and design of these tiles is exceptional. Three other tiles in this collection are the largest to have been offered at auction in living memory, each at around 65 x 35cm., with estimates ranging from £60,000-80,000 and £100,000-150,000.
From the Eastern reaches of the sale comes a strong section of Indian Art, including a group of spectacular 16th and 17th century mother-of pearl overlaid furniture. This ranges from two pouring vessels (kendi) which are sold together with an estimate of £40,000-60,000 and two powder horns (estimate: £8,000-12,000), through to two caskets (estimates: £80,000-120,000 and £40,000-60,000). The second of the caskets is set with mounts, a form of embellishment practiced by goldsmiths working at various European courts at this time. Gujarat, in western India, was the centre of production of these luxury items, the appeal of which lay in the lustrous and iridescent surface originating from certain shells. International collectors of the day included the Tyrolean ruler Ferdinand II (15291595), the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II (15521612) and the Bavarian Archduke Albrecht V (13971439). They acquired pieces either through their royal cousins in Portugal, agents in Lisbon or goldsmiths who dealt in exotica. Amongst other works of significant Indian art featured is the most detailed Sikh group portrait ever to have appeared on the auction market, depicting Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his entire court in the fort at Lahore (estimate:
ANGLO INDIAN ART
Further paintings include Anglo-Indian works, which are being offered within the context of this sale for the first time. They provide an interesting visual record of India under British rule in the 18th, 19th and 20th Century by British and Company School artists. With estimates ranging from £5,000 to £50,000, works include two pages from the Impey albums; one depicting an Eastern Goshawk, by Bhawani Das, circa 1781 (estimate: £15,000-20,000) and a Collared Dove by Shaikh Zayn-al-din (estimate: £12,000-18,000). These works will create considerable interest among collectors following the outstanding success of the Impey material at Christies May 2008 sale of The Niall Hobhouse Collection, including the depiction of a Great Indian Fruit Bat which sold for £168,500. Amongst the works from this distinctive genre is also a complete album of 101 ornithological illustrations of Indian birds and animals, a product of the early 19th century Calcutta School (estimate: £20,000-30,000), which was probably assembled for one of the early British employees of the East India Company. Other examples include Tollygunge, Calcutta by Edward Lear (1812-1888) (estimate: £20,000 -30,000) and Female Peasant of Ceylon, by William Daniell, R.A.(1769-1837) (estimate: £30,000 - 50,000).