Islamic sleeper priced at £100 in January to be auctioned for £3 million in October
By Martin Bailey and Lucian Harris. Published online: 10 September 2008
An extremely rare Islamic rock crystal ewer, which was sold earlier this year by a Somerset auction house as a “French claret jug” with an upper estimate of £200, is to be offered at Christie’s London on 7 October, for £3m.
It has now been authenticated as a Fatimid vessel, dating from around 1000 AD. The Egyptian ewer, decorated with two cheetahs, could achieve a record auction price for an Islamic work of art.
The ewer appeared at Lawrences auctioneers in Crewkerne, Somerset on 17 January. It was catalogued as: “A French claret jug, the rock crystal body carved with animals, the silver gilt mounts with enamelled decoration, 19th century, 30 cm (cracked and damaged). In fitted box of Morel à Sèvres. £100-200.” Two dealers, with financial backers, realised what it might be, bidding up the price. When the hammer fell, the item went to a middle-level Islamic dealer for £220,000.
Astonishingly, the importance of the ewer had not been spotted by Lawrences, although it came in a leather-covered box with the name of the Sèvres jeweller Jean-Valentin Morel stamped on the silk interior. Even a quick check would have revealed that Morel’s work is very important, and the gold and enamel mount alone was worth a substantial sum. In addition, the fact that the main object was made of rock crystal should have suggested it was important.
The Art Newspaper can reveal that although the ewer was widely reported as sold, the sale was subsequently “annulled”, with the ewer being returned to the original vendor. One can only assume that the vendor and winning bidder made some mutually beneficial financial arrangement, with the agreement of Lawrences. Following the deal, Christie’s was approached in June to arrange a new sale.
The identity of the vendor is being kept secret, but we have established that it is a distinguished Hampshire family. They have an important art collection built up over centuries, including paintings, furniture and ceramics.
Fatimid ewers were made in the late 10th and early 11th centuries, when the Islamic caliphate in Cairo was at its height. A contemporary source records that 90 rock crystal ewers had been commissioned, but these were sold off in the 1060s. Many probably went to Italy, and the Christie’s example may well have been bought by the head of the English family, who is known to have been there on a Grand Tour in around 1850.
The mouth and handle of the ewer must have been broken, since the new English owner sent it to Sèvres, to be mounted in gold and enamel by Morel. Interestingly, Morel’s design for the mounted mouth and handle are very similar to the seven other surviving Fatimid ewers, although these had been virtually unknown in the 1850s. This would mean that Morel must have had the broken fragments of the original mouth and handle, suggesting that the damage may well have occurred around the time of the sale.
A letter from Morel dated October 1854 has just been discovered in the family archives (it is reproduced in the Christie’s catalogue, but with the name of the English family blurred, to keep ownership confidential). Significantly, the ewer is described as ”crystal mauresque” (Moorish), so the English owner must have been aware of its origin. Morel was paid 4,500 Francs, a very substantial sum at the time, which again suggests it was bought as a precious object. The English owner had died in mid 1854, with the mounted ewer passing to his heir and then down the family.
By the time the ewer was consigned to Lawrences, over a century and a half later, its importance had been forgotten. Along with 400 other works of art (none of which are Islamic), it had been conditionally exempt from inheritance tax, and was described as “a 19th century French rock crystal ewer with enamelled and giltmetal mounts in the Persian manner.” When it went to auction, the family were unaware that its conditionally exempt status meant that it should have been offered first to a public collection at its market value, then assumed to be £100-200.
After Christie’s took over the sale, it was quickly realised that the ewer must be offered to a museum under a private treaty sale arrangement (with tax advantages), and it is currently available at a guide value of £5m, significantly higher than the auction estimate. Both the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the British Museum, which have important Islamic collections, would love to acquire the ewer, but the daunting price means that it is very unlikely either institution will go for it before the 7 October auction (in the case of the V&A, it already has a finer example of a Fatimid ewer).
Until this year’s discovery, only seven Fatimid carved rock crystal ewers were known. These belong to St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice (two examples), Fermo Cathedral in central Italy, the V&A, the Louvre, the Pitti Palace in Florence and the Musée municipal de l’Evêché in Limoges. The example in the Pitti Palace was apparently dropped by a museum employee in 1998, breaking into dozens of fragments (Christie’s catalogue diplomatically records that it was “unfortunately shattered a few years ago”). The Limoges ewer was stolen in 1981 (along with a large group of enamels) and remains unrecovered.
Following the January auction, questions were obviously asked about the authenticity of the Lawrences ewer, and Christie’s experts William Robinson (Islamic) and Anthony Phillips (silver) have together researched the rock crystal container and Morel mounts. Their catalogue entry concludes: “The form, the style and overall aesthetic, the layout and decorative elements, together with the technique, all fit within the body of known rock crystal carvings from the high Fatimid period.” They also point out that the ewer was regarded as Moorish and given a lavish mount in 1854, before the acquisition of the V&A example in 1862 (when it was thought to be Byzantine) and the earliest publication of a Fatimid ewer in 1885.
No price estimate will be published in the Christie’s catalogue, but the sum being given to enquirers is “in excess of £3m”. The ewer could well achieve a record sum in London on 7 October. Although 12th century key to the Kaa’ba in Mecca sold at Sotheby’s for £9.2m on 9 April, this was more of an historic and religious relic than an artwork. Otherwise the record price for an Islamic work of art was the £3.6m achieved at Christie’s in 1997 for a 10th century Spanish bronze fountainhead.
The ewer will be displayed at Christie’s New York from 14-18 September. It will then be shown by appointment at the Emirates Towers Hotel in Dubai from 21-25 September, a reflection of interest from newly established museums and private collections in the Gulf.
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