Qatar’s relentless drive to build museum collection sustains Islamic market

Doubts about provenances did not dent prices in latest round of London auctions

LONDON. A £9.2m Abbasid key to the Kaa’ba in Mecca, a £2.5m Qur’an page and a £1.7m Mughal dagger were among the exceptional objects that gave three auction houses reasons to celebrate after the latest week of Islamic art sales in London from 8 to 10 April.

While Sotheby’s was able to claim the most successful Islamic art auction ever with a total of £21.3m ($42m), and both Christie’s and Bonhams also had their best ever results, such record totals and spectacular prices masked the fact that all three auction houses were left with around a third of all lots unsold and that the market remains fickle and beset by doubts of provenance and authenticity.

As in previous years, the market continues to be driven by the Museum of Islamic art in Qatar, despite a litany of problems that have repeatedly delayed its opening. At Sotheby’s, the museum bought as relentlessly as ever, although at Christie’s a rival bidder in the room and later on the phone competed across the board in a way that suggested another museum in the making.

Oil at $117-a-barrel has clearly brought new buyers from the Middle East prepared to bid top dollar, as was the case at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Religious artefacts relating to the history of Islam—never previously a priority for Qatar or the Aga Khan’s new museum in Toronto—have generated particular interest from these quarters in recent auctions.

Throughout the Sotheby’s sale, a single winning bid was made at or just above the reserve on a number of lots by paddle 872, the telephone bidder that could only be Qatar, reinforcing the impression that the museum is buying indiscriminately at prices no-one else is prepared to consider.

Record prices

At Christie’s a new record for an Islamic manuscript was set by a vellum palimpsest page from one of the earliest produced Qur’ans, copied in Medina in the mid 7th century. The high estimate of £150,000 was left in the dust as competitive bidding took it to £2.5m ($5m) with Qatar left in the rare position of being the under-bidder.

Qatar appeared cool on the object that generated the most excitement in the week’s auctions: the key to the holy Kaa’ba in Mecca that sold at Sotheby’s for £9.2m ($18.2m). Dated 1179-1180 and engraved with the name of the Abbasid Caliph, it is the second earliest of 59 keys known to exist. Sotheby’s gave its provenance as a private Lebanese collection but sources in the trade claim that last year it had been offered around by a Syrian dealer from Gray’s Antique Market in Mayfair. Sotheby’s subsequently told The Art Newspaper that while the key was indeed “formally” in a private Lebanese collection, the auction house is also “aware that the key may have been offered on the market last year”.

Sotheby’s high estimate of £500,000 was quickly passed until two men were left standing only a few feet apart, both taking instructions on their phones. As it passed £6m, one of them was visibly shaking and when the sale was made at £8.2m (hammer price) the room burst into spontaneous applause.

The winning bidder was Robin Start of Park Gallery in Connaught Street, London. When contacted by The Art Newspaper, Mr Start refused to confirm or deny rumours that he was acting on behalf of a member of the Saudi royal family. There were also claims that the under-bidder was acting on behalf of collector David Khalili, a figure long absent from the market but now believed to be trying to sell his collection in the Gulf.

Real key?

Not everyone is convinced that the key is genuine. One London dealer suggested that there are mistakes in the inscription and irregularities in the form. However, in response, Sotheby’s refers to the 1993 catalogue raisonné on the Kaa’ba keys which says “the key has no regular form as no two keys are alike”, adding that expert Janine Sourdel-Thomine says in a 1971 essay that there are “grammatical errors in descriptions on Kaa’ba keys”.

Uncertainties have been compounded by the recent appearance of another key in the Middle East from the same period (only seven such keys are known). A dealer who examined this other key told The Art Newspaper that it had stylistic inconsistencies which convinced him it was a fake.

Doubts were cast on other lots at Sotheby’s including the cover, a 14th-century gold and enamel belt buckle from Granada in Spain which sold for £983,700 ($2m). No provenance was given in the catalogue and the piece was offered in the market as recently as last year, purporting to have come from Afghanistan. While the International Herald Tribune (IHT) expressed doubts over the inscription, the rumour is that the piece was illicitly excavated. Sotheby’s refutes the IHT’s claims and says that it sees “no evidence or indication that this item has ever been illegally excavated. The fact that the enamel is pristine and that no deposits were present indicate that the belt buckle was not buried at anytime.”

There was also concern about the description of Shah Jahan’s dagger, sold at Bonhams for £1.7m ($3.3m). While the blade with its inscription to the Mughal emperor was by consensus real, most of the trade and two experts believe the sardonyx hilt was unrelated.

Bonhams says it stands by the accuracy of its catalogue and footnotes. The catalogue states “it was a tradition in the Mughal armoury to re-use blades and to fit them to other hilts. Two modern silver fittings had been placed at the forte of the blade and these were removed by a conservator, which revealed that this lot had been adapted in the Mughal period and a watered steel extension fitted to the top of the blade”, without explaining to whom such a dating had been “revealed”. The supporting evidence for the hilt’s history is directly credited only to Jacques Desenfans, out of whose collection this and another 300-plus objects were offered by Bonhams. He is said to have believed “the hilt was original to the dagger and was chosen specifically because of its similarity to the Emperor’s favourite horse, a piebald.”

The opinion of an amateur collector is certainly charming but hardly appropriate as the corroboration of the authenticity of a major part of an object.

Lucian Harris

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