Indian art generates solid sales as Persian market shows signs of life: Indian, South East Asian and Islamic sales 1995

Strong bidding from expatriate Iranians recalls pre-Revolution prices


A strong performance from Indian art and a possible resurgence of interest in the now fragile Persian art market were notable features of the week of Indian, South East Asian and Islamic sales which took place in London the week of 24 April.

Sotheby’s made the largest contribution to the week, with separate catalogues for manuscripts and miniatures, carpets, Islamic and Indian art and a Colonnade sale of lower priced works (including antiquities). The manuscript and miniatures sale totalled £1.033 million ($1.653 million) gross with 61% sold by lot and 76% by value. The Islamic and Indian sale made £1.362 million ($2.179 million) gross with 49% sold by lot and 75% by value, while the Colonnade sale made £150,420 ($241,000) gross with 58% sold by value and 49% by lot.

Christie’s had one catalogue combining these categories. Excluding carpets the sale made £1,225,877 with 57% sold by lot and 80% by value. Rugs and carpets made a further £760,000 with 69% sold by lot and 74% by value.

Bonhams held their sale on 25 and 26 April and saw an overall total of £404,305. This included £140,000 for an imperial Mughal manuscript offered in a separate catalogue.

Highlight of Sotheby’s week was the £370,000 ($588,300) paid in the manuscript sale (lot 20) for a Qur’an produced around 1200 and possibly from southern Spain. Of extremely large size and quality, it is the largest known single volume produced in either Spain or North Africa. Estimated at £200,000-300,000, it set a new world auction record for a manuscript of the Qur’an.

Elsewhere in the manuscript sale, two circa 1840 Qajar paintings (lots 117 and 118), a type greatly in demand these days among Persian buyers, far exceeded their estimates, selling for £38,800 ($61,692; estimate £8,000-12,000) each.They depict Shirin visiting Farhad on Mount Bisitun and the Christian maidens offering wine to Sheikh San’an respectively.

Another sign of renewed Persian buying was an excellent price for a signed miniature painting of a youth by Riza-i Abbasi, painted in Isfahan around 1625-30 (lot 81). This sold for £38,000 ($60,420) to the buyer of the two Quajar paintings, against an estimate of £14,000-18,000.

The Islamic and Indian sale at Sotheby’s saw a gratifying result for a large, if not particularly outstanding, Gandharan standing figure of Maitreya (lot 188). Damaged, and with the face restored and repaired, it was still an impressive decorative piece and was well lit and displayed by the auctioneers. It exceeded its £70,000-90,000 estimate to make £160,000 ($254,400), selling to a north European decorator.

Last seen on the market in 1991 when it was left unsold at an estimate of £60,000-80,000, was a rare Gandharan, Swat Valley bronze of Buddha, measuring 10 inches high. Of scholarly, rather than artistic appeal, it sold against a £20,000-30,000 estimate for £70,000 ($111,300).

Considerably in excess of Sotheby’s expectations was the price made for the cover lot (58), an Artuqid silver- and gold-inlaid bronze jug, northern Syria, late fourteenth century. Closely related to a pestle and mortar in the Museo Diocesano in Treviso, the auctioneers opted for a cautious £10,000-15,000 estimate, unsure whether its Syrian, rather than Persian origins and its fourteenth-, rather than twelfth- or thirteenth-century date, would keep the price down. It sold to a Persian London-based dealer for £115,000 ($182,850). Underbidders included a leading South East Asian museum which is currently expanding its Islamic collection.

Sotheby’s had less luck with another painted, Syrian wooden room, the third to appear in London in the last two years. Not in ideal condition, it failed to sell at £40,000-50,000.

Christie’s combined sale of Islamic art, Indian miniatures, rugs and carpets had one result which caused considerable surprise. An incomplete copy of a Shahnameh, Shiraz, circa 1570, saw competition from two telephone bidders who took the final price up to £360,000 ($572,400) against an estimate of £50,000-70,000. While the Shanahmeh is obviously in itself a very popular text, the fact that there were thirteen illustrations missing makes this price quite difficult to understand, other than as a one-off.

Much more explicable was the £42,000 ($66,780; estimate £8,000-12,000) paid for a single leaf from the British Library/Chester Beatty Akbarnameh, Mughal, circa 1602. A lively but wonderfully controlled depiction of a flight from attack, it was attributed by Christie’s to Dharm Das, an artist at the court of Akbar.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Are the Persians back in town?'