The Islamic art sales, held between 5 and 8 October, demonstrated that this rather arcane field remains strong, if selective. Sotheby’s racked up £18.3m for its various owners sale—a new high in this category—and achieved some remarkable prices, although Christie’s scored a higher overall total. As in other markets, however, it was the usual story: buyers were prepared to bid to the skies for exceptional pieces, but shunned the mundane, the damaged or the uncertain.
Sotheby’s kicked off on 5 October with a first-time-ever evening sale, devoted to what the catalogue described as a “Princely collection” of 112 objects, estimated at £3.4m-£4.8m. The collection caused intense curiosity, and dealers were quick to point to a Khalili Gallery catalogue, dating from 1981 when the collector Nasser David Khalili still had a shop, which featured 36 of the same items. Sotheby’s catalogue cited this book, 1,400 Years of Islamic Art, but without mentioning Khalili’s name. This led some to conclude that the “Prince” was none other than Khalili himself, a speculation rapidly and firmly squelched by the auction house and by Khalili’s spokeswoman.
So who was the prince? Rumour homed in on Prince Jefri of Brunei, or Prince Shahram Pahlavi, a nephew of the former Shah of Iran. Whoever the consignor was, he is now the recipient of something under £7m (the sale totalled £7.01m, but Sotheby’s takes commissions); only 2% by volume remained unsold. The top lots all went to telephone bidders, mainly those manned by department head Edward Gibbs and client services manager Georgina Pemberton, juggling three different paddle numbers. The highest price was paid for a ninth-century lustre bowl which more than doubled its high estimate (£300,000) at £713,250.
On the following day, 6 October, Sotheby’s “Arts of the Islamic World” sale proved far more selective, but—thanks to one standout lot—almost topped its high estimate, making £18.3m (estimate £12m-£17.3m, not including commission) but with only 55% of the lots sold. One of the most expensive lots, a gold dish described as “Persian seventh century post-Sassanian” and estimated at £400,000 to £500,000, failed to find a buyer.
But Sotheby’s sale total was bolstered by the stunning £3.7m achieved by a 15th-century Nasrid weapon, an “ear dagger” (the description derives from the two flattened discs on its pommel). It had appeared at auction just six months before at Czerny in Italy, where it had easily bettered its E15,000 to E18,000 estimate to make E210,000. This time around it simply pulverised the £600,000 to £800,000 estimate. Overall, Sotheby’s raised £25.3m for its two sales.
Christie’s sale, also on 5 October, achieved £11m with 71% sold by lot. Collector Farhad Farjam bought the top lot, a 13th-century Egyptian ivory-inlaid wooden door, which sold for £1,049,250 (est. £900,000-£1.2m). Farjam said that Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art was the buyer of the second highest lot in the sale—a 12th-century Iranian carved stucco panel, which fetched £825,250 (est £500,000-£800,000). Christie’s totalled over £30m for its three sales, including rugs and carpets (7 October) and the South Kensington Indian and Islamic art and textiles (8 October).
Rounding off a rich week, on 7 October, Bonhams sold a second gem-encrusted finial from Tipu Sultan’s gold throne, which was broken up and dispersed by the British in 1799. Bonhams’ sale made just over £1.5m (61% sold by lot), with the finial, estimated at £200,000 to £300,000, making a powerful £434,400. It sold to the same Middle Eastern buyer who had snapped up another finial from the same throne last year, at that time paying £400,000.