Undermined by silence: lack of provenance is devastating flaw of al-Sabah collection catalogue

Scholarly assessment is greatly hampered by the lack of detail on where and how the objects were acquired


It is exhausting merely to follow the conquests of Alexander the Great on a map: through the collapsing empire of Achaemenid Iran, along the northern outskirts of Parthia, up into Bactria and Sogdia, then down to the Indus Valley and back around to Egypt. Dotted all along are places which were Hellenised, and it is the task of the art historian to sort out how far Greek influence spread and who clung on to it longest.

The al-Sabah collection in Kuwait consists mainly of superb silver and gold vessels. Almost 100 pieces, dating from the earlier stages of the Hellenic trail to the advent of Islam, are described in The Arts of the Hellenized East, with metallurgical analyses by Pieter Meyers. The editor’s groupings, made, as she freely admits, largely by style and her own instinct as to dates and sources, begin with pieces probably made in western Asia, especially the city of Nisa, now in Turkmenistan. She moves on to post-Alexandrian Bactria, which included the important site of Ai Khanum in modern Afghanistan, looted after the collapse of the Communist government.

Then we move further east into Gandhara, in present-day Pakistan, with an evolved quasi-Hellenism reflecting fusions of Buddhism with the classical tradition. The final grouping, the contribution of Prudence Harper, is of pieces from the empire of Sasanian Iran (AD 226-651). I would have liked something more about Sasanian influence on Islamic art: Harper’s brief comments on the Islamic muqarnas (ornamented vaulting) and Sasanian silverwork are extremely interesting. The excellent introduction sorts out the infinite confusion possible.

However, it is painfully apparent that scholarly assessment was greatly hampered by lack of provenance. Consider the al-Sabah Helios bowl with a probable portrait of Alexander surrounded by golden rays: this has resonances with an excavated Ai Khanum plaque bearing a sun-disc around a male head—but how much more this association would tell us if the bowl came from a controlled and properly recorded excavation! Even more striking is the beautiful caracal cat rhyton, a type characteristic of Parthian Iran. This example bears a striking resemblance to an ivory rhyton from Nisa, indicating a possible common source for a group of similar vessels scattered in various collections.

Provenance may be extremely difficult to establish, but it is disingenuous to paint a picture of the entire area as so damaged by war that modern governments could not adequately care for finds: India, Russia, Turkey have all got responsible national schemes. On the other hand, there is a real danger that the unrewarded primary finder might simply melt valuable pieces down, and the al-Sabah collection is safe and properly curated. It may also be a moot point as to whether the find-spot always tells us much. Luxury objects may travel far from their original contexts as booty, merchandise or gifts.

It would, however, limit the global interchanges of scattered pieces if auction records were cited and auction houses had to disclose who was selling unprovenanced work, which could be enforced by wealthy purchasers refusing to buy unless this was made public. Some Egyptologists have called for every antiquity to have a passport, as for cars and race-horses. Julian Raby, director of the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, remarked to me on the al-Sabah treasure: “No European or American museum could put together such a collection now, not so much because of costs, but provenance issues.”

Silence may well cast a shadow over a collection. There are, for example, a number of Gandaharan pieces in this catalogue, and one of the foremost dealers in this Indo-Hellenic style was the late Julian Sherrier, notorious for getting his mother to fake the provenance of a Nataraja (dancing Shiva) idol. At the western end of the Graeco-Roman spectrum, the whereabouts of much of the Sevso treasure still appears unknown (see The Art Newspaper, 2007: 187 spoons, 37 drinking-cups and five silver bowls reputed to exist). Declaration of provenance could dissociate collections from such scandals.

No-one doubts that the al-Sabah family are good collectors in the sense that their objects are carefully conserved and published. But does this justify in general the multitude of unscrupulous dealers in the market and the placing of the object at the whim of a private owner? It used to be argued in favour of slavery that some owners treated their slaves well.

• Jane Jakeman has a doctorate in Islamic art and architectural history from St John’s College, the University of Oxford. She has lectured on Islamic art and has travelled widely in the Middle East. She has been on the staff of the Bodleian and Ashmolean libraries and was librarian to the Oxford English Dictionary

Arts of the Hellenized East: Precious Metalwork and Gems of the Pre-Islamic Era

Martha Carter, ed

Thames and Hudson, 424pp, £45 (hb)