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Sotheby's Arts of the Islamic World Sale

21/03/2008, By

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Sotheby's London is holding the most important Arts of the Islamic World Sale it has ever staged on Wednesday April 9th. The auction comprises more than 400 lots of rare and important works of art, including metalwork, manuscripts, weaponry, ceramics, textiles and paintings that span from the 7th century through to the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The sale, which is expected to realise in excess of nine million pounds, is set to attract enormous interest from collectors and connoisseurs of Islamic Art across the globe.

The most important work in the upcoming sale is an extremely rare 14th-century gold and enamel Royal Belt Buckle (Image 1) from Al-Andalus, which was produced during the Nasrid period (AD 1230-1492) in Granada, Spain. The buckle, which is inscribed with ‘Glory to our lord, the Sultan’, is an extraordinary example of the art of the goldsmiths in 14th-century Islamic Spain. Its remarkable quality, the technique used by the goldsmith and the royal inscription all suggest that the buckle must have been worn by the sultan himself or someone very close to him. Only three other enamelled pieces from 14th-century Nasrid Spain, which are made entirely of gold, are known to exist and the offered lot, which is of museum quality and outstanding importance, is estimated to realise in excess of £600,000.

In the wake of the strong results achieved for the ten sacred curtains offered in Sotheby’s last Islamic Art auction in October 2007 – the majority of which sold for well in excess of their pre-sale high estimates – the forthcoming sale presents the largest group of sacred curtains to have appeared on the market to date. The 14 sacred textiles, which together are estimated to realise in excess of £920,000, will be headlined by four curtains in particular, the most important being a magnificent Ottoman velvet, silk and metal thread calligraphic band (hizam) from the holy ka'ba at Mecca, which dates from the early 20th century and is estimated at £120,000-160,000.

The second most valuable of the group is an important 19th-century Ottoman curtain from the Tawassul at Medina, which carries an estimate of £100,000-500,000. Two further significant pieces in the group include an Ottoman curtain from the door of the Ra’isiyah minaret of the mosque of the prophet Hajrat Al-Qabr Al-Nabawi Al-Sharif in Medina (Image 2), which is highly decorative and includes the embroidered tughra and signature of Sultan Mahumud II (AH 1223-1255/AD) 1808-1838, and a curtain from the tomb of the prophet Hujrat Al-Qabr Al-Nabawi Al-Sharif in Medina. Both curtains are estimated at £80,000-120,000.

Highlighting the manuscripts in the sale will be the earliest dated copy of the highly influential astronomical manuscript by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi's, the Zij-i Ilkhani. Copied by Muhammad Ibn Mahmoud Ibn Ahmad Al-Jundabi, Ilkhanid, Persia, the manuscript, dated 24th Shawwal A.H. 676/A.D. 1277, is a highly important document of the Kitab al-Zij al-Ilkhani, or the Zij-i Ilkhani as it is known. Copied only four years after the death of the author and leading 13th-century Muslim philosopher-scientist Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, and a mere eight years after the original was completed in 1270. Al-Tusi, a universal scholar, and perhaps the most prolific author of the Islamic world, is best known in the history of science for his recensions of early Arabic translations of Greek works on astronomy and mathematics, various independent documents on aspects of theoretical and practical astronomy and mathematics, and this manuscript, the Persian scientific manuscript, the Zij-i Ilkhani.

The Zij, which provides the astronomer with the theory and tables to calculate the position of the sun, moon and five naked-eye planets, with the ability to predict eclipses, the lunar crescent and planetary visibility, was one of more than 150 works written by al-Tusi, but it was astronomy itself that brought him fame as a scientist. (The Zij can be used to tell the length of twilight, the altitude of the sun at midday and the exact times of prayer, and was therefore an important handbook for any astronomer, and indeed any Muslim.) At the age of 60, soon after his appointment as a retainer of the Mongol emperor, al-Tusi was entrusted with responsibility for the Empire's religious foundations and its finances, as well as the construction of an observatory at Maragha. On completion the observatory's library was second-to-none and it became a magnet for some of the greatest scientific thinkers of the age. The Zij was the result of many years of research by one of the foremost masterminds of the golden age of Arab astronomy. This rare document of the Ilkhanid era is estimated at £80,000-120,000.

Highlighting the – one of the largest ever offered in a sale of Islamic Art – is an important blade which once belonged to the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The steel Firangi blade with the personal Shah Jahan inscription was inscribed in India and is dated AH 1055 (AD 1645-1646 /25th Regnal Year / AD 1653) and is estimated at £30,000-40,000. In the Mughal court and much of princely India from the late-16th century it was customary to wear two swords at the same time: one sword, worn at the waist, was termed kamr shamshir (Persian) or 'belt sword' and the other sword was the asa shamshir (Persian), otherwise known in the Deccan as a Dhup (Marathi) or 'staff sword', which had long, straight, imported European blades and a khanda or basket hilt, such as the offered lot. The Mughals adopted the asa shamshir from the Deccan in the 16th century and Firangi swords of the type owned by the Mughal Emperors were in general use across princely India.

The Arms, Armour and Militaria section of the sale includes a rare 18th-century Sikh steel armour plate from North West India/Pakistan (Image 3). The side plate, which is adorned with the ‘Akal Ustat’ verse and conveys the tenth Guru’s perspective on the essence of dharma and the purpose of human life, is virtually identical to a single plate in a complete set of charaina (back, front and two side plates) in the collection of the royal house of Patiala in Punjab. Each of those plates carry inscribed verses from various compositions of the Sikh Gurus written in Gurmukhi script in gold Koftgari. According to family tradition, the set was owned by tenth Guru Gobind Singh before it was presumably gifted to one of their ancestors. The existence of this plate from another charaina set suggests that the Guru commissioned more than one set. The plate has an estimate of £10,000-12,000.

One of the star works among the paintings on offer is a portrait of Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar (Image 4) seated against a jewelled bolster on a pearl edged rug, which is attributable to Mirza Baba and the court workshop in Qajar, Persia. The oil on canvas, in the manner of Mirza Baba and the early Qajar style, dated circa 1798, demonstrates areas of enormous artistic strength; the sensitively rendered hands, the facetted jewels, the foreshoretening of the body all point to the hand of a master, and the high detail in the jewel studs of the Shah's robe, the faceted diamonds modelled in light and shade. The sketchy background however suggests a collaboration of artists which in this case is likely to be Mirza Baba and an anonymous artist, or artists of the court workshop. Such detail provides a fascinating insight into the production of court portraits. The portrait is estimated at £400,000-600,000.

Session 1: Wednesday, 9th April, 10 am, Lots 1 - 241
Session 2: Wednesday, 9th April, 2:30 pm, Lots 242 - 405
Sotheby's
34-35 New Bond Street
London W1A 2AA
+44 (0)20 7293 5000

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