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April 27, 2012

Auction of Islamic Art Shines a Light on Rare Glories


By SOUREN MELIKIAN

LONDON The accelerating surge of interest in history came out spectacularly at the auction scene on Wednesday. It was reflected in the three highest prices at Sothebys, where the subject was art from the Islamic world. The ultimate rarity of the session was a 13th-century bronze basin with a beautiful shape but only remains of its erstwhile silver and gold inlay, which sold for 361,250, about $584,000. The importance of the Arab vessel lay in the monumental inscription that runs around the sides and two tiny inscriptions engraved on the rim more than 100 years after the piece was made. The large inscription spells out the titles and name of a sultan of Turkic stock, Abul-Harith Qara Arslan ibn IlGhazi, descended from the 12th-century Artuq Shah. Qara Arslan, who from 1261 to 1293 ruled a large area around the city of Mardin, now in southeast Turkey, had no mean opinion of his own persona. The titulature, introduced by a set phrase found on 13th- and 14th-century royal objects, glorifies the sultan in traditional bombastic eulogies. Qara Arslan is hailed as Our Lord, the Sultan, the King, the Pride of the World and Religion, the Master of Kings and Sultans and lots more of that ilk. This wording suggests that the basin was commissioned when the ruler mounted the throne, which appears to be confirmed by the exclusive role of the inscription in the decorative scheme, excepting a band of arabesques at the bottom. No other vessel to the name of Qara Arslan has been recorded. The mastery of the execution tells us that Qara Arslan, The Black Lion in Turkish, was prosperous enough to attract great bronze makers and calligraphers. That is useful historical information. But what makes the basin unique is the addition of two inscriptions engraved on the rim by his descendants. One names Amir Dawud ibn Malik al-Salih (1368-1376). The title amir that Dawud gives himself instead of sultan proves that his father, al-Malik al-Salih, who died in 1368, was still alive and ruling. Al-Malik al-Salih, possibly aware of his nearing end, passed on to his son Dawud the splendid basin as part of the dynastys regal possessions. This provides tangible evidence of the existence of dynastic chattels in the Near East. Eight years later, Dawuds successor, Majd Ad-Din Isa (1376-1406), ordered an inscription to be engraved on the rim. His titles The Lord, the King prove that he had ascended to power. The verified use of the basin for more than a century explains why so much of the inlay is gone, as on so many other royal bronzes.

The history of Qara Arslans basin does not stop there. In 1406, the Mardin-centered Artuqid sultanate was overrun by another Turkic dynasty, the Qara Qoyunlu. It was soon defeated by the Ottoman sultanate of central Anatolia that kept conquering ever larger swaths of territory, and with that begins part two of the history of Qara Arslans basin. Mercury gilding was added inside to cover the loss of inlay in a large rosette on the bottom, erased by wear. The gilding, typical of 16th-century Ottoman fashion, indicates that the basin was still treasured. It got worn, in turn. Part three of the basins history begins in 1845. Michelangelo Lanci, an Italian scholar who collected Arabic texts on monuments and objects, saw the basin in Rome at the hands of the jeweler and antiquarian Alessandro Castellani. Lanci published the inscriptions in Volume 2 of his Treatise on Arab Symbolical Representations and Various Categories of Islamic Inscriptions Wrought on Different Material Supports. Written in Italian, it was published in Paris with a subsidy from King Louis Philippe. Lancis reading included minor mistakes and one huge error. The inscriptions naming three sultans were merged into one, as if they concerned a single ruler. The great French Arabist Gaston Wiet recorded the inscriptions in his 1934 general repertory of Arabic inscriptions, amending them as best he could without having seen the actual object. Part four of the objects history resumes in 1965 when the basin surfaced at the Htel Drouot, the Paris auction house. I was able to study it briefly and publish the exact text of the inscriptions in the 1968 volume of the Revue des tudes islamiques, the French journal of Islamic studies. The vessel then vanished until its appearance this year at Sothebys. Perhaps the most telling revelation it provides about the past of Middle Eastern cultures is the mix of influences that prevailed in the area where southeast Turkey, northwest Iraq and northeast Syria converge. Three Artuqid dynasties ran the area. The Mardin Artuqids were connected to Syria, as the basins calligraphy shows, but also to Iran as demonstrated by a continuous scroll carrying the stylized animal heads on the flat edge of the rim, which looks Iranian not Syrian. The Artuqids of Khartpirt, a city in the southeast of historic Armenia, Harput in modern Turkey, are represented by one royal piece now in a Munich museum. This is a bronze mirror to the name of Sultan Artuq Shah. The seven planets represented by seven busts cast in low relief, in a Byzantine-derived style, are in turn surrounded by the 12 Zodiac signs depicted according to Iranian convention, but stylistically unique with their well rounded low relief. A third royal object to the name of an Artuqid ruler from the branch based in Hisn Kaifa in historic Syria, now Hasankeif in Turkey, is the great enigma of Middle Eastern art in the 12th century. The footed cup has an enameled decoration combining the champlev technique, typically west European, and the cloisonn technique used in Byzantium, as in Georgia. The shape is paralleled in French medieval vessels in

champlev enamels, as is the color scheme. A long inscription in Persianate Arabic inside the vessel names Suqman (modern Turkish Skmen) son of Dawud and gives him a number of Persian titles alongside Arabic ones. A Persian poem written on the outside confirms a strain of Persian literary influence, but at that period, this gives no clue to the regional provenance Persian was the state language of the Seljuk Sultanate in Anatolia. Its highly distinctive decoration is uniquely archaistic. Some elements are derived from the Hellenistic past, such as Alexanders chariot elevated into the sky by winged griffins, others from early Islamic iconography in Iran, like the scrolls carrying palmettes, or from Umayyad Syrian iconography in the seventh to eighth century, like the palm trees appearing inside between some circular medallions. Years may go by before we begin to understand the ramifications of artistic currents in the Artuqid domain. Qara Arslans basin, estimated to be worth 300,000 to 500,000 plus the sale charge, matched the low estimate with the 361,250 telephone bid, believed by professionals to have been made by the museum at Doha in Qatar. For a bronze that has lost so much of its inlay, the price is considerable if measured by todays standards. It might soon come to be seen as a bargain historic objects from the Middle East are incomparably rarer than, say, historic objects with imperial marks from China, now going for millions. This much is indeed suggested by the first two highest prices paid Wednesday by the same bidder simply identified as L0052. One was a page that was torn out of a royal manuscript of the Shah-Nameh (Book of Kings), which was ripped apart in the early 20th century by the French dealer George Demotte. The manuscript was reputedly commissioned by Shah Ismail II in 1577 the pages providing the information are now missing. Estimated to be worth from 60,000 to 80,000 plus the sale charge, the page sold for 1.39 million. The second highest price went to the portrait of a court lady with the royal aigrette stuck into her head band. It is signed by the famous artist Mohammed-e Yusof who dated it 1052 (April 1, 1652, to March 21, 1653). At 433,250, the drawing in pen and ink brought six times the high estimate. In a session where bidders let 47 percent of the works on offer drop dead, those phenomenal figures say all about the craze for works sealed in the concrete of history.

April 28, 2012

Sotheby's

A page torn from a royal manuscript of the "Shah-Nameh" (Book of Kings) was auctioned Wednesday for 1.39 million.
April 28, 2012

Sotheby's

A 13th-century bronze basin extols a sultan, Abu'l-Harith Qara Arslan ibn Il-Ghazi.