Records were smashed at a string of Islamic art sales in London last week, with final prices far exceeding estimates.
The auction house Sotheby's sold a single page from a 16th-century Persian manuscript belonging to the estate of a Harvard scholar for a record-breaking £7.4 million (Dh44.2m). Later that day, a 14th-century Egyptian candlestick went for £4.5m in a separate Sotheby's sale. Together, the auctions achieved the record sum of £37 million in a single day.
The previous day, Bonhams sold a 17th-century portrait of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir to an unnamed Middle Eastern museum for £1.4m; and a bronze sculpture of a gazelle from 10th or 11th-century Egypt fetched more than £900,000 at Christie's on Thursday.
Edward Gibbs, the head of Sotheby's Middle East department, said the sky-high sales were "clear evidence of expanding interest in this collecting field". His colleague Benedict Carter, talking before the sale, said that the Islamic market, while it could be unpredictable, was in a healthy state, with the year-on-year trend being upwards (apart from a dip in 2009 due to the global economic crisis.)
At Bonhams, the Islamic art specialist Matthew Thomas pointed out that the market can be influenced by changing fashion, as well as by the availability of rare artefacts fresh to the market. "In the past couple of years, Arabic and Persian manuscripts have been doing very well and things like early pottery and metalwork perhaps less so," he said. "Indian miniatures have been gradually creeping up as well."
Although Thomas explained that the past few years have seen "a lot" of London dealers buying on behalf of museums in the Middle East, both he and Carter say that the market for Islamic work is global, with many buyers from Europe and America, as well as the Gulf. Although most of Sotheby's top buyers this spring have been anonymous, two British private buyers and one European institution were among those who won the most expensive items on sale.
Sotheby's, Christie's and Bonhams all have regular Islamic art auctions twice a year - in October and April - with lots coming from multiple sources, but this year Sotheby's complemented its usual sale with another, unique one: the estate of Stuart Cary Welch, a specialist in Middle Eastern and Indian art and a fine arts lecturer at Harvard university, who built up a priceless collection during his lifetime.
Unlike the regular sale, the Stuart Cary Welch collection (which is divided into two parts: an Islamic collection, which was sold in April, and Indian works, which will be sold in May) contained treasures which have been in private hands for generations, which is why their availability on the market sparked such a feeding frenzy.
The standout piece in Welch's collection was a gold-and-watercolour folio from the illustrated Shahnameh manuscript, made for the shah of Persia in the 16th century. It's the story of the Persian national epic, illustrated by the age's finest artists over a period of two decades.
There's no European equivalent, but if there were, it would have to be a single book illustrated by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Bellini, Perugino and other great artists of the time, as well as their pupils, who would all have devoted themselves to the task for 20 years. The Shahnameh manuscript was in the possession of royalty for centuries, and pages are now owned by the Met, Smithsonian, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Doha's Museum of Islamic Art and Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art.
It's not only an artefact with an incredible heritage, it's also beautiful, with delicate colours that have been well preserved, flowing lines and dazzlingly minute detail. Slightly larger than a sheet of A4 paper, the folio tells the story of the legendary Persian king Faridun, who tested his three sons by appearing in the form of a dragon before them.
A gold-speckled border encases the picture and lines of flowing calligraphy. In the image, a snake-like dragon breathes fire and the three sons approach on horseback, while forest creatures peer out from behind trees. The composition is perfectly balanced, with angles of trees, swords and leaping horse legs complementing each other. The colours - red, green, blue, gold, pink and brown - are still vivid, but it's the details that really stand out. There are tiny patterns painted on to the sons' clothes and if you peer closely you can see the feathers making up the quills on their arrows.
"You can look at it for hours and keep spotting more things," said Sotheby's specialist Carter at a pre-sale viewing. "You can look at it under a magnifying glass. What I find really amazing is that there's this rhythm. It's not stiff in any way, it's really fluid, but when you're painting it in miniature, there are no big brush strokes."
"There's only one manuscript of this quality in the world," he said. "We see a lot of miniatures from this era, but there's quite a gulf between this and other ones. And they're very rare. Scarce to the market and getting scarcer."
The atmosphere in the west London auction house had been growing sleepy on Wednesday morning until, two hours into the sale, the star lot 78, the Shahnameh folio, was brought into the room, with an estimated price tag of £2-3m. Voices were hushed as seven bidders, both in the salesroom and on the telephone, tensely nodded to accept rising prices.
As figures climbed far past the estimate, to £5m, and then £6m, a man near the front waved to a friend. "Are you crazy?" his neighbour whispered, "Don't put your hand up now!" As buyers dropped out over a 10-minute period, the piece was finally won by an anonymous telephone bidder.
According to Carter, there are three things buyers and dealers are looking for when faced with valuable art: beauty, provenance (who's owned the piece before) and condition. The Shahnameh folio has all of these and, in Carter's words, "would be a key addition to any private collection or museum".
Other treasures sold for impressive sums from the Stuart Cary Welch Collection were a Mughal miniature portrait of five holy men, which fetched £2.6m; a calligraphic rendition of the poem The Throne Verse in the form of a horse, which went for £2m and a painting of Sultan Ali Adil Shah II hunting a tiger, which sold for £1.1m. All far exceeded their estimates - The Throne Verse by almost 10 times.
Before this week, the highest price paid for an Islamic work of art was £6.2m, fetched by a 17th-century Persian carpet sold at Christie's last year, so it's clearly a good time for the Islamic art market. The whole of Stuart Cary Welch Collection Part 1 exceeded by four times the highest pre-sale estimate of £5.3m.
"We are now looking forward to the Indian Art sales in May," Gibbs said in a statement, "including the Stuart Cary Welch Collection Part 2: Arts of India, which is already hotly anticipated."