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Volume 46, Number 3May/June 1995

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London's Islamic Art Market

Written by Louis Werner
Photographed by Melanie Friend

Are you shopping for, say, a rare Timurid miniature painting? Or perhaps for a slightly more common Mamluk ewer? Neither Kabul nor Cairo is the best place to look. For serious collectors and dilettantes alike, London is the trading center of Islamic art.

Ever since the beginnings of the British Empire, travelers, traders and admirers have brought Islamic art objects of every type and every quality from their lands of origin to London for sale to collectors from around the world. An abundance of auction houses, galleries and private dealers makes London the city that offers not only the most and finest pieces for sale, but also the best conoisseurship and professional advice.

The city's Islamic market comes most vibrantly alive in the third week of each April and October, when the famous auction houses of Sotheby's and Christie's hold their Middle Eastern sales. Although the two houses do most of their year-round trade in Western art, the Islamic weeks are part of nearly a dozen semi-annual specialty auctions. In these weeks, the finest Islamic art on the world market is there to be admired, studied and perhaps even handled. Here, one specimen can be compared with a contemporary one; one dynasty's output can be contrasted with another's, and—just as important—an object's presale price estimate can be measured against its actual price at the rap of the gavel.

The range of objects consistently impresses even connoisseurs: Iznik ceramics, Mamluk glass, Timurid metalware, Persian miniatures, Qajar lacquerware, Ottoman armor, Heriz carpets, Turkoman textiles, illustrated scientific manuscripts, illuminated copies of the Qur'an, smatterings of European prints, photographs, and paintings of Islamic lands—and, this year, an entire, carved-wood Damascene room, complete with its original, three-meter-high (10') ceiling (See Aramco World, May-June 1993).

During the five-day previews, auction-house experts stroll through display rooms answering questions and sharing opinions. Prospective buyers trade tips or take furtive notes. Dealers keep a sharp eye out for undervalued objects and new customers.

Buyers seeking Islamic art include local and international dealers known as "pickers," the low-profile middlemen who, in seeking out undervalued items, keep the wheels of trade greased. Fewer in number—but better dressed—are the high-end international dealers, who often arrive to act on behalf of museums and unidentified individuals.

In the crowd, too, are serious private collectors, the ones with the requisite money, taste, and leisure to become true connoisseurs. The best-known of this elite is Nasser D. Khalili, whose Nour Foundation administers a 20,000-object collection obtained largely over five years of power-shopping the London market (See Aramco World, November-December 1994).

Other collectors come from abroad, often to pursue passions with national flavors. The Japanese have a reputation for favoring glass and ceramics; Germans and Danes can often be found examining arms and armor; Turks are often alert to Iznik pieces new to the market while expatriate Iranians frequently harbor a soft spot for the art of the Qajars of the 19th century.

On sale day, there is a low, restrained buzz from the crowd under the high dome of Christie's Great Room, watched over by a gilt-framed portrait of James Christie, the firm's 18th-century founder. Dealers, among whom secrecy is a professional watchword, take up positions along the back and side walls. From there, they can best observe their rivals' moves while remaining as inconspicuous as possible themselves. Private collectors and spectators—some of whom come just to watch who buys and who does not—take the seats up front. As the sale begins, bids appear as mere nods or raised fingers—or as timely phone calls to agents, who bid with cellular phones pressed to their ears. In the Great Room, only neophytes and the brashest of connoisseurs openly telegraph their intentions.

To be sure, the London Islamic-art market is active well beyond the auction weeks, with private dealers and galleries open year-round. Some specialize in what the trade calls "niche areas," such as coins, contemporary calligraphy, or the modern decorative arts. Others focus on a region or an era, such as Greco-Roman or ancient Near Eastern. Dealers who work from home must be phoned for appointments, but galleries always welcome the walk-in public.

Even at the major auction houses, Islamic art experts can be approached at any time with questions about collecting strategies, price trends, or appraisals. Many are busy beyond auction weeks with more frequent sales of lower-priced Islamic pieces. Bonham's of Knightsbridge recently became the third auction house in London—after Sotheby's and Christie's—to establish an Islamic department of its own. In its South Kensington rooms, Christie's holds bi-weekly sales of miscellaneous non-Western objects, many of them from the Islamic world.

One of the most subjective issues in the art market is the way prices are set on objects that, more often than not, are unique. According to Sotheby's expert Brendan Lynch, it is a matter of "condition, quality, and rarity, but not necessarily in that order, and always in the eye of the beholder." And among beholders, nowhere are the differences greater than between the scholar and the collector: While the former often requires only a shard, the latter seeks the whole pot; while the former appreciates the commonness that reveals the style and taste of a bygone era, the latter demands the rarity that illuminates high cultural achievements.

Presale price estimating is thus a matter of prior auction records, hunches about market trends, foreknowledge of simmering bidding wars between rivals, and an expert's personal response to an object. But once the auction is under way, emotion rules the floor. The bidders' furtive twitches and winks are frequently signs not only of a desire to remain inconspicuous, but also of powerful competitive drives and deep desires to gain a certain favored object, sometimes at even a reckless price.

Prices in the Islamic art market as a whole are more easily explained. Oil wealth in Iran fueled a run-up in Qajar pieces in the 1970's, which ended abruptly with the revolution in 1979. Fast-mounting prices for Iznik ceramics in the early 1990's paralleled an upsurge in the Turkish economy. Individuals, too, can boost prices: Nasser Khalili, Shaykh Nasser Al Sabah of Kuwait (See Aramco World, November-December 1990), and more recently, a young shaykh of Qatar who prefers to remain anonymous have each bought in sufficient quantity to buoy the market single-handedly.

In general, however, dealers maintain that the Islamic art market is relatively stable. More than their colleagues selling in the impressionist and other volatile Western art markets, Islamic dealers have mostly shunned the high-stakes speculation that sends prices on roller-coaster rides. In fact, observers point out that today's prices in Islamic art are lower than 19th-century prices for similar pieces, and also lower than current prices for much Western art. The great Iznik collections assembled over the last century—such as the Godman collection at the British Museum or the Benaki collection in Athens—were assembled in times when the typical price of $1500 for a single dish stood well above today's price, measured in constant currency.

The less tangible concerns of beauty, artistry, and historical significance matter in pricing, too. Auction catalogues work hard to cover this ground. If the post-sale tally sheets of prices are a snapshot of the market's season, then the catalogues are its textbooks.

A typical catalogue entry gives a detailed description of the piece, the artist's name (if known), a place of origin (if known), a date (often estimated), a list of materials used to create the piece, its exact size, a detailed report on its condition, the provenance, or chain of past ownership, and prior appearances on the auction block. Important items merit longer, more academic notes in which uncertainties are investigated, relevant literature is cited, results of laboratory tests of the materials are revealed and comparable objects in significant collections are noted. In all entries, the tone is calculatedly factual and dispassionate, and one rarely finds an adjective that might imply judgment.

Auction-house Islamic experts indeed pride themselves on being scholars first, and business people second. John Carswell came to Sotheby's Islamic department after serving as an art historian at both the Oriental Institute in Chicago and the American University of Beirut. A modest man, he points out that good scholarship in an auction house not only serves the buyers, but also helps keep the business honest, by making art theft difficult. This, he says, is an often unheralded service of the trade.

By law, auction houses must make a "good-faith effort" to guarantee that each object came into the seller's hands legally. The catalogue statement of the item's provenance helps assert this, and auction catalogues have a wide readership in the antiquity departments of Islamic countries. Thus false provenances concocted for stolen or illegally exported objects can often be detected.

Carswell notes that even the hint that an object might be stolen is enough to delay its sale. Recently, he recounts, some tiles were offered that were thought to match those reported taken from a Central Asian museum in the former Soviet Union. It proved impossible to communicate with the museum before the auction was to take place, so the tiles were withdrawn from sale pending verification. Although the rumor was finally proved false, the owner was not pleased that he had to wait six months for the next round of sales.

Owners' identities are not necessarily revealed to buyers or the public. After verifying the legitimacy of the seller's ownership, the auction house will, on request, keep names under wraps. Buyers can make themselves more anonymous still, as agents are permitted to bid on their behalf, and even the auction house may not know whom the agent represents.

On the block, objects are sold in rough categories by geography, era and type. In recent years, the manuscript market has proved particularly active. Recently, a late-16th-century Indian copy of the Qur'an, with the original lapis-lazuli binding, sold for $230,000. The earliest known Moghul copy of Firdawsi's Shahnamah, with miniatures by court painters Basawan and Kesu Khurd, commanded one-third of a million dollars from an anonymous buyer. Interest in the manuscript may well have been heightened by headline news, on auction day, of a far more famous Shahnamah, from the Safavid period, that was involved in a remarkable international swap engineered by Oliver Hoare, a London private dealer who works from his home.

Nearly half the pages of the Safavid Shahnamah, commissioned in 1522 for Shah Tahmasp and originally consisting of 760 pages of illuminated text and 258 miniatures, had been dispersed through sales and museum donations over the past 30 years. Hoare, along with many others in the trade, had been appalled by the manuscript's dismemberment. Fearing worse to come after the current owner's death, Hoare made the manuscript's preservation his mission, and sought out potential buyers who would vow to keep the text and the remaining 118 miniatures intact. Ultimately, the Shahnamah, with a presumed auction value of $20 million, was traded to the government of Iran in exchange for a Willem de Kooning painting in Iran's national collection. Successfully carrying out the international middleman's delicate work, Hoare demonstrated the art dealer's quiet—but often vital—role in cultural preservation. Although Hoare's own financial interest in the deal remained undisclosed, even the usually skeptical Souren Melikian, art and auctions correspondent for The International Herald Tribune, approved his work.

Outside the auction houses, every dealer and gallery in the business has an individual character. Like Hoare, French-educated dealer Irène Momtaz works out of her North London home. She quickly takes conversation onto an imaginative, even mystical, level. "Each of my pieces is a meditative object," she explains. "A buyer must find the object's entry point, and then allow his mind to carry him all the way inside." She prefaces descriptions of pieces with metaphysics, a style of art appreciation she says she learned as a child, listening to late-night conversations between her father and the great connoisseur and philanthropist Hagop Kevorkian, whose collection was dispersed after his death to the museums of the world.

She tells about one of her best clients, who always seemed to buy without rhyme or reason—"a masterpiece one day, a fragment the next." Later he explained that he could "hear" his pieces as elements of music, "one a crescendo, the other a grace note, all coming together in a symphony for the eyes. Then I too saw, by listening, that he was right."

Each item Momtaz offers has some distinguishing mark or quality: a Kashan lusterware jug with a streak of blue glaze purposely splashed on by the 12th-century potter; an Iznik dish painted in rare, realistic imagery; or other ceramics decorated with çintemani, the triple-dot, double-ripple motif that symbolizes leopard spots and tiger stripes.

Dealers like Hoare and Momtaz sell most often to museums and serious collectors, as do other private dealers of their caliber. All tend to specialize in one or at most two of three broad areas: "objects"—glass, metal ware, and ceramics—textiles, or manuscripts. Bachir Mohammad, for example, of Pakistani and Malaysian descent, is interested in fine objects; Makram Irani, of Lebanese origin, specializes in calligraphic arts; and Londoner Penny Oakley loves textiles and specializes in Ottoman, Safavid, and Moghul velvets, brocades and embroideries.

Those dealers who operate galleries have space for broader inventories. In Belgravia is Ahuan Islamic Art (See Aramco World, November-December 1985), owned by the eclectically minded David Sulzburger, whose shopwindow is itself like a museum display of mixed media. Axia, owned by Iznik scholar and art-book publisher Yanni Petsopoulos, is in a residential area near Notting Hill Gate. The Aaron Gallery, founded in Tehran in 1910, now stands just off the neat grid of Berkeley Square. Robert Hales, who alone in London deals exclusively in oriental arms and armor, can be found in his shop walled with showcases in Kensington Church Street.

A visit to any of these galleries is refreshingly free of sales pressure. Dealers at this high end of the market have such confidence in their goods that they appear in no particular hurry. Most of them show pieces one at a time across an empty table, studying them upside down and sideways, fetching others for the sake of comparison and pulling reference books from shelves to show, rather than merely tell, as much as possible about an object.

For instance, David Aaron displays a zoomorphic incense burner with a blue ceramic eye to make his point about realistic modeling in 11th-century Khorasan. Robert Hales demonstrates how to spot the forged signature of master Persian swordsmith Assadullah by unsheathing blade after blade of inlaid tempered steel.

At the other end of London's Islamic trade, and providing an experience more akin to a clamorous suq than a museum's research section, are the arcade dealers in Gray's Mews Antiques, just off Davies and Oxford streets on the north end of Mayfair. The Mews is a rabbit-warren of antiques traders arranged by specialty, and the Islamic dealers can be found in the basement, often gathered together over a pot of tea or individually absorbed in Arabic or Persian newspapers. Some stalls are barely large enough to squeeze inside, and their inventory runs the gamut from Iraj Lak's pre-Islamic pottery to Farah Shahdad's Bohemian glass, produced for the bygone Ottoman trade. Many dealers here seem less confident of the quality of their goods than of their prices, so the buyer's own expertise is important.

One of the most inviting shops belongs to the 23-year-old Syrian dealer Salim Hassbani, whose enthusiasm for learning more than compensates for his recent entry into the field. A civil engineer by training, Hassbani's interests, and his stock, are eclectic: a set of monumental carved wooden doors, an Ottoman cannon bearing the tugra of Sultan Abdul Majid, and a batch of tiny, ancient Near Eastern cylinder seals, to name a few items.

The stall of Elias Assad, however, is less a gallery than an office full of bound folios stacked this way and that—just what one might expect from a manuscript dealer. He himself is a devoted collector of works in Syriac, and he says he has never owned a manuscript that has not pained him severely to sell. "There is a surprise on each page I turn," he explains. "The three elements in every manuscript—ink, paper, and calligraphy—are in constant conversation, sometimes speaking in riddles, less often speaking clearly, and it is my challenge to understand them. Most surprising of all are the manuscripts in perfect condition, as if they have not been touched for hundreds of years."

Assad's inventory ranges from the rare to the mundane. On one visit, he pulled from his safe a four-page student thesis on Euclidian geometry, bearing the hijri date 650 (about 1253). His most recent acquisition was a mysterious manuscript with parallel inscriptions in three unidentified hieroglyphic languages that alternated with an Arabic inscription that itself made little apparent sense.

Assad acquired the manuscript by serendipity, often an important factor in the Islamic art trade. An acquaintance had bought an odd lot of what he had been told were miscellaneous books of little significance. Without carefully examining them, he sold the lot on to Assad. Assad did examine them, and identified them as Coptic and Ethiopic hand-written Bibles, a few Syriac manuscripts, and a 16th-century astronomical treatise—certainly interesting, potentially valuable.

Every dealer and auction house is full of such stories. Not long ago, an elderly London woman, clearly not well-off, walked into Sotheby's to see if a small pitcher that had been passed down to her from a relative might be of value. Yes, most likely so, said the Sotheby's expert with careful understatement. What she had was a jade Timurid dragon-headed jug, similar to those in top museums (See Aramco World, January-February 1995): It later sold for nearly $200,000.

The one area of Islamic art in which identity is rarely in question is that of coins, which typically feature a ruler's name, a mint date and a place. Elizabeth Darley-Doran, along with her husband Robert and colleague André de Clermont, serves as an Islamic coin consultant to Spink & Son, on the same well-kept block as Christie's. She notes that when a hoard of Islamic coins was unearthed recently in Scandinavia, at a Viking site, all the archeologists needed to do was put on reading glasses in order to determine the origins of their find.

Founded in 1666 by goldsmith John Spink, Spink & Son has grown into the world's leading trader in coins and medals. Its oriental department mounts museum-quality exhibitions— recently including a Mamluk gold-filigree pendant, a Safavid cuerda-seca tile, and an Ottoman stamped leather powder flask—during the weeks of the Islamic art auctions.

A visit to the second floor at Spink is not unlike being invited into an upholstered bank vault holding what looks like all the world's money. It is an essential rite of passage for anyone wishing to learn about the historical numismatic issues from the lands of Islam. There, displayed on black-velvet trays, sit coins classed by dynasty or place of issue, from the pre-Islamic and early Islamic years to the Ottoman Empire and contemporary Muslim states. Some, of course, are more significant than others. The so-called "77 dinar" is the first known coin to carry a Muslim ruler's name, and carries the stamped hijri date of 77 (about 697). One of them recently sold for $190,000. Less ambitious buyers might be satisfied with one of a number of Abbasid dinars priced below $500.

Still other London galleries specialize in contemporary Islamic art. There is no better place than the Chelsea studio of US-born Dale Egee to see the work of modern pioneers such as Hossein Zenderoudi, Dia Azzawi, Hassan Masoudy, Rachid Diab, Hossein el-Geballi and Faisal Samra, whose art can also be found in other top galleries and museums around the world.

Across Hyde Park in the international district along Westbourne Grove is the Kufa Gallery, which opened in 1986 as a salon for international poets, musicians, painters, and other artists. While it is still more of a gathering place than a gallery, Kufa maintains an inventory of works by painters and printmakers like Jawad Salim, Ali Omar Ermes, Ismail Fattah, and Faik Hassan.

Brian MacDermot deals in the works of Western orientalist painters, contemporary ones as well as nineteenth-century artists like Gerome and Lewis, from Mathaf Gallery, near Harrods in Knightsbridge. In the bohemian part of Kensington, Lebanese dealer Dyala Salam sells late Ottoman and European turquerie furnishings and decorative arts from a tastefully cluttered storefront.

Back in Christie's Great Room, as the final auction of the week draws to a close, single Persian tiles from calligraphic friezes have done particularly well: One fetches nearly $40,000 in the face of a presale estimate of $7500. A broken Abbasid lusterware dish, reconstructed from half its shards, flouts the pricing rule about condition by selling for more than four times its estimate. After rechecking tallies, clustered dealers nod their heads in agreement: ceramics are a strengthening market.

Sold the same day is one of the most talked-about lots of the week. Years before, a Swiss collector had purchased a carpet from an inexperienced dealer for only a few hundred francs. Later inspection showed that the carpet was the only complete 16th-century Anatolian star carpet known to exist. The collector had decided to sell it and donate his windfall profit to charity. At the final tap of the gavel, his donation came to $172,000. It was an extraordinarily generous gesture to cap the season, and also, perhaps, a reminder of that old proverb from the Egyptian suq: "A good deed done on Saturday returns to you on Sunday."

Author and filmmaker Louis Werner studied at Princeton and Johns Hopkins SAIS, and lives in New York.

This article appeared on pages 40-47 of the May/June 1995 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1995 images.