The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Iranian Art Under Multiple Guises
The Last Terra Incognita of Major Asian Cultures
By Souren Melikian
- Cultural historians may wonder in the future what made it so difficult for the
West to look at Iranian art as an entity. Of the three oldest Asian
civilizations that are alive - China, Iran and India - Iran has had the longest
continuous history under its own name. It has been used in that very form since
about the second century B.C., and in earlier forms, long before.
as the sales here of ''Islamic art'' last week showed, its art is diluted under
a variety of denominations. It was essentially Iranian art that climbed through
the roof, but an outsider would hardly have known it.
April 11, at Christie's, the cover lot was an Iranian manuscript copied in
1563-1564 and illuminated with 19 paintings of high quality. The catalogue entry
gave it to ''Safavid Persia'' - the Ancient Roman name for Iran adopted by
Medieval Europe and retained by Britain. The manuscript, a new discovery, ended
up sold for a huge pounds 441,500 (dollars 697,500). For other illuminated books
from Iran, no country was mentioned, only the presumed city of origin -
''Shiraz,'' ''Isfahan,'' etc.
objets d'art, characterizations were more confusing. A superb, albeit damaged,
calligraphic bowl came up under the banner of ''Samarqand'' with the precision
''Transoxiana, 10th century.'' Yet as Christie's catalogue observed, the bowl is
''very similar'' to one in the Tehran National Museum. The maxim in the outer
calligraphic band, the entry specifies, is identical to that on the Tehran bowl.
And, one might add, so is the maxim in the inner calligraphic band.
all, the Tehran piece and Christie's bowl share a feature that Christie's
cataloguer mistook for a spelling error - a letter, sin (''s''), is written in a
peculiar way with its long horizontal bar partly running over that of a letter
with which it is linked. This highly idiosyncratic peculiarity shows that the
two bowls have inscriptions from the same hand and therefore originate from the
same place in Eastern Iran. The bowl went for a gigantic pounds 58,700.
in the sale, a bronze ewer dubbed ''Umayyad, eighth century'' (describing the
Arab caliphate based in Damascus) was a typical Khorasan piece of the eighth or
ninth century. Dozens of ewers of that shape have come out in the last two
decades. The suggestion at the end of the entry about ''the treatment of
Sasanian motifs in the Umayyad art of Syria'' is misleading. Whether it made a
difference to the price, an astronomical pounds 47,000, is a moot question.
unique piece soon followed. A brass basin once inlaid with gold and silver
belongs to the 14th-century Fars school in central Iran, but Christie's caption
simply said ''Fars.'' The elaborate scenes seething with characters, and
beautiful animal figures engraved and inlaid on the inside of the walls have no
known equivalent. Christie's hoped it might fetch pounds 15,000 to pounds
20,000. It brought pounds 146,750.
the next basin from Fars, although inscribed to a sultan, Jamal ad-Din Abu Eshaq,
interested no one; neither did a silver inlaid ''jug'' (more precisely, a wine
tankard), attributed to ''Western Iran or Mesopotamia, 13th century,'' but in
fact typical of Western Iran.
in this field apparently proceed at random. This could be verified on April 12
at Bonhams. While the financial outcome made it a great success, the auction
went through incomprehensible ups and downs.
beautiful, intact blue glass dish from the Eastern Iranian areas with a
geometric pattern suggesting a ninth- or 10th-century date went fantastically
well, tripling its high estimate at more than pounds 37,000. Then, one of the
rarities of the week, a marvered glass bowl from Syria probably dating from the
12th or 13th century, also did brilliantly, helped by its extraordinary beauty.
It exceeded pounds 60,000 despite visible breaks. But when very fine silver
inlaid metalwork from Khorasan came up, the best pieces fell unsold. Perhaps
there had just been too much of it for too few buyers.
the afternoon, by contrast, wild enthusiasm greeted a spinel from Mogul India.
Inscribed in Persian to the name of Emperor Jahangir and possibly dated 1015
(i.e. A.D. 1606), it was the only major jewel that week and triggered a furious
contest between two Arab collectors who sent it soaring over pounds 145,000.
These fits of frenetic bidding culminated on April 12 at Sotheby's.
prizes stood out. One was a volume of the collected poems of Hafez, the
14th-century poet. Copied by the Iranian calligrapher Abd al-Rahim of Herat,
known as Anbarin Qalam (Amber Pen), it was illuminated with more than 800 birds
in small square panels painted by a great if anonymous master from Hindustan,
and posed a riddle. A date ''995'' (A.D. 1587) at the end of the manuscript was
accepted at face value by the cataloguer. Yet, the birds, typical of the reign
of Jahangir, could not be as early as the 1580s. On closer inspection, the
numerals are seen to have been strengthened in later times. Almost certainly,
they were modified in the process.
catalogue suggestion that the opening Arabic formula enclosed in a rosette,
''Allah Akbar,'' ''God is the greatest,'' may also be understood to mean ''God
is Akbar'' was untenable. That formula, uttered by Muslims all over the world,
is found in manuscripts owned by Jahangir - one could be seen at Christie's that
manuscript is a major revelation. The price, more than pounds 1.1 million,
reflected the surprise it caused.
there was the greatest sensation of the month, a hitherto unrecorded painting of
birds ''attributed to Abd al-Hayy.'' The 14th-century painter is famous in
Iranian history but his name is almost all that is known.
the painting, the name is faintly legible. The end of the word naqqash,
''painter-designer,'' following it is also visible. Could this be a signature
rather than just an ''attribution''? Special photography might settle the
matter. The discovery of an Abd al-Hayy is as significant to the history of
Iranian painting as an unknown Leonardo would be to Renaissance art. Despite the
cropping that has reduced the image, it exceeded all hopes at pounds 993,550,
setting, Marcus Fraser of Sotheby's noted, the record for a ''Persian (i.e.
came three folios from the Shah-Nameh (''Book of Kings'') manuscript executed
for Shah Tahmasp (1524-1576) between 1524 and the late 1530s. It remained intact
until 1959, when it was ripped apart after being bought for dollars 360,000 by
Arthur A. Houghton Jr. The folios sold for £729,500, £740,500 and £784,500.
These are enormous figures given that, in the longer term, public opinion will
increasingly push for reuniting the dispersed pages with the fragmentary
manuscript now in Tehran.
It was a kind of bitter triumph for Iranian art. Ambiguously described at auction and never displayed under its own identity in most Western institutions, it remains the terra incognita of Asian art.
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