Destroying a Treasure: The Sad Story of a Manuscript

Destroying a Treasure:
The Sad Story of a Manuscript

By Souren Melikian, International Herald Tribune
London, 27th April 1996
Originally at

How much would the leaves of the Irish Book of Kells sell for if ripped out one by one? Or those of the monumental German Gospel illuminated for Henry the Lion in the 12th century? We shall never know (one hopes). No one would dare touch the Book of Kells, preserved at Trinity College in Dublin. And when the German Gospel turned up out of the blue at Sotheby’s in 1983, there was no question of tearing it apart. It was sold as is for £8.14 million, and it is back in its monastery in Helmarshausen.

Such is not the story of the manuscripts from Iran, India or Turkey processed through the Western trade, but of all the stories of destruction, few are as spectacular as that of the Shah-Nameh, or Book of Kings, which was illuminated in Tabriz from the accession to the throne of Shah Tahmasp of Iran in 1524 until, possibly, the mid-1530s.

On Tuesday night, Sotheby’s great rooms were packed to capacity as four leaves torn from their volume in the 1970s, at a time when the book was being dismembered, came up for sale. In leaden silence, except for the bids called out by the auctioneer Richard Came with a carefully studied cool, the four folios sold within a matter of minutes.

The first page, which relates to an episode in which the ancient king Fereydun (”Faridun” in the conventional Victorian mispronunciation) enters the royal palace to strike down the usurper and tyrant Zahhak, went up to £419,500 (about $634,500), more than the price of any page from an Iranian book until then. This record was immediately broken when the second page, with Kay Qobad enthroned listening to Rostam, sailed to £793,500. Next came a third page, showing Manuchehr (”Minuchihr”) in his palace, which sold for £353,500.

Finally, a fourth page, focusing on the episode of Rostam camping in the mountains and deflecting with one kick the boulder intended to kill him, ended up at £397,500.

It was a great day for commerce but hardly for the preservation of cultural treasures. That the thought may have crossed the cataloguer’s mind is suggested by the wording of the entry: ”The manuscript made for Shah Tahmasp of Persia [i.e., Iran], (1514-1576 reigned 1524-1576) is universally acknowledged as one of the supreme illustrated manuscripts of any period or culture and among the greatest works of art in the world.”

These are strong words delivered in an unusual tone for Sotheby’s catalogues, even if they are not wildly exaggerated.

When intact, which the manuscript was until the 1960s, when it passed from the hands of the Paris Rothschilds into those of Arthur A. Houghton Jr., it must have been fabulous. It then included 258 paintings executed in the royal atelier to say nothing of the abstract illumination.

The cataloguer got so carried away that when he came to the page with Kay Qobad enthroned, sold Tuesday for £793,500, he quoted the words printed on a loose color plate inserted as an added bonus in the two-volume set on ”The Houghton Shahnameh” published in 1981: ”Since owners may wish to display a color plate without destroying the integrity of the work, this reproduction of one of the Houghton Shah-Nameh’s finest miniatures has been placed unmounted in Volume One suitable for framing.”

The authors, Martin B. Dickson and Stuart C. Welch did not venture to comment on the necessity to preserve the integrity of the original itself.

Sotheby’s catalogue reminds the reader that Houghton started taking out pages in the 1960s. In 1970, 76 folios with 78 paintings were donated to the Metropolitan Museum. On Nov. 17, 1976, seven other folios were auctioned at Christie’s.

Sales through dealers followed, including one at Agnews of London, where the British Rail Pension Fund acquired the four folios sold Tuesday. A second auction took place at Christie’s on Oct. 11, 1988, when 14 folios went for prices ranging from £14,300 to £253,000. The denouement of Phase One in the Shah-Nameh Saga came when Houghton died. The executors decided they wanted to part with what was left of the manuscript, still retaining its binding, and 120 paintings.

They turned to a well-known London dealer, Oliver Hoare, asking him to handle the sale. But that was not easy. Many of the plausible buyers of single pages had been approached in the past, some effectively buying one or more. If unloaded on the market, many, perhaps most of the 120 remaining pages with paintings would crash unsold – 1991 was a difficult year and 1992 was worse.

Hoare, aware of the deep concern that the cannibalizing of a unique artistic monument had caused among Iranian scholars, tried a seemingly desperate tactic. He approached some of them.

NO Iranian authority, however, could take the political risk of advocating the purchase of a work of art, whatever its importance, on which the Houghton estate wanted to put a $20 million price. Slowly, the idea of an art barter emerged. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art held several works of art that Hoare found tempting. Complex discussions took place, often interrupted. Eventually, an improbable agreement was struck.

The Shah-Nameh in its reduced state with an arbitrary valuation of $20 million would go to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran, which would part with a De Kooning, ”Woman III,” on which an equally arbitrary valuation of $20 million had been pinned. The exchange took place in the International Zone of the Vienna airport in a cloak-and-dagger atmosphere. Mehdi Hojjat, an architect who founded the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization, without whom the transaction would not have been possible, stepped off an unmarked jet sent by Tehran. The van in which the cardboard boxes enclosing the Shah-Nameh folios were stashed was attached with chains to the aircraft. While the de Kooning was taken out of the jet and checked by a Swiss dealer and expert, Hojjat sat in the van supervising the unloading and reloading of the boxes into the aircraft.

Phase One of the saga is now over. The Shah-Nameh is on view, in its mutilated state, in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran, and the de Kooning is now the property of David Geffen. Phase Two as dreamed by scholars, the patient reconstruction of the volume, is hard to imagine for the time being, but perhaps not quite as Utopian as one might think. The perception of art ownership and of the art legacy of the world as a whole is slowly changing.

Attitudes in the East are changing too. Sotheby’s Tuesday sale included a second artistic casualty. This is the volume of a chronicle commissioned by Ibrahim Sultan, the grandson of Teymur Lang (”Tamerlane” in the West) called ”The Book of Victory” (Zafar-Nameh). It was illuminated with paintings, many of them scenes spreading over double pages, in the royal library at Shiraz in 1436. Shortly after the manuscript arrived in France from Iran around 1912, the dealer Demotte started ripping out its pages.

Of the 37 folios or so estimated to have carried scenes or one-half of a scene, only nine remain in the volume. The others are scattered between New York, Washington, Florence, Jerusalem and a few more cities.

At the sale, the volume was bought by an anonymous foundation set up by an Iranian collector living in the West. Its purpose, the collector told the International Herald Tribune on condition of anonymity, is to acquire Iranian works of art deemed to be of major importance and return them, one day, to Iran. Its holdings already include stunning masterpieces. This is a first in the Islamic Middle East.