Auctions – In war or peace, the ruin of world heritage

By Souren Melikian
3 May, 2002
Originally posted at

LONDON: Even as outrage mounts over the looting and destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage, it’s business as usual in the art market.

In London, Paris and New York, the auction houses continue to hold sales of so-called “Islamic” art: Christie’s on Tuesday, Sotheby’s on Wednesday, Bonhams on Thursday and Christie’s South Kensington on Friday.

None of the objects freshly dug up or fragments removed from monuments is ever accompanied by an export license. The laws of the countries from which most come – Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Iraq – do not allow commercial digging, let alone the defacing of monuments. But weak countries beset by other problems can do little to enforce the laws, and it suits the outside world to ignore them.

If the illicit export of the objects merely consisted in the transfer of a nation’s cultural heritage from place A to place B, things might conceivably be put right, someday, somehow. Unfortunately, the illicit digging that leads to these exports is hugely destructive. As objects are dug up with pick and ax, to say nothing of dynamite, bronze vessels get bent, pottery and glass smashed, and ivories rarely survive.

The sales gave a faint idea of the problem. At Christie’s on Tuesday, a wine vessel in the shape of a booted leg came up, catalogued as “probably Northeast Iran 9th/10th century.” It must have been virtually intact underground. The earthenware of the body, laid bare by breaks, was a fresh pinkish red, without a trace of the earth incrustations that adhere to breaks made a thousand years ago, and the impact of a pick was visible.

But the havoc goes far beyond the physical injury to buried works of art. This type of object used to puzzle scholars. I identified its nature (a wine vessel) and its destination (an aristocratic ritualized wine banquet) in the Bulletin of the Asia Institute, the American journal of Iranian studies, in 1997. It would be important to know in what context the object had been found – possibly the remains of an aristocratic mansion. Carbon 14 analysis of vegetal remains or coins with the names of rulers might have narrowed down the broad “9th/10th century” dating.

The destruction of the documentation buried underground is catastrophic.

At Bonhams, where interesting pieces from Afghanistan and Iran were sold on Thursday afternoon, a sensational object came up that could have led to a major discovery. The bronze medallion cast with inscriptions reproduces the name and titles of a ruler, Sultan Abu Shuja’ Farrukhzad, and a date, 444 in the Muslim calendar (A.D. 1053). That year, the sultan mounted the throne of the East Iranian kingdom centered on Ghazni, southwest of Kabul. The medallion evidently records the ruler’s accession to the throne.

One wonders what other royal accessories, what palatial vessels, might have been lying around. Intact or fragmentary, they would have been precisely dated and would have given us some inkling of the nature of royal possessions.

Dozens of similar losses occur every year in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq that have nothing to do with Taliban-style vandalism and everything to do with the Western market. Many examples in this week’s sales illustrated the resulting distortion of history – the “rare Fatimid bronze ewer, Egypt, 10th century,” seen at Bonhams had a typical East Iranian shape, which is represented in the Kabul museum by a small variant and matched by other ewers that have surfaced in Afghanistan and Iran.

The main reason for such vagaries is that, of the thousands of early bronze vessels from the Iranian world now in public or private possession, hardly any have been discovered by archaeologists. The same is true of Syria or Egypt in Islamic times. The chances of writing a precise history of the field are thus being whittled down year after year.

Were the £5,875 paid for the medallion or the failed attempt at selling the “Fatimid” ewer worth the damage to knowledge caused by the loss of context? Only a tiny self-serving minority will believe so.

The early signs of a reaction against the problem can be detected. Sotheby’s sale of the “Arts of the Islamic World” on Wednesday included noticeably fewer objects from commercial digs. But there were still some. The “important wheel-cut intaglio glass ewer, Persian, 10th century” that adorned the cover climbed to a staggering £621,600, largely because it was unbroken – a rare distinction that would be more common if the looters were not at work.

The injury caused to historic monuments is equally damnable. Unhinging wooden doors and ripping off the glazed revetment tiles that cover the walls of mosques, mausoleums and palaces began in the 19th century.

The architectural star at Christie’s was a pair of 13th-century doors removed from some monument in Konya, the capital of the Seljukid dynasty of Rum, in Turkey. The cataloguer writes that these were “from the collection of a European engineer who traveled extensively in Turkey in the late 19th and 20th century.” His descendants must be pleased. The doors sold for an amazing £766,250.

A wooden beam carved with a Kufic inscription was ascribed to 14th-century “Morocco or Spain.” Christie’s proudly remarked that “the part of the inscription that immediately follows the above was sold in these rooms, 23 April 2002, lot 135.” This week the beam brought £318,850. Thus do architectural elements from a yet to be identified structure get further dismantled.

Tiles ripped off the walls of Iranian mosques and palaces turned up in every sale. At Christie’s, you could buy tiles from the palace built at Takht-e Solayman between the years 1265 and 1282. At Sotheby’s, a larger figural tile with two riders engaged in combat also from Takht-e Solayman went for £8,400.

How much longer will buyers want to acquire fragments from monuments? Impossible to say – just as it is hard to tell when they will decide that provenance needs to be checked before acquiring major objets d’art that appear out of the blue. The most astonishing case this week concerned the brass inkwell and pen case carrying the name and titles of the famous Iranian vizier Shams od-Din Joveyni, who was murdered in 1283.

The eulogistic titles given to him indicate that he was in the employ of the first Mongol ruler converted to Islam, Sultan Ahmad (1281-1283). It is a “state inkwell,” an Iranian institution that I described in the 1986 volume of the Journal of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore and that explains the quasi-immaculate condition of the gold and silver inlay – it must have been preserved until fairly recently either in the imperial treasury in Iran or in one of the great Shiite shrines in Iran or Iraq.

Had it long been in Western hands when a clever dealer reportedly bought it for less than £1,000, it would have been published. Its huge importance to Iranian art and history accounts for the unheard of price it fetched, £1.12 million. Merely knowing its precise provenance in the East would be invaluable historical information.

It is time, high time, that rules be agreed upon whereby the world’s common heritage is handled with some consideration. The destruction wrought in peacetime has precious little excuse.