7 recent ‘finds’ by our Islamic and Indian Art specialists

How much could that dish you throw your car keys into every night really be worth? Our Islamic and Indian art specialists tell the stories of seven recent discoveries, and the prices they went on to fetch at auction

1. Don’t judge a manuscript by its cover

A rare and early text copied for the Qaraqoyunlu Governor of Baghdad Muhammad Yahya Bin Sibak (D. Ah 852/1448-49 Ad): Husn U Dil. Signed Mirak Al-Shirazi, Baghdad, Dated A.H. 868/1463-64 A.D. Estimate: £15,000–20,000. Sold for: £133,250

Andrew Butler Wheelhouse, associate specialist, Islamic Art: Passing by Christie’s King Street one day, the owner of what appeared to be a rather unassuming collection of paper folios which had lost its binding decided to step inside and ask us to take a look.

What she produced from a plastic bag was a work containing beautifully delicate Persian calligraphy and, better still, a double page of the most intricate gold and lapis blue illumination. The mastery of the geometric and vegetal forms was quite astounding.

Reading further, we discovered the manuscript to be a rare text dating from the 15th century entitled Beauty and the Heart, copied for a Turkman ruler of Baghdad. Estimated at between £15,000 and £20,000, it sold for £133,250 in the Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds sale in October 2011.


2. A pink demon

An illustration to the Bhagavata Purana: the snake demon Ugrasura swallowing Krishna, the gopis and their herd, attributable to Fattu or a close follower of Manaku, Basohli-Guler style, circa 1760-65 A.D. Estimate: £30,000–50,000. Sold for: £181,875

Romain Pingannaud, Islamic Art specialist: This painting of a giant pink snake demon was hung on the wall of a London townhouse, alongside other illustrations from a north Indian series depicting the story of Krishna.

Here, the god and his fellow cowherds are shown swallowed by the giant snake. Upon closer investigation, however, we realised that it is the work of the two major Pahari artists, Manaku and Fattu, a father and son working in the 18th century, which explains why this painting made a record price (£181,875) in our 2013 Arts of India sale at Christie’s South Kensington.


3. Read the small print

A rare and important spherical astrolabe. Signed Muhammad Bin Sulayman Al-Maghribi (Al-Rudani), Medina, Dated A.H. 1073/1662-63 A.D. Estimate: £100,000–150,000. Sold for: £722,500

Sara Plumbly, Head of Islamic Art: To be honest, when our Travel, Science and Natural History specialist James Hyslop first presented us with this unassuming object, its significance as one of only three known spherical astrolabes had to be explained to me.

It was while doing the research for the catalogue that we discovered a small Arabic inscription on the surface that revealed the instrument was made by one of the foremost Islamic astronomers of the 17th century, Al-Rudani.

To date, his work had been known only from the user’s guide to the instrument which Al-Rudani wrote in Medina, the same year our instrument was made. This extremely significant find was picked up on by a number of interested parties who pushed the final price up to £722,500.


4. From entrance hall to major museum

An Iznik blue and white pottery dish, Ottoman Turkey, Circa 1480–1500. Estimate: £120,000–180,000.
Sold for: £400,000

Andrew Butler Wheelhouse, Islamic Art specialist: This dish sat for countless years in an entrance hall and was used as a receptacle to throw keys into. With its cobalt-blue scrolling flowers set on a white ground potter dish, it is clearly inspired by Chinese designs but retains a certain sense of geometry and inventiveness that identify it as a rare early blue and white production of Iznik pottery from Turkey.

The owners were shocked to learn of its value and the importance of this piece, which sold for £400,000 in 2006 and is now in the collection of the Detroit Museum of Arts.


5. A poke in the eye

A fine lapis lazuli hilted watered-steel dagger (kard). Signed 'Abbas Ghulam Ahah, Afsharid or Zand Iran, 18th century. Estimate: £5,000–7,000. Sold for: £62,500

Xavier Fournier, junior specialist, Islamic Art: Late one afternoon, I was called to have a look at this ‘Persian-looking knife’. As the owner took it out of its bubble wrap the first thing that struck me was the fine water-steel of the blade. Each movement required to remove it from the wrapping revealed a new pattern, and ultimately the most elegant floral medallion I have yet seen on a blade. It was only then I realised the hilt, hidden by the owner’s hand, was made of two sleek panels of lapis lazuli, the stone famed for both its remote origins and distinctive hues of blue.

During our exhibition in South Kensington in October 2014, many were struck by its elegance, and after a long battle in the saleroom and on the phones, the dagger, whose inscriptions indicated it was made for a ruler or prince, found a new home for £62,500, almost 10 times its high estimate.


6. Mapping the Ganges

An important and very large map of pilgrim sites along the Ganges (Yatra Patha), north India, possibly Jaipur, Rajasthan, 18th century. Estimate: £30,000–40,000. Sold for: £146,500

Romain Pingannaud, Head of Islamic Art: When this painted map was first sold in our London salerooms in 2001, it was described as a ‘painted scroll map… with villages set by the banks of a meandering river’.

It caught our eye a second time in 2014, and we conducted further research into the names inscribed on the map. It became clear to us that the river was the Ganges, with its many arms flowing along pilgrimage centres. Offered with an estimate of £30,000-40,000, this ‘newly discovered’ Ganges map sold for £146,500.


7. The Italian Job

An Iznik-Style Cantagalli pottery vase with Ulisse Cantagalli marks, Italy, late 19th century. Estimate: £1,000–1,500. Sold for: £9,375

Xavier Fournier, junior specialist, Islamic Art: The vibrant floral decoration of Iznik pottery provided inspiration to European ceramicists in the 19th century, including an Italian named Ulisse Cantagalli, who produced this small pottery vase. 

From the transalpine regions, the vase is likely to have been acquired by an affluent household, where at the time the taste for all things east was quite established.

More than 100 years later, at a provincial French antique fair, this vase changed hands for a handful of euros, most likely dismissed as common pottery. When its century-long journey took it to South Kensington in October 2015, however, it captured the interest of international bidders and was hammered down for £9,375.


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