Rare Islamic dish fetches £5m

Debbane Charger Islamic dish
A lost sibling, now found: the Debbane Charger

An estimated value of £500,000 was quickly passed at Sotheby’s, says Chris Carter

The town of Iznik in modern-day Turkey sits on the eastern shore of Lake Iznik, surrounded by hills, in western Anatolia. Its origins date back more than two millennia. In its earliest days, it went by the name of Nicea. Antigonos, a commander in Alexander the Great’s army, founded the settlement in 316BC, according to the Greek geographer, Strabo. After that came the Romans, followed by the Byzantines, the Seljuks, the Byzantines again, and eventually, the Ottomans in 1331. These last rulers focused their attention on developing Constantinople, a short hop across the Sea of Marmara, and Iznik’s light started to fade.

But not for long. From around 1480, a fine form of pottery began to be manufactured in the town. These jugs, plates and tiles came to be highly sought after – not least by collectors today. It’s the earlier pieces, dating from the 16th century, that are most coveted, an article in Christie’s magazine explains: “This early phase in Iznik production saw impressive vessels, usually painted in a bold cobalt-blue and white, and often with patterns reserved in white.”

An example went up for auction at Sotheby’s in London a couple of weeks ago. It was, said the auction house, one of the most important pieces of Iznik pottery to still be in private (one hopes steady) hands. Dating from the reign of Mehmet II (the great Ottoman sultan, known as “the Conqueror” for worrying the Balkans, and even Italy), the charger is one of the very earliest of pieces that can be called Iznik pottery. It “is characterised by an intense, inky, blue-black colouring, which reflects the embryonic stage of firing control – roughly two decades before a brighter cobalt blue was accomplished”, says Sotheby’s.

The “Debbane Charger”, as it is known (named after Max Debanne, the 20th century businessman and collector who previously owned it), is considered a “lost sibling” to four other large dishes, all of which today reside in museums, including the Louvre in Paris. Considering how seldom such pieces come to auction, putting a valuation on the dish was always going to be tricky. Sotheby’s went with an estimate of between £300,000 and £500,000 for its “Arts of the Islamic World” sale. On the day, the charger sold for £5,359,950 – the fourth-highest price ever paid for a piece of “Islamic art” (see right) at auction.

The artistry of Iznik pottery continued to be refined throughout the 1500s, reaching its peak in the latter half of the century – fittingly, about the same time the Ottoman Empire was reaching the zenith of its powers. After that there followed a decline, largely due to a struggling economy, and eventually, the focus of pottery-making in Turkey moved elsewhere – most notably to the town of Kütahya to the south. Yet the Debbane Charger remains as a memento of a time when a once-mighty empire was still on the rise.

Islamic art in a new light

To talk of “Islamic art” is misleading. “After all, we are looking at a vast expanse, both geographically and historically, spanning the world from Nigeria to Indonesia, and spanning time from the seventh century to the present day,” Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, tells art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon in Christie’s magazine.

That’s why the museum last month opened its new Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World, representing a reorganisation of its collection, including a large display devoted to Iznik pottery (pictured). “What you see is an immensely rich variety of objects, and it is our challenge to show the interconnectedness of these many cultures that all pertain to Islam,” says Fischer.

It is like entering an Aladdin’s cave, says Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times. “Light glitters and winks as it catches burnished metal, the lustre of inlays and the glaze of ceramics, the gleam of enamel and iridescence of silk. It picks out the intricate latticework of carvings, the prismatic colours of manuscript paintings, the filigree descriptions of decorative patterns and the serpentine flow of calligraphic scripts.” The two rooms are ordered chronologically, weaving in artworks from other faiths, creating a tapestry of interconnected histories. Just don’t expect to take it all in at once. “A thousand and one nights may pass” before that happens.


Auctions

Going…

Chinese dragon robe

An “extremely rare” imperial Chinese “12-symbol” dragon robe (pictured) was expected to fetch up to £150,000 at Bonhams in London this week. The blue-ground robe has been embroidered with nine “resplendent dragons swirling amidst a profusion of blossoming chrysanthemums”, says expert Linda Wrigglesworth in the auction catalogue. Such robes, decorated with the 12 symbols of imperial authority, including the sun, moon and fu fortune symbol, were exclusively worn by rulers on formal occasions – this one probably by the 18th-century Qianlong emperor. It had been acquired by British brigadier-general Offley Bohun Stovin Fairless Shore during a visit to Beijing in 1912.

Gone…

A 3,000-year-old Assyrian relief that once decorated the walls of the Northwest Palace of King Ashurnasirpal II fetched $30,968,750 at Christie’s in New York on Wednesday of last week – a record for Assyrian art. The seven-foot-tall slab depicts an Apkallu – a winged half-man demigod, carrying a bucket and a cone which signified fertility and protection of the king, who ruled Assyria from 883BC to 859BC. Sir Austen Henry Layard, a British archaeologist, took the relief in the mid-19th century, before selling it to an American missionary named Henri Byron Haskell in 1859. Iraq’s culture ministry reportedly objected to the sale, citing the looting and destruction of the country’s cultural heritage.

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