Islamic Art Auctions, Fall 2014 – Some notes

Sometimes researchers tend to close themselves in an ivory tower made of books, articles, journals and objects of art (in my case inscriptions), without considering how the world outside actually relies on money. Also art and art history in some sense.

A couple of weeks ago, at Bonhams, the last auction of Islamic Art of the season took place. Now, it is time to see what was sold and bought, and how the market of Islamic art is going. Because, to some extent, the study of Islamic art, outside our ivory tower, is also made of auctions.

Which auctions and which art

Around 2009 McQuillian and Lucey published a brief article titled “The Validity of Islamic Art as an Investment”. In their studies they pointed out how the Islamic Art market is dominated by the so-called ‘tertiary market’, in other words the auctions. The centre of this market is London where the three biggest houses in the field (Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s) held their auctions twice a year: in Autumn and in Spring.

This season the auctions of Islamic Art started at Bonhams, on the 7th October, followed by Sotheby’s (8th Oct) and Christie’s (9th and 10th Oct). After nearly one month, on the 5th November, the last auction took place in Bonhams (5th November).

Pair of glass floor lamps for the Indian market | Bohemia, circa 1900 (Bonhams, 7/10 - lot  294) © Bonhams
Pair of glass floor lamps for the Indian market |
Bohemia, circa 1900 (Bonhams, 7/10 – lot 294) © Bonhams

If we consider which art was sold in these auctions, we face the first problem, to my point of view. In the four auctions held in Bonhams and Christie’s the focus was not only Islamic Art but, as we infer just from the titles, also Indian Art. Even if some Indian lots belonged to the Islamic tradition developed in the sub-continent, many of them were related to other Indian traditions. To some extent, this can make it more difficult to have a clearer idea of which kind of artefacts related to the Islamic art were sold. Also, many pieces are not properly ‘Islamic’ as they were made in Europe or China for the Near and Middle Eastern market. I guess this was the same situation McQuillian and Lucey were facing while dealing their study. What I perceive is that the three auction houses consider Islamic art in its broader sense, perfectly defined in McQuillian’s and Lucey’s article:

It “refers not only to the art made for Islamic practices and settings but also the art made by and for people who lived or live in lands where the majority were Muslims.” (Bloom & Blair, 1997) Unlike many other terms or periods of art, like ‘Renaissance’, ‘Baroque’, ‘Christian’ or ‘Italian’, Islamic art refers to no specific era, genre or method of art. The works produced can include varied fields such as painting, sculpture, embroidery, calligraphy, and ceramics. While the value placed on the Arabic script and its representation in Islamic art gives this class of art a unity of style, the multitude of regions, countries and cultures that have influenced it has led to a diverse and rich selection of art to collect. (p. 1)

This broadness must be kept in mind.

What, where and when

1004 objects were sold during the five auctions. It is an impressive number of course.

The following graphs point out which kind of objects were sold, where they come from and in which period they were realised.

whatwherewhenIt is clear that the auction market is dominated by objects from the Persian and Indian areas, followed by the Turkish and Ottoman art.

A Cantonese export porcelain bowl and dish, made for Fath 'Ali Shah Qajar | China, 19th Century (Bohnams, 7/11 - lot 201)
A Cantonese export porcelain bowl and dish, made for Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar | China, 19th Century (Bohnams, 7/11 – lot 201)

Some regions, quite important in the history of Islamic art such as Egypt and the Levant are outnumbered by objects that do not exactly belong to Islamic tradition: those that come from Europe and the Far East. The objects from these areas were actually produced for the ‘Islamic market’ of the period: Chinese pottery was sold in Persia and European portraits of Ottoman Sultans were intended for the Turkish market, for instance. Can they still be considered ‘Islamic art’?

As for the periods, it is clear that the majority of artefacts comes from the Modern Era (1800-1945). Only few of them belong to the earlier period of Islam (600-900). Those which are dated as pre-Islamic of course do not pertain to Islamic art, but are Indian objects.

Prices and factors external to the market

Being this the first auction season that I analyse, it is impossible to state how the prices have changed from the past editions. Also, being a humanist, I do not feel properly at ease with numbers and figures. Anyway, reading the study cited in the beginning, it is clear that this market is strongly influenced by the socio-political and economic spheres of the Middle East. McQuillian and Lucey clearly showed how the prices of the artefacts dropped in 2002 after the 11/09 and in 2004 after the bombs in London underground. In the authors’ words: “This […] significant drop […] must be associated [to] an increased negative image of things Islamic through these attacks”

I wonder whether and to what extent the same happened after the Arab Spring (2011) and, most importantly maybe, after what’s happening now in Syria and Iraq with the civil war and the IS.

Looking down from the ivory tower

Thus, sometimes it is wonderful to stay inside the ivory tower, looking at objects and translating the traces from the past. Yet, sometimes it is necessary to open the window, give a look outside and see what’s happening around. For me it is not so easy to think that the market (which I hate, as I cannot understand how it works) can affect what I study and it is even more difficult to admit that politics can affect the value of artefacts. Anyway, this is where I live and this is what I want to study.

Sometime, just close the books, put down the pen, take a look outside and start thinking how the terrible things are happening can influence Islamic art.


W. McQuillian & B. M. Lucey, “The Validity of Islamic Art as an Investment” (October 15, 2009). Available at SSRN: [last accessed: Nov, 19th 2014]

The auctions:

Bonhams – Oct, 7th: [last accessed: Nov, 19th 2014]
Sotheby’s – Oct, 8th: [last accessed: Nov, 19th 2014]
Christie’s – Oct, 9th: [last accessed: Nov, 19th 2014]
Christie’s – Oct, 10th: [last accessed: Nov, 19th 2014]
Bonhams – Nov, 5th: [last accessed: Nov, 19th 2014]

The infographic of the auctions of Islamic art is available here


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