Raising Awareness for the Preservation of Our Common Heritage: Why We Should Stand Against the Sale of Looted Artifacts

A 15th-century Timurid Qur’an recently sold at Christie’s for £7 million. Image credit: Christie’s

As artifacts bearing a deep cultural heritage to Islam continue to fetch record prices, academics question their provenance, ownership transparency, and the greed for profit.

Earlier this year, Christie’s sold one of the most exquisite Qur’an manuscripts to an undisclosed buyer for a record £7 million. The 15th century Timurid Quran fetched 10 times the estimated selling price of between £600,00 to £900,000.
The Persian Qur’an consists of 534 opulently colored pages flecked in gold. Delicate Arabic calligraphy on Ming paper from China conjures images of a rich history of diplomatic ties and the exchanging of gifts between China and the Sultans of the Islamic world.

Historians say the document was created at a Timurid royal court in Afghanistan or Iran. The colors of the pages represent the honor and infinity of God and include cream, green, orange, purple, pink, turquoise, and deep blue. The Qur’an’s silky and pliable pages are the product of a process of which little is known.

Both the colors and feel of the pages combine to fulfill the sensory and spiritual senses of the worshipper. Each page bears Ming painting style ornamentation, with some pages being elaborately decorated with flowers and trees.
Scholars of Asian and Islamic art, history, and architecture are concerned that precious manuscripts, such as this one, do not always receive the same attention as endangered archeological sites.

Lack of transparency at auction house sales also worries them. Regrettably, sales of manuscripts often continue without any authenticating provenance. Provenance is a way of securing that the ownership of any work of art remains undisputed. Ideally, it should include the whole ownership history from its creation to the present.

According to Christie’s, the vendor came to possess the Timurid Qur’an from his father, who bought it during the 1980s in London. However, many argue that this information gives no transparency on if its removal from its country of origin was legal. Sales like this often appear to violate the 1954 Hague Convention that calls for the wartime protection of cultural works. They also do not always meet the terms of the 1970 UNESCO Convention and its broader ban on the illicit trafficking of cultural relics.

In an email response to a query about the provenance of the Qur’an, a spokesperson for Christie’s insists the auction house would never sell any work of art unless satisfied that it is not stolen or illegally removed from its country of origin. Christie’s also stressed that manuscripts are personal and portable objects and these have always travelled across borders with their owners who want to ensure their preservation, especially in troubled times.

Yet, the spectacular Qur’an still appears to have a “no-provenance” provenance. This once again brings the question of ethical buying to the fore. It also highlights the need for a united front.

A flourishing trade in disassemble manuscripts

Unfortunately, some unbelievably beautiful and rare Islamic folios and Qur’ans have been sold over the last century. Late last year, a folio with three paintings dating back to the 15th century was displayed for sale at London Frieze Masters. A few days later, Christie’s offered another two folios taken from the same manuscript.

The pictures on the first folio, two on the front and one on the back, depict the Ascension of the Prophet Mohammad into the heavens. The other two folios depict the Prophet’s approach to the angels and an intense scene of the tortures of hell.

In the article, “The collectors who cut up a masterpiece”, written for Prospect Magazine by Islamic art historian Christiane Gruber, she raises a question asked by many lately – what are the motives for the dismemberment of a manuscript that was once bound as one?

The answer, according to Gruber, is greed. She goes on to explain that if the manuscript was sold as a complete work, it would fetch far less. Yet, the moment the folios were separated their price shot up exorbitantly.

Gruber has been researching the manuscript called The Paths of Paradise for over 20 years and knows that there are only two of these in the world. The first one, which was most likely made in Herat, Afghanistan around 1436, remains intact. It is in the possession of Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. The dismembered manuscript had 60 descriptive images and was probably made about 30 years later. It was modelled on the first manuscript and was commissioned by Sultan-Abu Sa’id Gurkan, probably in Herat or Samarkand.

According to evidence, this second copy of The Paths of Paradise remained intact until the late twentieth century. It belonged to the Treasury of Ottoman Sultan Selim I whose reign lasted between 1512 and 1520.

It is a pity the divided-up manuscript cannot offer historians the opportunity to study the work as a whole. Written in Khwarazmian Turkish and transcribed in Uyghur script, it is a very rare example of Turkic Central Asian Islamic literature.

The only hope for folios which find their way into private collections is that they are in the hands of custodians who will ensure their preservation. Six folios from the cannibalized manuscript are in the possession of the David Collection in Copenhagen where they are properly conserved. Scholars can study them, and the beautiful folios are often displayed to the public.

Unfortunately, other Islamic manuscripts have suffered the same or even worse fates in the past century. Passionate collectors have bought paintings from sections of beautifully illustrated manuscripts, including the Shahnama (Book of Kings). The Iranian epic, written around the 10th or 11th century, was taken apart by Georges Demotte, a Belgian-born dealer in the 1920s.

Many manuscripts are bought as autonomous paintings by collectors, and unscrupulous dealers make a huge profit on them. Folios with paintings on both sides were split in half; some were left blank on their reverse side while others were marred with newly written text. One sad example is a painting that belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is decorated with “frames” intended to hide the damage caused when taken apart from the original manuscript and to try augment its value.

United effort needed

Museums and private collectors often vie to acquire sought after objects of interest, and Islamic manuscripts and are no exception. Interested parties, whether they are private collectors or museums, have all contributed to the questions of the ethics they follow when seeking to acquire works.
Some museums are the idea of private collectors who realize that their collections can serve a greater purpose if shared. Yet, all museums need to conform to the ethical acquisition of their collections by adhering to the UNESCO Convention.

The International Council of Museums Code of Ethics stipulates their duty to safeguard the natural, cultural, and scientific heritage according to international legislation. This is possible if they refrain from acquiring objects where there is reasonable cause to believe they are illicit. The idea behind this is to decrease the demand and limit the profit margin helping to eliminate such practices.

Legal ownership can be difficult to determine and can become complicated. “Theft” of manuscripts comes about in various ways, looted museums during wars, colonialism, civil wars, and unauthorized excavations are just part of the problem.

Overall, museums try to ensure that they practice ethical collecting. Together with INTERPOL, they have established databases to try and cross-check objects before they buy. However, the need to acquire these desired objects often leads collectors, even museums, to forget their ethical code of conduct.

Just a few years ago the antiquities curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Marion True, encouraged the acquisition of Italian antiquities by donors. The museum would then purchase these, establishing a false ownership front.

Since it is more difficult to monitor private collectors than museums, auction houses also need to embrace the law and the code of ethics. That is one way to help ensure the common heritage of Islam is preserved intact for future generations.

Ethics and Unity of Purpose: Are You Part of the Problem or the Key to the Solution?

Image credit: The British Museum

by Karen Whitehair*

On the surface, museums and private collectors have shared aims; both love to collect objects of interest and to flaunt their best finds. Beyond this, however, the similarities should and do differ, at least on paper, because of the underlying motivation for collecting. 

Private collectors focus inward and act for their own personal interests and pleasure. They may purchase objects as a form of financial investment or to have the gratification of possessing unique items and displaying them to demonstrate their artistic sensitivities and sophistication or just to impress. 

For museums, the focus should be outward. Many museums today had their origins as private collections, but something changed in those collector’s mindsets that put them on the course to embrace the public good. These museum founders realized that preserving objects for future generations and allowing these objects to tell important stories about human artistic, scientific or cultural endeavors and humanity’s place in the natural world was a noble enterprise. They understood that sharing would, in the long-term, create greater pleasure and impact than possessing the object privately ever could. 

This dichotomy between these interior- and exterior-focused perspectives creates a tension that has proven challenging to keep separate and pure, leading to unfortunate consequences. 

In the Ideal World

Museums have the duty to acquire, preserve, and promote their collections as a contribution to safeguarding the natural, cultural, scientific heritage. Their collections are a significant public inheritance, have a special position in law and are protected by international legislation. Inherent in this public trust is the notion of stewardship that includes rightful ownership, permanence, documentation, accessibility, and responsible disposal.

Quotation from the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Code of Ethics for Museums, Section 2.

One the most important museum practices within the ideal stated above is to ensure that all prospective objects presented for acquisition review have documented legal title which shows that the object was legally obtained by the donor. For instance, the object came from a permitted archeological dig; was not previously stolen from a museum or private collection; or was exported from its country of origin following appropriate international laws, agreements and regulations (The UNESCO Convention 1972 being one of the most important). 

The ICOM Code of Ethics goes on to state that, “Museums should not acquire objects where there is reasonable cause to believe their recovery involved unauthorized or unscientific fieldwork, or intentional destruction or damage of monuments, archaeological or geological sites, or of species or natural habitats.” The idea behind this statement is that if we can decrease the demand and, in turn, limit the profit margin in the illicit object market, we have a better chance of eliminating it all together.  

In addition, determination of legal ownership can become even more complicated when objects were obtained through non-standard types of theft, such as colonial legally-sanctioned scientific “theft” during nineteenth-century archeological excavations or cultural material taken from native peoples without permission or situational theft committed during civil unrest, ethnic cleansing actions, or wartime with one of the most recent being the looting of museums during and after the Iraq War.

In recent years, museums have become more sensitive to the rights of victims of outright theft, colonialism, and other violence and will often return personal, tribal or national cultural treasures to the aggrieved parties out of respect. Museums that do not want to become involved in negative legal entanglements on these issues are wise to institute solid gatekeeping practices at the point of acquisition and to create a collection record review process to ensure no objects were acquired historically through unsavory means and act proactively when such objects are found. 

The museum field, as well as law enforcement agencies such as INTERPOL, have established databases (“registers”) to assist in this research and to facilitate either formal direct return to or negotiated settlements between the parties involved, as needed. This is a big step in improving the transparency and accountability of museums and puts thieves on notice. Thus, ethical practice has the potential to keep us all honest. Yet, sadly many stolen objects just disappear into private collections or are sold, aided by private auction houses that neglect their title research or see profit as more important.

Museum Leaders Behaving Badly 

Museums are not paragons of virtue by any means and sometimes contribute to the problem. Having worked with numerous board members (who are often private collectors themselves), private collectors, and museum curators over the years, I know it can be very hard for some to turn off the private collector mindset. Art museums, in particular, face myriad pressures to acquire the most expensive Monet or the largest collection of tenth-century Islamic manuscripts. These institutions often get so caught up in the race to achieve “higher and better” that they forget to uphold the museum field’s foundational ethical principles. 

A good example of museum curators behaving badly is from the late 2000s, when the world learned that the J. Paul Getty Museum’s antiquities curator, Marion True, had for years been instructing potential donors of Italian antiquities to purchase objects with uncertain provenance with the promise that the museum would later acquire them. Basically, this action  would “cleanse” the objects of uncertain provenance by establishing a false front of ownership—what the judge in this case called “collection laundering.” And this is just one of many examples of how the collector mentality can bend situations wildly out of kilter. In all instances of misdeeds, those involved forgot their public trust responsibilities. 

What Does This All Mean?

Someone once explained to me that the difference between ethics and the law is that ethics insists on practices that, if followed, keep one away from legal entanglements. Private collectors and museums, as well as intermediaries like auction houses, would do well to remember this. Our unity of purpose should always be our responsibility to preserve our common heritage for future generations. Knowing and following ethical standards will help ensure that we do. 

Important Resources

Museum Codes of Ethics

American Alliance of Museums. Code of Ethics. Washington, DC: American Alliance of Museums, 2000. AAM Code of Ethics for Museums – American Alliance of Museums (aam-us.org)

International Council of Museums (ICOM). Code of Ethics for Museums. Paris, France: International Council of Museums (ICOM), 2004. https://cimam.org/resources-publications/icom-code-ethics/#:~:text=The ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums sets,principles supported by guidelines detailing expected professional practice.

Museum Best Practice 

American Association for State and Local History. The Capitalization of Collections: Ethics Position Paper #1.  Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History, 2003.

Pos Paper 1 on Cap Coll (aamg-us.org)

Association of Art Museum Directors. Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art. 2013 Revision.  Association of Art Museum Directors, 2013. New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art | Association of Art Museum Directors (aamd.org)

Rebecca A. Buck and Jean Allman Gilmore. eds. Museum Registration Methods 5th Edition. 

Washington, DC: The AAM Press American Association of Museums, 2011. 

Marie C. Maloro. A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

John E. Simmons. Things Great and Small: Collection Management Policies. Second Edition. Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Internet Links to Stolen Art Databases 

  • NOTE: Many countries have similar database systems and all work in partnership in an cooperative international effort to track down stolen art. 

*Karen Whitehair has worked in the museum field for over thirty years in organizations as varied as the National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, and various historic sites in and around the Washington, DC region. Her work has focused predominately on museum collections management. She is currently working as an independent museum consultant, writer, and historian.

Important Fragment from One of the World’s Oldest Qur’ans Sold by Christie’s

Written just decades after the birth of Islam, a rare fragment from a seventh-century Qur’an recently fetched almost 1 million pounds. 

A preserved fragment like this is a rare find, and it is believed to be from the same Qur’an as others dated to around 650-750 CE and held in Paris and Leiden. Auction house Christie’s offered it on sale in late October 2020 and it fetched close to £1 million, a price that far exceeded its estimated price of between £250,000 and £350,000. 

Christie’s sales of arts from the Islamic and Indian worlds attract the attention of collectors and there is usually a huge demand for arts, jewellery, and manuscripts. Among these items at the recent sale was the well-preserved historical folio from a 7th century Qur’an and its verses written in Hijazi script. 

According to Frances Keyworth, a cataloguer in Christie’s Islamic Art Departments, this is an important early Qur’an folio. This particular fragment appears to have been contained within one of the oldest Qur’ans and offers a fine sample of one of the earliest forms of Arabic calligraphy. Written in Hijazi style, the script is composed of the vertical strokes commonly used during the seventh century. 

The history of the Qur’an dates to 610 CE. The revelations from God were made to the Prophet Muhammed in stages, believed to have continued until he died around 632 CE. For several years after the Prophet’s death, the revelations made to him continued to be passed down orally in a unified version.

Subsequently, the fear that the memorized parts of the Qur’an would be lost resulted in the commission of the first written Qur’ans. During the first Caliphate of Abu Bakr, he commissioned Zayd ibn Thabit, the Prophet’s personal assistant create the first written copies of the Qur’an with the assistance of other scribes.

Recitations of the Qur’an spread into far-flung areas of the Islamic Empire as it grew. The third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, directed a recompiled Qur’an to ensure uniformity in its reading. The task once again fell on Zayd ibn Thabit. He ensured that variant texts were suppressed and ensured the authoritative text was committed in the new Qur’ans. 

Scholars agree that by 650 CE there must have been between four and seven complete copies produced. These were sent to Kufa, Basra, Damascus, and probably Mecca, while Uthman kept one in Medina. Uthman ordered the destruction of all variant copies. 

Unfortunately, there are no known copies of these Qur’ans in existence now, but it is generally accepted that the Uthmanic Qur’an comprised all the 114 suras in the order they are known today. These are believed to have been passed down in the copies made subsequently, of which some fragments have been preserved, including the copy recently sold at the Christie’s auction.

Remarkably preserved

Christie’s Qur’an fragment (recto side), sūrah Maryam, vv. 72-82. Image credit: Christie’s Inc

Substantial in size, the folio measures 34.5 cm by 31 cm and is one of only a handful of fragments to have survived from the copies of the Qur’an made in the first decades after the founding of Islam. 

The Hijazi script used on the folio was common until the eighth century CE, but it was gradually replaced by the Kufic script. According to Christie’s Frances Keyworth, the script could have been created by a scribe born in Muhammed’s time.  

The text on the folio has remained remarkably unscathed and displays 18 out of 19 lines of the script. These are verses 82-90 from Chapter 19 of the Qur’an, and they speak of God’s love for people who act righteously. 

The folio also has one of the earliest forms of Arabic manuscript illumination still in existence. It runs along the bottom of the folio in a geometric pattern and was used to indicate chapter breaks. 

Other fragments still in existence

Leaf of Qur’an manuscript in Hijazi script on parchment. MS. Leiden Or. 14.545c, recto side (Q63:1-7). Image credit: Jan Just Witkam

The majority of the 38 known fragments from the earliest Qur’an manuscripts in existence today are in museums. Only two fragments match the format, style, and size of the Hijazi folio recently sold. Some of the smaller fragments are in London’s British Library, the Vatican in Rome, and Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace Museum. 

According to Keyworth, the two larger fragments almost certainly come from the same manuscript as the one recently sold, and almost certainly written by the same hand. They form part of the collections at Netherland’s Leiden University (Or. 14.454b-c) and the Bibliothéque Nationale de France in Paris (Arabe 331).

Radiocarbon dating of the Leiden folio has confirmed the page’s origin to somewhere between 650 and 700 CE. 

The most recent fragment sold formed part of a private collection that belonged to the former lecturer at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Cultures at the New Sorbonne University Paris III. Doctor Jean-Michel Thierry de Crussol (1916-2011) was an authority on Armenian and Byzantine art. 

Whenever these types of fragments from ancient Islamic manuscripts appear, they cause major excitement. They are immensely significant for scholars of Islam but are also highly sought by Islamic art collectors. 

In 2008, Christie’s sold another important manuscript on vellum from a mid-seventh century Qur’an. It was estimated to fetch £100,000 but exceeded all expectations when it was sold for £2.5 million. 

Further reading

Shaker, Ahmed. “Al-taḥlīl al-Karbūnī al-Mushiʿ wa al-Makhṭuṭāt al-Qurʾāniyah al-Mubakirah” (i.e. Radiocarbon dating and Early Qur’an Manuscripts), Qur’an Manuscript Studies Blog, April 2015.

Shaker, Ahmed. “Auctioned Leaf of Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest, Possibly Acquired by a Turkish Private Collector”. Qur’an Manuscript Studies Blog, July 2019.

Marx, Michael and Jocham, Tobias. “Radiocarbon (14C) Dating of Qurʾān Manuscripts”. Qurʾān Quotations Preserved on Papyrus Documents, 7th-10th Centuries, Brill, 2019, pp. 188–22.

Witkam, Jan Just. “Qur’an in higazi-like script (MS Leiden, Or. 14.545 c and Or. 14.545 b)”, available online at islamicmanuscripts.info (Courses on Arabic manuscripts).

The Damascus Fragments: Towards a History of the Qubbat al-Khazna

Book Review: The Damascus Fragments: Towards a History of the Qubbat al-Khazna: Corpus of Manuscripts and Documents (eds. Arianna D’Ottone Rambach, Konrad Hirschler and Ronny Vollandt). Ergon-Verlag, 2020, 542pp. ISBN: 978-3956507557.

In “The Damascus fragments: Towards a history of the Qubbat-al-Khazna,” the authors point out that their work aims to take the first step in the placing of large fragmentary written documents and manuscripts on Middle east Asia map. They clarified that most of the documents have gone for years without recognition and that only those from specific fields have found useful, such as the Biblical ones. Until the twentieth century, this corpus (manuscripts and artifacts placed in one place) has been housed in a dome at the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. The name Qubbat al-Khazna is not a straight forward name as seen in the manuscript; it is explained to have had contents that were discovered in the nineteenth century by a scholar. In the book, Qubat al-Khazna is explained to have been discovered in the same period as the Genizah of Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo. Both Qubba and Cairo Genizah have served as repositories for many manuscripts found in their regions. Standing at over 200,000 discovered items, the Qubba still lags behind the materials from Cairo Genizah, which are at 350,000 items count. Readers are notified that the counting of this kind of material cannot be exact. The difference between these two depositories has been identified scholarly in the following way; discovery of Cairo Geniza has been highly developed to the extent of becoming a fully-fledged field of research while Qubba has remained marginalized in the history of Middle Eastern Asia.

The materials in the Qubba depository remained marginalized because of the difficulty associated with accessing them. The book in hand is by no means the first publication to deal with manuscripts and documents from Qubba. Other publications are mentioned to recognize the work of other hardworking scholars who have contributed to this field of academic research. Examples of publications mentioned include works from German pioneers of the early twentieth century, Bruno Violet and Hermann von Sodden, and the works of the French scholars Dominique Sourdel, Jean Richard, and Janine Sourdel Thomine. There is an explanation of the cause of individual works found in the Qubba becoming blurred, and it is alleged that individual work has not been a subject of interest to scholars, hence little is mentioned about this works. Therefore, this makes them less known. Another major difference between the Qubba and the Geniza is that Geniza contains materials that were circulated by the Jewish communities, while the Qubba stored artifacts mostly from the Muslim community. Qubba corpus was just a storehouse for a single community. More examples of the differences between the two corpora are given based on contents found in them.

In addition, the editors also reports about the planning and agenda of their Berlin conference, which took place in in 2018. The idea was to encourage conversations in different disciplines in order to learn and identify artifacts in the corpus. The conference brought together two sets of scholars, the first one being colleagues from various disciplines who had read about the Qubba findings. Editors explain that manuscripts focusing on Muslim religion are not tackled in the conference. The second group comprised of speakers who were invited to speak about their research on the Qubba. These speakers had their research based on questions such as the function of the Qubba, the history of Qubba during the pre-Ottoman period, and finally, how the Qubba was discovered. The organization of this book reflects on the importance of studying documents in the Qubba.

The first part of this book discusses the history of Qubbat al-Khaznah corpus, while the second part discusses the linguistics lines such as Greek, old French, and Hebrew. In the first section, an overview is provided to serve as a guide for readers as they navigate. Qubba’s description is illustrated as an octagonal structure on ancient roman column, and placed in the courtyard of the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Readers are informed that the Qubba is protected from harm by heavy locked iron doors. The documents in the Qubba stand at a height of an average man. Moreover, sudies about the Qubba are said to have begun in the year 1898 when German scholar Hermann von Soden and Emperor Wilhelm II visited Damascus and found about Qubba. They found the non-Muslim artifacts as interesting areas for further research.

The second part of this book, which is also the last part, deals with studies devoted to the manuscript material. Each contribution in the artifacts deals with a certain specific language or a specific manuscript evidence. There is an explanation of Ronny Vollandt study and a well presented example showing the translation of the book of Exodus and Psalms into Arabic. Examples of languages that are found in the Qubba are given, and they include Hebrew and Syriac. People who had done palaeographical analysis of different languages in the corpus are mentioned in this section. Editors also provide readers with photographic evidence of various material discussed in this book.