Auctioned Leaf of Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest, Possibly Acquired by a Turkish Private Collector

By Ahmed Shaker

After the discovery of a missing folio from Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest at the Louvre Abu Dhabi last week, it seems I was lucky enough to find more interesting stuff in this respect. As you remember, the Palimpsest has now 81 folios, preserved mainly at Dar al-Makhṭūṭāt and the Eastern Library in Yemen, in addition to 4 folios, which were stolen and sold at European auction houses like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonham’s starting in 1992 through 2008. One of these 4 folios was sold at Christie’s on April 8, 2008. This auction was unprecedented, as the Quranic leaf broke the world auction record for any Islamic manuscript by fetching the sum of £2,484,500. In their Fine Books’ Annual Report on the Top Auction Sales of 2008, Ian McKay and P. Scott Brown observes the following:

“High prices have been paid in the past for illustrated and highly decorative Eastern manuscripts—for groups or even individual leaves from the great Persian epic, the Shahnama, and for purely calligraphic manuscripts of the Qur’an,”

adding,

“In very recent times, however, there has been a marked increase in prices for very early, often single leaf specimens of Islamic calligraphy.”

If you have purchased a single Quranic leaf for 3 million US dollars–that is 20 times its original price–do you really want people to know your real identity? Of course not. Moreover, auction houses withheld names. They refer to buyers as either ‘anonymous’, or ‘private’ collectors. In this regard, I speculate this folio went to a Turkish private collector. This blogpost will try to figure this out after highlighting a few introductory points.

The Lost Folios 

Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest and other fragments, mostly Quranic, were discovered at the false ceiling of the Great Mosque in Ṣan‘ā’ in 1972. It was Qāḍī Ismā’īl ibn al-Akwa’ (d.2008), then the president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, who arranged to store the newly-discovered fragments, which filled 20 potato sacks, at the National Museum. But, as he saw the number of parchments was decreasing, he decided to move it back to the Western Library (al-Maktabah al-Gharbīyah), and lastly to Dar al-Makhṭūṭāt where it remains since. Evidently, some official workers were stealing the loose leaves and selling it to foreign antique dealers. In Yemen, such prohibited activities are common. Moreover, as the manuscripts were unbound, it was easier for someone in charge to take off the leaves without anyone noticing them. After all, if you don’t watch closely and count the leaves yourself, you will never know what has been missing. This explains, partially, how some folios of the Palimpsest went missing, consequently finding its way through European auction houses in the 1990s through 2008.

Fortunately, in the winter of 1996, German art historian Hans-Caspar Graf von Bothmer had microfilmed more than 35,000 images of the manuscripts discovered in 1972. This suggests that if any Quranic folio went missing after 1996, it would likely to be found in the microfilm of Von Bothmer. But who can access this microfilm? A very limited people indeed. As I heard from David Hollenberg, director of The Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative, the Germans had made an agreement with the Yemenis, that they won’t release the photographs to the public. “They did not want the microfilm having the effect of diminishing the importance of visiting and doing research of the original,” said Hollenberg. The purpose behind making this microfilm was “merely a safeguard in case anything happened to the original,” he said.

Christie’s 2008 folio

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Christie’s 2008 folio, recto and verso

The folio was identified to be part of Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest in 2008. It’s thought to be from the mid-7th century CE, with a possible linkage to Medina. Written in Hijazi script, the folio has parts of al-Nisāʼ [4:171-176] and al-Māʼida [5:1-10]. It measures 36.3 x 28cm, with 28-30 lines to the page. Verses are separated by clusters of short sepia dashes, one medallion of red, green, and sepia. There are wear around the edges and some minor areas of holing. On April 8, 2008, the folio was sold to a ‘private’ collector for £2,484,500. Similarly, another folio of the Palimpsest, which has parts of al-Baqarah, was sold by Christie’s on May 1, 2001, for £163,250.

A Possible Turkish Owner 

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Christie’s 2008 (verso), uploaded by a Turkish user on Pinterest. Probably photographed in 2017

Back to the original question of this post: How do I possibly know the Christie’s 2008 folio was acquired by a Turkish private collector? I have found a photograph on Pinterest, which bears the verso side of Christie’s 2008 folio. The user who uploaded the photograph is Turkish. He added the following description to it: “We own this Islamic Quran page. We think it is very early on vellum.”  When you navigate through his pins on Pinterest, you will realize he owes special interest to Islamic calligraphy. Although you can’t know precisely the date of the photograph, his ‘Kufic’ pin itself was updated last year. My scenario would be that the Christie’s 2008 folio was acquired by a Turkish private collector, whom he likely uploaded on Pinterest with the aim of boasting. We may never know his identity, but I have a feeling that the Quranic folio would appear in a collection or catalogue in Turkey within the forthcoming years.

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