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.
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