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).

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.