The sordid practice of disassembling Islamic manuscripts has flourished for over a century. As rare folios go on the market, the art world needs to get ethicalby Christiane Gruber / October 17, 2019 / Leave a comment
Autumn sees leaves turn gold and tumble to the ground. This October, though, we are also witnessing the fall of other leaves—folios of rare Islamic manuscripts on to the art market.
At London’s Frieze Masters in early October, the dealer Francesca Galloway displayed a folio with three paintings—two on one side and another on the back. The pictures, dating from the 15th century, depict the famous Islamic story of the ascension of the Prophet Muhammad into the heavens. Two more folios, extracted from the same Timurid-era manuscript, will be offered for sale at Christie’s on 24th October. One folio depicts the Prophet Muhammad approaching angels; the other vividly depicts the tortures of hell.
These are incredibly beautiful works of art—and incredibly valuable. Each folio is estimated to sell for about £1m. Their sale, though, raises a number of important ethical issues over how collectors and art galleries treat Islamic art. For the individual folios were once a complete illustrated manuscript bound between covers: they have been cut out either by the current (anonymous) owner or a previous one. The motivation for the dismemberment—given the acquisitive society we live in—appears obvious. Had the illustrated manuscript stayed complete, it would likely have sold for a just few million pounds; the sale of its separated folios increases its collective value tenfold—to over £50m. Wittingly or unwittingly, by its gutting and dispersal, this manuscript will prove to be a cash cow for all those involved in the sale.
I am following events closely because as an Islamic art historian, I have been on the trail of this manuscript for over 20 years now. It was probably made in Herat, in present-day Afghanistan, in the 1460s. Written in the Khwarazmian Turkish language and transcribed in the Uyghur script, the manuscript is a rare testament to Islamic religious literature produced in Turkic Central Asia. It would thus be of immense value to literary historians—who will not, now that it is split up, be able to properly study the work.
This cannibalised manuscript, which has over 60 lavish images, is one of only two of its kind in the world. The other manuscript, most likely made in Herat 30 years earlier in 1436, found its way to…