Christie’s sold the most expensive Qur’an manuscript ever in June for £7m. But where did it come from?by Stephennie Mulder and Yael Rice / July 22, 2020 / Leave a comment
It’s not every day a rare and breathtaking art masterpiece comes up for sale. But on 25th June, Christie’s sold an exquisite 15th-century Qur’an manuscript that has few known peers. The final hammer price was £7m, the highest price ever paid for a Qur’an manuscript. What sets this manuscript apart is that its measured, delicate lines of Arabic calligraphy were limned on leaves of gold-flecked, coloured paper from Ming China. Likely created at the court of a Timurid prince in what is now Iran or Afghanistan, this Qur’an beckons across centuries to tell the tale of the rich history of diplomatic gift-giving and cultural exchange between the Persianate world and China.
The manuscript’s aesthetic properties stop the heart. Each of its 534 folios are dyed in rich hues of deep blue, turquoise, pink, purple, orange, green and cream—the kaleidoscopic variety meant to both honour God in all His infinite variety and evoke a pleasurable aesthetic response in the worshiper. The paper itself was made by a little-known process that infused lead white into the folios, resulting in a silky-soft and pliable page that would have enhanced the sensory experience of holding the Qur’an. Each page was further ornamented with gold, with many bearing shimmering images of trees and flowers in the sinuous Ming painting style.
There’s just one problem: the manuscript was sold without any publicly-stated authenticating provenance. An email to the Department of Islamic and Indian Art at Christie’s provided the information that it was “bought by the current vendor’s father in London in the 1980s.” Provenance—which refers to the ownership history of a work of art, ideally from the time of its creation to the present—is one of the only safeguards that buyers have to be sure an object’s ownership is undisputed. Transparency about provenance ensures that the purchase of an object is not in violation of domestic legislation adopted to implement the 1954 Hague Convention, an international treaty that called for the protection of cultural items in wartime, or the 1970 Unesco Convention, which banned the illicit trafficking of cultural property more broadly. Since this object apparently has no recorded provenance prior to the 1980s, we can’t know much, if anything, about the context in which it was…