The collectors who cut up a masterpiece

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 ethical

October 17, 2019
A cut-out folio from the Timurid ascension narrative dated to the 1460s on sale at Frieze Masters. Photo: Sameer Rahim
A cut-out folio from the Timurid ascension narrative dated to the 1460s on sale at Frieze Masters. Photo: Sameer Rahim

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 the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. Undivided, and properly preserved under the care of a public institution, the 1436 work almost certainly served as the model for the manuscript whose extracted folios are currently on the market.

While one may mourn the loss of the pictorial cycle in its splendid totality, perhaps some public institution with pockets as deep as the wealthiest private art collectors will acquire the folios. That’s what happened in 2012, when the David Collection in Copenhagen bought six folios from this dispersed manuscript. (The paintings in its possession represent Muhammad approaching a rooster angel, a multiheaded angel, the gates of paradise, and hell’s fiery gateway.) The museum has conserved these paintings, displays them regularly, and supports their scholarly study. We can only hope that the future custodians of the auctioned folios tend to them with as much care. But there is no guarantee.

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[/su_spoiler] The sordid practice of disassembling Islamic manuscripts has flourished for over a century. By the 1920s, the Belgian-born dealer Georges Demotte had taken apart a large section of a 14th-century Persian illustrated manuscript, a copy of Iran’s national epic the Shahnama (Book of Kings) written in the 10th/11th century, selling its precious paintings to passionate collectors. Demotte even split in half the folios bearing paintings on both sides of the page. Some of these cloven folios now display blank versos, while others were “completed” with newly written text pasted on their backs. This unscrupulous slash-and-fill process allowed the dealer to double his revenue.

Similarly, illustrations extracted from other Islamic manuscripts have been sold as autonomous paintings, divorced from their parent manuscripts. The celebrated rendering of the Shahnama of the 16th-century Persian ruler Shah Tahmasp, made in Tabriz (Iran) around 1525 CE, is a case in point. Its monumental gold-flecked folios are now displayed in museums as if they were “stand-alone” masterpieces, and not as integral parts of a larger whole.

Manuscript paintings on a less grand scale, including those from a so-called “small” Shahnama, dating from the early 14th century, were also sold one by one. Some were even augmented with “frames” of gold-painted and marbled papers. One such painting, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, underwent this decorative process during the early decades of the 20th century, under the direction of the dealer Nasli Heeramaneck. The added frames were intended to increase the painting’s value, both aesthetically and financially. More tactically, they also served to hide any damage caused by the process of disjoining the original manuscript.

Such suspect practices have pervaded the field of Islamic art. As a cautionary parallel, one need only look at Islamic ceramics, where there has been the cobbling together of unrelated fragments, the wholesale fabrication and filling in of missing pieces, and the liberal overpainting of missing areas of decoration. All for the demands of a largely European and American clientele.

Manuscripts likewise are not immune to a range of subterfuges. The early 20th-century Armenian dealer Kirkor Minassian was in the habit of “improving” his Islamic single-page paintings through the addition of calligraphy, illuminated panels and marbled, stencilled, and gold-flecked papers sourced from elsewhere. This miscellany of elements, drawn from works of art made in different times and places, make a precise attribution nearly impossible. This type of mishmash creates an ahistorical product that strips Islamic traditions of their temporal and geographic specificities. The resulting product is thus no longer a masterpiece, but rather a master-pastiche.

Such precious objects spur the production of outright forgeries. Indeed, a plethora of fake “premodern” Islamic paintings circulate on the market. In Istanbul, tourists can easily buy forged scientific illustrations in stores in the Grand Bazaar. These fakes use older (handwritten and printed) papers as support for contemporary depictions of dissected bodies, eyeballs, and extreme toothache.

This past summer, I came upon another suspect item in an Istanbul art gallery: an ascension painting that closely imitates the illustrations in the famous 15th-century Mi‘rajnamas. Priced at $5,000, this folio depicts Muhammad’s face covered by a white veil, a practice that did not become widespread until after 1500 CE. Here, the painter has altered an artistic tradition in order to align it with the flawed premise that Islamic cultures frown upon (or even ban) naturalistic representations of the Prophet. The end result: the painting parrots—yet also censures—an original composition, while the Quranic text bears no relationship to the image. And yet this concocted fantasy surely will sell, the buyer none the wiser.

So what now? Regrettably, legal action cannot be taken. Those who own manuscripts are permitted to sell them folio by folio as they please. But all who have a stake in preserving ethics in the art world should strive to make it anathema in the court of public opinion. I ask my colleagues and the public at large to entreat owners and dealers of Islamic art to resist the urge to capitalise on what has resulted from such destructive acts; interested buyers, too, should boycott such items. All parties should join forces to keep these artworks integral, intact and housed in public institutions.

Works of art should not be treated like cadavers suitable for dissection. It is high time for owners and dealers to grow a stronger moral backbone and remove their blades from the spines of manuscripts.