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 removed from its country of origin. Was it removed illegally, stolen, or legally sold? Without a publicly known, traceable history, a purchaser can’t know. In other words, this spectacular Qur’an appears to have a “no-provenance” provenance or guarantee that it is what it purports to be.
Christie’s has an embarrassing history of a lack of transparency around provenance. Last month, Hobby Lobby filed a lawsuit against the auction house for the sale of a Gilgamesh tablet. According to the US government’s civil forfeiture complaint, Christie’s seems to have sold the tablet based on false provenance. And in mid-June it was reported they were forced to withdraw a group of Greek and Roman objects after evidence emerged they came from sites linked to convicted antiquities traffickers. Then again, the 29th June sale of Edo artifacts strongly suspected of having been improperly removed from Nigeria drew condemnation from academics and museum curators.
Christie’s also has a chequered history when it comes to handling certain Islamic objects, including their unapologetic sale of single pages from dismembered manuscripts last autumn. Even if a manuscript was broken up decades ago, today’s exorbitant profit margins for the sale of single folios still encourages the dismemberment of other manuscripts. Given the extraordinary beauty of this Qur’an and the history of slicing up manuscripts for monetary gain, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume this one, too, could reappear on the market in a few years’ time, possibly to be sold piecemeal.
In fact, we don’t need to assume: that’s what seems to have happened to another 15th-century Qur’an manuscript written on Ming-period coloured paper, 56 detached folios from which were sold by Christie’s in April and October 2008 for a total of nearly £380,000. The lure of high profits combined with the lack of transparency about provenance fuels a market where auctioneers, dealers and collectors are the drivers of the dismemberment of manuscripts.
Manuscripts often get less attention than other forms of endangered cultural heritage like archaeological sites. Derived from the Latin for “written by hand,” the word manuscript evokes the physical labour that scribes invest in the copying of texts. Manuscripts also contain evidence of historical techniques and practices—from the preparation of paper, inks, pigments, gold leaf, brushes, and pens to the design of page layouts, illustrations, decorations, and bindings—that shed crucial light on how, when, where and why these objects were made.
Patrons, subsequent owners, and other readers of manuscripts left their marks in the forms of seal impressions, scrawled annotations, marginal notations, and dog-eared pages. These and other traces of manuscripts’ use provide us with important information about shifting tenets and tastes as well as the astoundingly widespread circulation of manuscripts across time and space. Thus, an intact manuscript is not only a bearer of aesthetic beauty but also a carrier of history, and much like the looting of an archaeological site, the dismemberment of manuscripts for profit and the lack of complete provenance impedes our ability to reconstruct and interpret the past.
One might argue—as many auction houses and collectors do privately—that if provenance histories were fully revealed, it would lead to prohibitions on the sale of manuscripts like this one, causing a drop in market value. Yet Sotheby’s recently experimented with a transparent-title model to great success, showing that collectors are willing to pay a premium for objects they know have clean title and unambiguous provenance histories. Whether this experiment continues is unclear now that Sotheby’s has changed hands.
Museums, too, have increasingly instituted more transparent acquisition and curatorial practices. The Getty, after a series of embarrassing purchases of dubious provenance in the 1980s and 1990s, adopted one of the most transparent ethical codes in the museum world.
Today, as China imprisons nearly one million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps, this Qur’an illuminates a different era, when exchange and openness brought great advances in science, literature, and the arts. Yet that history can only be preserved by collectors, museums, and auction houses that have the courage to embrace sale and collection practices that facilitate that preservation, starting with full provenance histories.
There’s a market for open and transparent collecting and curatorial practice—one that auction houses could tap into, if only they had the will and the market acumen to read the tea leaves.