LONDON - After a Christmas hiatus, what better way to salute the new cycle of annual sales than to celebrate Sotheby’s as the market leader – and history-maker – of the Islamic art world. This is hardly hyperbole when taken in the context of a recent dinner at Kateh restaurant hosted by collector and art patron Maryam Massoudi who brought together four heads of Sotheby’s Islamic sales dating back to the 1970s. Nabil Saidi, Marcus Fraser, Edward Gibbs and Benedict Carter traded stories over kebab and rice, followed by a palate-clearing faloudeh and strong cups of chai. It was a night to remember.


(LEFT TO RIGHT) ROXANE ZAND, EDWARD GIBBS, MARCUS FRASTER, BENEDICT CARTER, MARYAM MASSOUDI AND NABIL SAIDI.

Of course Islamic “sales” significantly pre-date a handful of decades; Sotheby’s first sold Qurans and manuscripts nearly three centuries ago – in 1755, as part of the Western & Oriental Books and Manuscripts category. Highly-prized manuscripts fetched astonishing prices by the standards of the time, and Nabil recalls with affection his tenure alongside Christopher de Hamel under the leadership of snuff-chugging Lord John Kerr in the Books department. Initially Islamic objects used to be categorised with tribal goods and antiquities, but in 1976 when London hosted the ground-breaking World of Islam Festival, the company resolved to appoint a head of sale and give recognition to the importance of Islamic art and history. Jack Franses and Alidad Mahloudji were at the vanguard of this initiative, being tasked to incorporate objects and carpets into an Islamic sale. These experts were succeeded in 1990 by Marcus Fraser who in 1997 amalgamated the sale of Manuscripts and Miniatures with Islamic and Indian objects, thereby establishing the Islamic and Indian department.


FARIDUN IN THE GUISE OF A DRAGON TESTS HIS SONS: ILLUSTRATED FOLIO (F.42) FROM THE SHAHNAMEH OF SHAH TAHMASP, ATTRIBUTED TO AQA MIRAK, PERSIA, TABRIZ, ROYAL ATELIER, CIRCA 1525–35. SOLD FOR £7,433,250 ON 6 APRIL, 2011.

While in the 1970s Qajar artefacts and paintings fetched prices that rivalled Impressionist works, records were set by the rare, great manuscripts – such as the Jama’al Tawarikh which sold for £850,000 hammer in July 1980 to a seasoned collector (and now held in the Khalili Collection). Maryam recalls the elegant auction style of the late 1960s, when her father, Senator Massoudi, would sit alongside other bidders (telephone bidding was yet to arrive) around a U-shaped table where connoisseurs rubbed shoulders with dealers. Everyone knew each other and the auctioneer would refer to all bidders by name. Now-legendary figures such as HH Sadruddin Aga Khan, Ed Binney, Stuart Carey Welch or HH Sheikh Nasser of Kuwait and even Iran’s Dr Jazaeri dominated the scene, each a scholar in his own right. Nabil recalls the then-relaxed security with which highly-prized works would be “hand-carried” to Sotheby’s – contrasting sharply with today’s ultra-careful handling and strict procedures. Nabil having witnessed an extremely large, rare 15th-century “Baysungur” page being used as a draught-excluder between two rooms in a dealer’s house, it would appear that the cavalier attitude was endemic!


A HIGHLY IMPORTANT MAMLUK ARMORIAL CANDLESTICK MADE FOR SAYF AL-DIN QUSHTUMUR, MAJOR-DOMO OF TUQUZTAMUR AL-HAMAWI, MAMLUK VICEROY OF EGYPT (1340-1) AND SYRIA (1342-5) AND FORMERLY IN THE COLLECTION OF RUDOLF, GRAF VON HOYOS-SPRINZENSTEIN (1821-1896) IN VIENNA. SOLD FOR £4,521,250ON 6 APRIL, 2011.

In fact, it was Sotheby’s that pioneered sales of modern and contemporary art from the Middle East on the international platform with the wonderful collection of Louay Kayyali, and the department was subsequently suitably re-named and headed by Edward Gibbs who now oversees the larger geography of MENA and South Asia.

I felt privileged to sit with such knowledgeable and experienced colleagues who hold between them a rich repository of historical information. Our past informs today’s successes, and gives Benny, our current Head of Sale, the impetus to steer Sotheby’s into the next decade – just as Senator Massoudi’s grandson Mohammed Afkhami is today continuing his family’s collecting legacy. One would not exist without the other as together they forge the history that preserves extraordinary objects for world heritage.


MAHMOUD MOKHTAR, EGYPTIAN ON THE BANKS OF THE NILE (NAHW MA'A ELNIL). SOLD FOR £317,000.