Arts of the Islamic World & India including Fine Rugs and Carpets

Arts of the Islamic World & India including Fine Rugs and Carpets

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 51. A double-sided folio from the Tarikh-i-Alfi, The History of a Thousand [Years]: Events during the reign of Harun al-Rashid, India, Imperial Mughal, circa 1590.

A double-sided folio from the Tarikh-i-Alfi, The History of a Thousand [Years]: Events during the reign of Harun al-Rashid, India, Imperial Mughal, circa 1590

Auction Closed

October 26, 12:30 PM GMT


250,000 - 350,000 GBP

Lot Details


gouache heightened with gold on paper

painting: 41.9 by 21.3cm.

leaf: 42.3 by 25cm.

Nasli (1902-1971) & Alice Heeramaneck, New York.

Dr Claus Virch (1927-2012), New York.

Claus Virch grew up in Germany but later travelled to California before transferring to New York to become a curator of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1957-70, writing a number of articles across a range of genres. Later, Virch established an art fund called Art Associates Partnership with his friend Christian Humann and other backers. Dr Pratapaditya Pal met Claus Virch when he accompanied him and Humann on a visit to Alice Heeramaneck after her husband Nasli’s death. Some of the paintings acquired on the visit, almost certainly including the present folio, became part of Humann’s famous Pan Asian Collection, while others went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. After Humann’s death Virch became the Chairman and President of the Christian Humann Fund, providing support to the Met and other museums for a variety of projects.

M. Beach, The Imperial Image, Paintings from the Mughal Court, Washington D.C., 2012, p.80.

This exceedingly rare double-sided folio is from a remarkable if mostly lost Akbari manuscript whose history is as colourful as the paintings it contains. Called the Tarikh-i-Alfi or History of a Thousand (Years) the book was commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1582, in anticipation of the completion of a thousand years of the Hijri era, and it gives an account of the historical caliphs and Muslim kings who followed after the Prophet’s lifetime. As the first among the sequence of the great Mughal illustrated histories (stretching through to the Akbarnamas), the Tarikh-i-Alfi is extraordinarily important, and the present folio represents almost certainly the last opportunity to acquire a leaf from this outstanding manuscript, with all other known folios housed in permanent collections.

Historical context

The belief that something momentous would happen in 1000 AH was rife in the Muslim world. As the millennium approached, many thought Islam might be replaced by a new religion with the arrival of a new mahdi or prophet. However, both Mughal and Safavid monarchs were not above hinting that they were the awaited One and they styled themselves as saintly kings in possession of both worldly and otherworldly powers (A. Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam, New York, 2012).

After considerable upheaval in the slow progress of the writing of the Tarikh-i-Alfi, as ordered by Akbar, the text was edited and compiled in 1594, with Abul Faz’l claiming he wrote an introduction for it, though none of the extant manuscripts contain this introduction. A few years earlier, the kitabkhana had begun work on a presentation copy for the emperor with fine nasta’liq calligraphy and illustrations, of which the present folio is one of few surviving folios.

The surviving leaves are circa forty-two by twenty-five centimetres, giving the book an exceptionally large format; it is smaller only than the Hamzanama and is similar in scale to another prestigious historical manuscript, the Tarikh-i-Khandan-i-Timurriya in the Khuda Baksh Library in Patna. Clearly, it was meant to be a weighty, substantial tome. Some of the Tarikh’s illustrations bear attributions to imperial artists such as Surdas and his son Shankar Gujarati, Sarwan, and Tiriyya, all of whom are known to have worked on the Darabnama and Baburnamas which were prestigious projects assigned to well-regarded artists. Some unattributed pages are assigned by scholars to artists of the first rank such as Basavan, Kesavdas and Lal (Percy Brown, ‘An Illustrated History of the Moslem World Written for the “Great Mogul”’, Parnassus , vol.4, no.2, Feb. 1932, p.29).

We can only rue what has been lost from the twenty-six illustrated pages that are known to survive from this mammoth project of the imperial atelier today. The majority of these pages relate to the third century AH/ninth century AD and include episodes from the reigns of the fifth Abbasid Caliph al-Muttawakil to the tenth and eleventh Abbasid Caliphs, the famous Harun al-Rashid and his son Ma’mun.

The present folio

Recto: events in the year in the years 800-3 and 806; Yahya ibn Barmaki rewarding a petitioning poet.

Verso: events in the year 806-9; Harun al-Rashid enthroned with courtiers and counsellors.

The text repeatedly states the source of these narratives as the Tarikh al-Shami of Ibn Kathir (d.1373).

The upper part of the recto discusses events relating to Yahya ibn Khalid al-Barmaki, the powerful vizier who dominated Abbasid politics in the late eighth century during the reign of Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809). The text describes an occasion when a poet petitioned Yahya, and after complaining that the reward was too low, Yahya invited the poet to his house and rewarded him with 16,000 dinars. In the illustration, the bearded Yahya kneels opposite the petitioning poet and between them lies a tray of gold dinars, with a courtier bringing another. The buildings are carved pink sandstone and could be in Mughal Sikri or Lahore, but the artist tries to transport them to Baghdad by painting spiky desert plants and palm trees in the landscape outside.

The event described and depicted here must be prior to 187 AH/803 AD, as this was the year that Yahya ibn Barmaki and his family fell from grace.

The lower part of the recto narrates events of the year 191 AH/November 806 to November 807 AD, firstly mentioning Tharwan ibn Sayf, a leader who raised a rebellion in central Iraq (described in the text as Arab Iraq in the standard terminology of Persianate texts), and also mentioning Tawq ibn Malik, who was the Abbasid commander sent by Harun al-Rashid to put down the rebellion.

The text on the verso begins with a continuation of the discussion of Yazid ibn Makhlad’s campaigns in Asia Minor and Cyprus against the Byzantines, as a result of which great riches flowed into Baghdad. The final line of the upper part of the verso relates that Fadl ibn Sahl (tutor and later vizier to the Caliph al-Ma’mun) converted to Islam, which, according to al-Tabari, occurred in late 190 AH/summer 806 AD (see C.E. Bosworth (tr.), The History of al-Tabari, vol.XXX, The Abbasid Caliphate in Equilibrium, Albany, 1989, p.261).

In the painting, a man seated on a low throne – probably Ma’mun – eagerly leans forward as he engages in an intense discussion with the other man – probably Fadl – who sits respectfully at his feet. Ma’mun’s piety is signalled by the open book on his lap, probably the Holy Qu’ran, and the rosary looped around his cummerbund. Perhaps the disappointed-looking group framed by the doorway on the right, one of whom turns his back towards us as though wishing to escape our gaze, are Fadl’s fellow Zoroastrians who are less than enthused at this turn of events.

The lower part of the verso text concerns events relating to rebellions in Iran that occurred between 191 and 193 AH/806-9 AD, including the uprising in Khurasan, Gilan and Azerbaijan.

It seems that the scribes working on this text expected the artists to slip modestly sized illustrations into the gaps left between text boxes on select pages. The broad margins were meant to be left bare, as witnessed by other earlier illustrated manuscripts produced in pre-Safavid Iran. Indeed, if we look closely at the text panel from the scene of Ma’mun and Fadl, we can see the planners of the page had drawn vertical rulings to contain the image within the limits of the text box; the artist contravened this border and turned the vertical ruling into a pillar that supports the room. On the recto, small patches of aquamarine have flaked away from the carpet, revealing the golden ruling that underlies it and that was again supposed to confine the painting within a narrow box. Instead of accepting the small intervals between the words that were allotted to them however, the ambitious painters have commandeered every inch available on the page. How could the distinguished artists who worked on this project not want to break out of the bounds within which the scribes planned to confine them? Their imaginations could hardly remain caged within these tiny slivers of space, and as we have seen, they introduced paintings even on pages where no space was left for them. As the paintings wind above, around and between the text panels, they turn the page into a dynamic visual field that seethes with energy.

Surviving folios

The Calcutta-based lawyer and collector Ajit Ghose is credited with ‘discovering’ a cache of pages from the presentation copy of the Tarikh sometime in the late 1920s though he has left no account of his source. At least four of his pages were lent to the 1931 Exhibition of the Art of India organised by the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London.

According to Milo Beach (The Imperial Image, Paintings from the Mughal Court, Washington D.C., 2012, p.77-80) only twenty-six pages from this important imperial illustrated manuscript are known to survive. However, it is not clear if twenty-six separate leaves or illustrations is meant by this, as several of the surviving folios have illustrations on both sides. There are four folios in the National Museum of Asian Art, Washington, each with a single illustration (ibid, pp.78-9). Beach lists fourteen other folios, five of which are double-sided, giving nineteen illustrations (ibid, p.80). Therefore the total number of illustrations mentioned by Beach is twenty-three. The present folio is the first of the dispersed pages listed by Beach (p.80). He describes it correctly as relating to the reign of Harun al-Rashid and mentions the previous provenance of Nasli Heeramaneck (d.1971).

There are also two recently published dispersed folios that Beach did not list. One is the recently discovered double-sided folio in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (PD.44-1949, see Marcus Fraser, From Kabul to Kolkata, Highlights of Indian Painting in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2017, pp.18-19, no.3); the other is a folio with a single illustration in the Bruschettini Foundation for Islamic and Asian Art (see C-P Haase, ‘The Arts of the Book: Visions of Power and Emotion’, in F.C. Philip, Arts of the East, Highlights of Islamic Art from the Bruschettini Collection, Toronto and Munich, 2017, pp.104-7, no.19), and the third is a single-sided folio now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2021.47, see MMA website and J. Losty, Of Royal Patronage, Indian Paintings from the 16th to 19th Centuries, Carlton Rochell Asian Art, New York, 2020, pp.16-17, no.4).

With these three additional folios providing four illustrations, our own count comes to twenty-seven illustrations carried on twenty-one folios. Nineteen of these are in museum collections, leaving two in private hands: one in the Bruschettini Foundation and the present lot.


The dispersed folios in museum collections are as follows: National Museum of Asian Art, Washington D.C. (four folios); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (two folios, one double-sided); Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (one folio, double-sided); National Museum, New Delhi (two folios); British Museum, London (one folio); Cleveland Museum of Art (one folio, double-sided); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (one folio); Asia Society Museum, New York (one folio); Art Institute of Chicago (one folio); Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (one folio, double-sided); Seattle Art Museum (one folio); San Diego Museum of Art (one folio); Worcester Art Museum (one folio); Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (one folio). 

For discussions of the Tarikh-i Alfi and illustrations of surviving folios see M. Beach, The Imperial Image, Paintings from the Mughal Court, Washington D.C., 2012, p.77-80; M. Fraser, From Kabul to Kolkata, Highlights of Indian Painting in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2017, pp.18-19, no.3; S. Rhie Quintanilla with M. Fraser, The Mughals of India: A History in Paintings, London and Cleveland, 2016, pp.201-5; J. Cummins, Indian Painting, from Cave Temples to the Colonial Period, Boston, 2006, pp.48-9, pl.18; P. Pal, Indian Painting, Volume 1, 1000-1700; A Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Los Angeles, 1993, no.56, pp.224-7; L. Leach, Indian Miniature Paintings and Drawing. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1986, pp.53-58; L. Leach, In the Image of Man, London, 1982, p.167 cat.248; R. Pinder-Wilson, Paintings from the Muslim Courts of India, London, 1976, no.53; J. Losty, Of Royal Patronage, Indian Paintings from the 16th to 19th Centuries, Carlton Rochell Asian Art, New York, 202, 4, pp.16-17; E. Binney III, Indian Miniature Painting from the Collection of Edwin Binney III. The Mughal and Deccani Schools, Portland, 1973, p.38 cat.16; The Arts of India and Nepal: The Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1966, pp.141-2.

Sotheby's is indebted to Dr Kavita Singh and Marcus Fraser for the preparation of this catalogue note.