When rare book experts launch invective against each other, would you call that a book-burn? Annotations were flying this June, as scholars and bibliophiles engaged in civilized debate over the provenance of an extremely rare Qur’an slated for sale at Christie’s on June 25. The work, which was estimated to rake inbetween £600,000 and £900,000 (~$780,000-$1.2 million) subsequently sold for £7,016,250 (~$8.8 million). Aside from the beauty of the 15th-century Timurid Qur’an is the rarity of an edition copied on Ming Dynasty gold-painted colored paper — there are only four other similar Qur’ans written on Chinese paper.
While some chose to rhapsodize about the cache and exquisite stylings of the tome, others raised concerns about the provenance of such a rare and important item. Among them is Dr. Stephennie Mulder, an associate professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas – Austin and president of Middle East Medievalists, as well as Dr. Yael Rice of Amherst College, who specializes in art and architecture of Greater Iran and South Asia with a focus on 15th through 18th-century manuscripts. The pair offered coordinated critiques of the sale and Christie’s broader lack of in-depth interrogation on the sale of questionable items.
“What makes pieces like this Qur’an so important has to do, of course, with its inherent value in terms of age, aesthetic properties, and sumptuous materials — all of which are significant,” wrote Mulder in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “But this object has other kinds of value that also matter: its value as a historical object that can reveal the rich, interconnected pasts of the Islamic world with Asia, and its value as an object of spiritual significance for Muslims.”
“Perhaps the best parallel for this Qur’an is the Zeytun Gospels, a 13th c. Armenian gospel book which was severed in two during the Armenian Genocide,” she continued, citing the Twitter threads by herself and Rice about the sale. “The pages removed were the Canon Tables, which eventually made their way to the United States and were purchased by the Getty. In 2010, Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America filed a lawsuit against the Getty claiming ownership of the Canon Tables and arguing that their rightful place was with the mother manuscript, now held in the Matenadaran in Yerevan.”
“Beyond its aesthetic beauty (not to be discounted, especially because of its [effect] on worshipers), the manuscript holds signal importance as a document of transcultural exchange and openness,” Rice wrote to Hyperallergic. “The argument that arts’ value to collectors is what, in the end, has led to the preservation of many objects enters perilous territory. An object’s entrance into the art market necessitates its transformation into a commodity (see Appadurai et al.). This point also neglects to take into account that destruction and/or ‘deaccessioning’ is actually an integral part of some objects’ ‘natural’ lives.”
Prior to the sale, Rice and Mulder directed inquiries to the department of Islamic and Indian art at Christie’s, which provided the information that the Qur’an was bought by the current vendor’s father in London in the 1980s.
“Transparency about provenance ensures that the purchase of an object is not in violation of the 1954 Hague Convention or the 1970 Unesco Convention,” Rice and Mulder told the Art Newspaper. “Since this object apparently has no provenance prior to the 1980s, we can’t know anything about the context in which it was removed from its country of origin.”
Rice and Mulder have co-authored an op-ed for Prospect Magazine and continue to agitate for conversation about this sale and the overarching practices at auction house that prioritize dropping the hammer on sales rather than dropping the hammer on looters or art smugglers.
“It is certainly not laziness,” Mulder told Hyperallergic, with respect to questions of unclear provenance. “It’s clear that auction houses and their expert staff care about these objects. But right now, the auction house’s primary legal and fiduciary responsibility is to its consigners, not to the country of origin for this object or to the general public. We need to change that conversation: to make the argument that the choice to sell an object that has incomplete provenance is not just a financial choice, it’s a moral and ethical one.”