A page from the 16th-century Persian manuscript, Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp (1525-35), also known as the Book of Kings, is among several modern and contemporary masterworks from the Middle East and India on show at the latest exhibition at Sotheby’s Dubai.
The works span several categories, including fine art, jewellery, literature and historical pieces, stretching back more than 1,000 years to the present day. “It’s possibly one of our most expansive auction collecting categories,” Benedict Carter of Sotheby’s Dubai, tells The National.
“The works of art include everything from early Kufic Quran manuscripts to later separative 19th-century optimal works of art and everything in between, from North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and India.”
Conceptual Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem’s Soundless (2017) greets guests walking into the gallery in the Dubai International Financial Centre.
The series of eight works on paper, in blue, green, purple and red, document Kazem’s exploration of natural light, movement and sound at particular moments in the day. They reveal Kazem’s ability to capture intangible elements and experiences.
Nearby is Jamil Molaeb’s Jerusalem (2020), in which the Lebanese artist created a series dedicated to the city that may seem identical, but vary in colours and detail.
In this version, Molaeb depicts the city’s urban dynamism, people, animals and architecture in a flattened, homogeneous space, highlighting certain elements with a strategic use of colour against a stark blue. This charming work evokes both Jerusalem’s multicultural, harmonious past and the city’s current harrowing state.
But it’s the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp that’s the highlight.
The manuscript, which today is valued at £6 million, was commissioned by the emperor Shah Ismail who sought to illustrate the Shahnameh, an epic poem which details the history of Persia’s rulers, written by the poet Ferdowsi between 977 and 1010.
Art historian and scholar William Dalrymple, who has consulted for Sotheby’s, says the work is as “crucial and foundational” for Iranians now as it was for the Persians of the time.
“It not only preserves their memories, history and folklore, but even the highest form of their language,” he says.
The manuscript took almost two decades to complete by artists in the royal atelier, with the patronage being inherited by Shah Ismail’s son and successor, Shah Tahmasp, who was only a child at the time of his ascension. The page showcased at Sotheby’s Dubai is attributed to Mirza Ali, one of the second generation of artists who worked on the manuscript and son of Sultan Muhammad, one of the greatest Persian painters of the time who also worked on it.
“This is certainly the Persian equivalent of the Mona Lisa,” adds Dalrymple. “There is nothing else like it. Art historians are wary of donning out superlatives and saying something is ‘unique’ or ‘the greatest’. But oddly, and wonderfully, there is no dispute about this. This is the greatest masterpiece of Persian painting and it’s now up for sale.”
The page illustrates one of the stories of Rustam, a mythological hero. It shows Rustam standing in the foreground, dressed in his tiger vestment and leopard helmet with a high plume. He’s pulling out his lasso in an attempt to recapture his missing steed, Rakhsh, who has joined a herd of wild horses. In the middle ground, two astonished figures crouch on a rocky landscape, surrounded by trees, flowers and birds observing the scene from a distance.
“This page represents the peak of artistic production in Iran,” says Edward Gibbs, chairman of Sotheby’s Middle East and India.
“It also represents a peak of book illustration, in any tradition. The subject is appealing to all ages. The patron was himself a child, so there are childlike elements to the way that the painting is depicted, which appeals to the younger generation of viewers.”
The page is engaging, continuously drawing in guests with one surprising discovery after another. This is because of the striking amount of ornamental detail, thoughtful embellishments and combination of stylised and naturalistic representations of the figures and the natural world.
From irises along the banks of a stream, a foal suckling from its mother, partridges perched on rocks, little cheepers (partridge chicks) in their nest on a high branch, smoky, wisp-like clouds, varying poses and expressions of the horses and figures — the glory of this page is not only in the exquisite details of nature but also in the attention given to illustrate the ornate clothes of Rustam himself.
This includes the illustration on Rustam’s quiver that holds his arrows, the buckle of his belt encrusted with turquoise stones, and the metal mount on the scabbard of his sword, set with rubies and turquoise.
“Miniature painting is well known to scholars and specialists but is less known by the general public,” says Gibbs.
“This is a unique opportunity to see one of the great masterpieces of Persian book art and indeed, one of the great masterpieces of world book art, a museum quality piece, which appears on the market once in a decade.”