By Arifa Akbar, Arts Correspondent
From to-day's Independent
When a seemingly unremarkable French claret jug was put up for sale last week at a provincial auction in Somerset, it was expected to fetch up to a couple of hundred pounds at best.
In fact it turned out to be one of the biggest bargains in auction history. The delicate ewer, it transpired, was not a French jug as billed in the auctioneer's catalogue, but one of the rarest treasures of medieval Egypt with a market value of £5m. Only five other such pitchers exist and one specialist dealer has described the Somerset find as the "Holy Grail" of Islamic art.
The extraordinary story, reported in The Art Newspaper today, began when the 11th-century ewer was put up for sale by Lawrences auctioneers of Crewkerne, who described it as a 19th-century claret jug adorned by mythological animals, birds, and vegetal motifs, and set with European silver gilt and enamel mounts, possibly of Austro-Hungarian origin.
The valuers failed to realise that it was among a handful of Fatimid rock crystal ewers, which are considered among the rarest and most valuable objects in the Islamic art world. The last one to surface on the market was bought by the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1862.
Expected to fetch around £100 to £200 in the Somerset sale, the jug eventually fetched the far higher sum of £220,000, with its anonymous seller doubtless marvelling at an apparently handsome profit. The identity of the buyer has also not been disclosed.
One specialist London dealer described the crystal ewer yesterday as the "Holy Grail" of Islamic art but said he himself had failed to correctly identify the pitcher from the small, indistinct photograph of a "claret jug" on the website of the auction house.
"I've spent my whole life hoping to find one," he said. "This may be the biggest sleeper ever to appear on the Islamic art market. It seems strange that it stopped at £220,000. There is no question in my mind that this is authentic. Fatimid rock crystal ewers are impossible to fake," he said.
Rock crystal artefacts in the Fatimid royal treasury in Cairo were looted by mutinous troops in the 11th century. Under Saladin, the Sunni Ayyubid ruler who conquered Egypt and deposed the Fatimid Caliphs, huge numbers of the treasures were destroyed. The ewers and similar vessels which did survive were thought to have been carried back to Europe by crusaders and ended up being used as reliquaries in churches.
There are around 180 rock crystal pieces known toexist in the world today, the majority of which are small items such as pendants and kohl bottles. A tiny bevel-carved rock crystal flask, which measured only 2.57cm high, sold at auction at Sotheby's last October for £558,100.
The six remaining narrow-necked ewers, of which this is one, represent a remarkable feat of hardstone carving, according to experts, sealing their exalted status in the Islamic arts world.
With the exception of the pitcher bought by the V&A, all the other ewers remain in ecclesiastical collections. The treasury of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice has two, one of which bears an inscription to the Fatimid Caliph al Aziz and is closest in style to the one sold last week. Another is in the Cathedral of Fermo in Italy, and another was in the treasury of the Abbey of Saint Denis in Paris but has since been transferred to the Louvre.
The one other known ewer was kept in Pitti Palace collection in Florence. On display in the Museo degli Argenti, in 1998 it was accidentally dropped by a museum employee, and it shattered.