Treasured memories

Edward Gibbs talks about his work as head of Islamic art at Sotheby's, London.
Edward Gibbs, the director of the Middle East and India department at Sotheby's, London, at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi.
Edward Gibbs, the director of the Middle East and India department at Sotheby's, London, at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi.

Early in his career as a specialist in Islamic art, Edward Gibbs experienced one of those moments of thrilling excitement that only come with the discovery of a rare and beautiful piece of craftsmanship. A young man came into Sotheby's without an appointment, walked up to the valuation desk and produced a small object from his pocket that simply took Gibbs's breath away. "It was a day in April 2004 around midday and I had only worked for Sotheby's for six months. He pulled this beautiful dagger out of his pocket; it was about the same size as a paperknife with beautiful lapis lazuli set with a ruby, the blade decorated with gold inlay.

"At moments like that your hands tremble a little and you feel little flutters of the heart and beads of sweat on the brow. "It was an exceptionally rare Ottoman dagger from the reign of Sultan Suleyman and it had been in this man's family for as long as anyone can remember. They hadn't a clue what they had got but when somebody offered £5,000 (Dh28,000) for it they decided to have it valued. It was 16th century and I told him that I thought we could get rather more for it than that," he remembers.

The dagger realised more than £1 million against a pre-sale estimate of £50,000-£70,000, and needless to say the family was extremely happy, as was Gibbs, who is director and head of department, Middle East and India, Sotheby's London and, since joining Sotheby's in 2003, has acted as director of the Middle East department and worldwide head of Islamic art. "This sort of thing has happened to me a few times. The wonderful thing about working for Sotheby's is that I can sublimate my acquisitive instincts, find great things and put them in a catalogue and see them go to the market and find a good home. That's very rewarding."

Gibbs, who is in Abu Dhabi for meetings with Ameera Samy, the Sotheby's representative in the UAE, and to visit Art Dubai, has just been in Doha for the opening of an exhibition featuring the highlights from Sotheby's twice-yearly London sale of Arts of the Islamic World at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. The exhibition, which will be in London from April 9, is a showcase for an exceptional array of around 35 fine and rare works of art that will be available for collectors and connoisseurs to acquire at the Sotheby's London auction on Wednesday, April 14. It is estimated to fetch in excess of £4 million and will take place at the main sales room in New Bond Street.

On view will be manuscripts, ceramics, metalwork, weaponry, textiles and paintings from the rise of Islam in the seventh century through to the 19th century, representing artistic cultures from a broad geographical area stretching from north Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and Islamic Spain to south Asia. Sotheby's first sold Islamic art in 1755, starting with a sale of books and manuscripts that included Arabic manuscripts, among which there were Qurans.

One of the most exciting and precious items in the forthcoming sale is a 19th-century diamond and ruby-set gold anklet that was once worn by the maharaja of Morvi, north-west India. Gibbs's instinct is that it will be bought by a museum for a considerable sum. Consisting of 18 gold-wrapped twirling links, each encrusted with an oval finely cut diamond and four lateral cabochon rubies, the anklet is inscribed on the reverse in Devanagari (the Indian alphabet used to write Sanskrit, Hindi and many other languages) with the maker's name. Anklets such as this were worn by noblemen on the right foot as a sign of honour and status.

"It is really fantastic and too heavy to be worn as a bracelet. We have a photograph of the maharaja wearing it and he must have had a very finely turned ankle. I certainly can't get it on my ankle," says Gibbs. The anklet has a pre-sale estimate of between £300,000 and £500,000 but Gibbs explains that, as with most estimates, this is merely a starting price and the piece is likely to go for much more.

Another treasure up for sale is a man's bejewelled jade brooch from the 17th-century Mughal era, the best period for Mughal jewellery. "This is the period of Jehangir and Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal. They ruled in the early 17th century," says Gibbs. "It's a very beautiful piece, the property of an English nobleman. The little mutton-fat jade piece was made as an arm band originally, has a slightly waxy soapy colour and texture. It's the most highly priced jade and it's set with rubies, diamonds and emeralds and there's a beautiful little lion or tiger at the centre made up of stones; the body is a ruby and the eyes are emeralds.

"It's a courtly piece and it was taken to Paris in the 1920s and made into a brooch by Cartier. They were quite respectful of the stones, none of which was recut. The Mughal fashion was for uncut or cabochon stones. Many of the Indian gemsets like the Koh i Noor were later cut brilliantly, which reduces their size, but the Mughals valued the intrinsic qualities like weight and size. "The estimated catalogue price is £200,000-£300,000, but again this is likely to fetch many times that amount."

He adds: "When you are dealing with objects that are unique you have to price them sensibly to begin with in the hope that is just a starting point. There is also a reserve price." On the day of the sale, one of two Islamic art sales that Sotheby's holds every year in April and October, Gibbs will be sitting at the back of the sales room on the telephone to an overseas client who will be bidding from afar. As yet he does not know who it will be. "It could be anybody. It could be somebody who reads this article or somebody who has seen the catalogue," he says. "For the really rare items there are perhaps only about 10 interested parties, many of them museums. Between 100 and 200 interested buyers will be there in person. The auctioneer will be Lord Poltimore, the chairman for the Middle East."

Many of the buyers on the telephone prefer to be anonymous, he says - "We have a bank of telephone bidders with 10 to 15 Sotheby's people on the phone" - but some like to be in the room with a finger on the pulse. "The sale of the little jade brooch will be exciting because it really meets all the criteria: it's rare, it's beautiful and it has great provenance and it's a trophy for any collector or museum. We had some ladies at the Doha exhibition and they were very excited because they were allowed to try it on."

Another of Gibbs's "finds" was a rare carpet that had been rolled up in somebody's house since 1910, and once again, the owners did not know what they had in their possession. "We had a 'flying carpet' last October. It was one of those pieces that came from nowhere, undiscovered. Even the owner didn't know what it was." It turned out to be Safavid carpet. The Safavids ruled Persia in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Under their patronage some of the greatest art works were produced. The carpet was a gift from the Persian shah to the sultan of Turkey. It made £2.7 million, 20 times the predicted amount.

Yet another treasure that was in one of last year's sales was a fabulous piece of velvet with beautiful embroidery stitched in gold and silver thread. "It just walked in across the counter in Paris," Gibbs explains. "It belonged to a French couple and they had the idea to get it framed. They took it to a framer and someone they met offered them $25,000 (Dh92,000) for it. It's a velvet of the type that could have been used as a coverlet or a piece of clothing. The design is of two figures in a landscape, one with a dog and one with a hawk in a floral paradise.

According to Gibbs, a seasoned and informed collector will recognise the rarity and scarcity of something and know perhaps that there are only 10 of it in the world. "In our catalogues we produce very full descriptions of the objects with references to other examples in museums. In our guarantee line we would signal that something is rare or important." Part of Gibbs's job includes business-getting. He travels the world meeting clients and telling them about what's going to be in the next sale. Sometimes it might be by showing them photographs and sometimes they will see the actual piece in an exhibition like the recent one in Doha. He will also evaluate items for sale.

"I come here to service collectors and buyers rather than sellers. My business-getting would be North America and continental Europe and London, which is the centre of the Islamic art market, partly for historical reasons and partly because the main sale room for Sotheby's is in London." British colonial history, he says, means that the UK is quite rich in historical art works. "The collecting of Islamic art is quite an established tradition since the mid-19th century and earlier. Henry VIII of England had the greatest collection of Turkish carpets. Italian merchants travelled to Constantinople and Alexandria and the eastern Mediterranean ports and Damascus and would return with carpets, particularly Turkish carpets.

"You often find property and art works in the sales of country houses and estates. Most of it comes from valuations. They are completely random." Gibbs describes the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha as a "treasure store house in this part of the world". "It has a world class collection that has been formed over a relatively short space of time since the early-mid 1990s up to the present day. In that period, the ruling family of Qatar has been able to find and form a world-beating collection. It's not only an amazing collection but an astounding building. The interior design and display sets a new standard for museum display," he says.

Collectors in the Gulf region are interested in wide range of categories of materials including manuscripts, calligraphy, paintings on paper and on canvas, objects such as glass, metalwork, ceramic, ivory, wood, rock, crystal, jade, jewellery, arms and armour, textiles, carpets. Says Gibbs: "It's a very broad and comprehensive category and it also covers a very broad geographical and chronological range, geographically from Moorish Spain to Mughal India and from the seventh century to the 17th. There are very few artefacts from the seventh century but there are manuscripts from the eighth and ninth right up to the 19th century, and that results in a very rich selection and presentation of artefacts and art works in the sale. One of the reasons I'm drawn to Islamic art is that I'm attracted to lots of different material. I'm a butterfly. I love carpets and textiles and miniature paintings and my particular expertise is pottery, glass and metal work."

His personal interest in digging up buried treasure began as a child with buckets and spade on the beach on family holidays. Later as a schoolboy at Eton, the elite English school, he would spend hours at a Victorian rubbish dump in the grounds, rooting around for old bits of glass. "As a boy I was always digging. The Victorian dump at Eton was under the arches of a railway bridge and it's just full of pottery and glass. I used to find beautiful old blue and green bottles, very beautiful objects and I have a sizeable collection of antique Victorian bottles."

He went on to study archaeology at Cambridge, with part two in art history. In the late 1990s, when he was a young lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, he was part of the project to survey the islands around Abu Dhabi, working with Dr Mark Beech from Adach. He met his German-born wife Henriette on the trip and so has a particular fondness for the area. "We were lent a dhow by Sheikh Zayed and we pottered around and did a survey stopping at all the major islands. We surveyed Sir Bani Yas which at the time was Sheikh Zayed's island, also Maharawah Island, and we found extraordinary things. On Sir Bani Yas we found a sixth-century Nestorian monastery with moulded stucco work."

His quest to discover the treasures of the Islamic art world is today conducted in rather less physically demanding surroundings, in museums, private houses and luxury hotels, but Gibbs finds it as exciting as ever and looks forward to the day that he discovers an art work from the Fatimid Court. "The Fatimids were the Shia rulers of Egypt from 969 to 1171, and they presided over one of the most opulent courts of the Middle East. There are even contemporary records of the treasures that were in that court. Chroniclers actually numbered everything that was in the court at the time.

"It would be quite something to discover something like that."

Published: March 21, 2010 04:00 AM


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