Tuesday, 24 February 2009 10:58
By Lucian Harris The Art Newspaper
Doubts over age and authenticity of £9.2m “Kaaba key” forces Sotheby’s u-turn
An iron key purportedly made in the 12th century for the door of the Holy Kaaba in Mecca—which became the most expensive Islamic work of art ever sold at auction when it made £9.2m at Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic World sale in London on 9 April 2008—was returned to its original owner and its sale cancelled after a group of museum experts who examined it expressed doubts over its age and authenticity. Despite delivering their report less than two months after the auction, Sotheby’s have not made the findings public nor the subsequent annulment of this record sale.
shortly after the auction, the 37cm-long key was taken to the British Museum where it was examined by Dr Venetia Porter, assistant keeper in the department of the Middle East, and other specialists including Tim Stanley, senior curator of the Asian Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and James Allen, former keeper of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. After two weeks they expressed serious doubts over its date and authenticity, resulting in the sale being annulled. While the auction house would not reveal the name of the vendor, it is rumoured in the trade to have been owned by an English dealer in Islamic art.
Following the auction, there was widespread press coverage of the record price, particularly in the Islamic world. The Kaaba in Mecca is the holiest Muslim shrine, visited every year by up to five million believers. The key to its door was described by the auction house as “arguably one of the most important symbols in Islam”. With only 58 others from any period known to exist, none in private hands, the significance of the sale was clear.
Approached at the end of January 2009 by The Art Newspaper following persistent rumours of the cancelled sale, Sotheby’s finally acknowledged: “In light of recent academic opinion that we received in late May and the consequent divergence of academic views, Sotheby’s and the consignor decided to cancel the sale pending further research and scientific analysis.”
Few people had been prepared for the breathtaking bidding war that erupted over the key when it appeared in the April sale. Two bidders drove the price higher and higher through the millions. When the hammer finally came at £9.2m, 18 times the pre-sale upper estimate of £500,000, it was in favour of Robin Start, a dealer of 19th-century paintings, including Orientalist works, from The Park Gallery in London. Mr Start declined to comment, but he was rumoured to have been bidding on behalf of a son of the Saudi ruler. The underbidder was Hayden William, author of a recent catalogue of enamels in the collection of Nasser Khalili. It is believed to have been a considerable time since Dr Khalili has added a major acquisition to his collection of Islamic art.
The price bid by Mr Start was nearly three times the previous record for an Islamic work: £3,631,500 paid by Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar at Christie’s, London, in 1997 for a mid-tenth century bronze fountainhead, from Spain or Italy.
Doubts about the key were rife from the start. Immediately after the auction a prominent Islamic art dealer contacted The Art Newspaper to say that he was certain the key was fake, detailing at length what he believed to be inconsistencies in the translation and wording of the Kufic inscription. On 19 April an article by Souren Melikian in the International Herald Tribune highlighted very similar points about the key.
The newspaper published a follow-up on 10 May, entitled “Sotheby’s disputes article”, reading: “In our article of April 19, the opinions expressed by Souren Melikian have been disputed by Sotheby’s. Sotheby’s has pointed out that the description of the Islamic art in its catalogue for its April 9 sale is supported by highly credible and extensive academic research and opinion which are not reflected in the article and are not consistent with Mr Melikian’s views.”
Considering the rarity of medieval Kaaba keys, only around 17 of which are known, further chords of doubt were struck when shortly after the auction The Art Newspaper was told of another purportedly medieval key being offered for sale in the Middle East. One dealer who saw it said that, unlike the Sotheby’s key, it was so clearly fake that “it did not bear a second look”. More recently a third key was reported to have appeared in the Gulf. More than anything, this sudden slew of keys has emphasised—with so many divergent opinions and the potentially astronomical price that an authenticated key might command—the need for progress in research on this small but exceedingly important group of religious artefacts.