Rare Islamic ewer expected to fetch over $5 million

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - A 1,000-year-old carved rock crystal ewer, one of only seven known surviving examples, will be offered for auction next month at Christie’s Islamic art sale and is expected to fetch over 3 million pounds ($5.3 million).

The auctioneer said the ewer was made for the court of the Fatimid rulers of Cairo in the late 10th or early 11th century, and has been embellished in enameled gold mounts made in 1854 by a French silversmith.

The ewer is the same one that came up for auction in Britain in January this year and fetched 220,000 pounds, or more than one thousand times its pre-sale estimate.

It was catalogued then as a 19th century French claret jug and valued at 100-200 pounds, but experts said they believed it was in fact an extremely rare ewer from the Fatimid dynasty which ruled parts of northern Africa and the Middle East in the 10th-12th centuries.

Auction house sources said the January sale was later “annulled by agreement”, but gave no further details.

The ewer was carved from a single piece of flawless rock crystal which was hollowed out and carved by hand, and is decorated with cheetahs and link-chains.

According to Christie’s, by the middle of the 11th century the Fatimid state had become so impoverished that much of the contents of the Royal Treasury had to be sold, including the ewers.

Of the other six surviving examples, one is in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, two are in the treasury of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice, one is in the Cathedral of Fermo, Italy, another is in the Louvre in Paris and one was stolen from the Museum of Limoges, France, in 1980.

There was one other known ewer, but it was dropped by an employee of a museum in Florence in 1998 and shattered irreparably, according to reports.

Christie’s holds its sale of Islamic and Indian art on October 7 in London, and expects to raise more than 11 million pounds in all.

In April, rival auction house Sotheby’s sold a 12 century key to the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest site in Islam, for 9.2 million pounds, setting a new record for an Islamic work of art at auction.

The Abbasid period key, made of iron and measuring 37 cm long, sold for more than 18 times its pre-sale estimate.

Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato