Quran quietly sells for record $7m despite questions over its provenance

The 15th century Timurid or Aqquyunlu Qur'an on Chinese Paper in question Courtesy of Christie's

A 15th-century Persian Quran manuscript quietly made a big new auction record for an Islamic manuscript when it sold in June at Christies London for £7m (with fees), ten times the estimate and almost double the previous £3.7m record for a Quran, achieved at Christies London last year. Sources suggest that the Quran may be destined for Saudi Arabia, but Christies declined to comment.

The manuscript was probably created at the court of a Timurid prince in what is now Iran or Afghanistan, and contains 534 richly coloured, gold-flecked pages of Chinese paper covered in Arabic calligraphy. It was estimated to sell for between £600,000 and £900,000 at Christies Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds sale.

But Yael Rice, the assistant professor of art and the history of art and of Asian languages and civilisations at Amherst College, Massachusetts, and Stephennie Mulder, the associate professor of Islamic art and architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, say the manuscript has a “no provenance provenance” as its known ownership history only dates back to the 1980s.

They point to their email to the department of Islamic and Indian art at Christies, which provided the information that the Quran was bought by the current vendors father in London in the 1980s. “Transparency about provenance ensures that the purchase of an object is not in violation of the 1954 Hague Convention or the 1970 Unesco Convention,” Rice and Mulder say. “Since this object apparently has no provenance prior to the 1980s, we cant know anything about the context in which it was removed from its country of origin.”

It is not a legal requirement that an item of cultural heritage must have a provenance traceable back to before 1970, though it is desirable. In response to Rice and Mulder's claims, a Christies spokeswoman says the Quran manuscript has been in the same collection for 40 years: “As included in the catalogue notes, a number of additional pages of this manuscript were made in the 19th century, likely in Central Asia. The paper of the manuscript was made in China in the late 14th or early 15th century and most pages of the manuscript were written in Persia in the 15th century. Manuscripts have historically been very personal and portable objects, frequently travelling with people across borders through time.”

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