Following a confidential agreement between the parties involved, the Fatimid rock crystal ewer ‘sold’ for £220,000 at Lawrences of Crewkerne will reappear at Christie’s next month with an estimate of over £3m.
Remarkably, it has emerged that the original sale in Somerset
had been annulled after doubt emerged regarding the legitimacy of a
sale that the vendor, reportedly, had tried to stop as the bidding
It was back on January 17 that the silver-gilt and rock crystal
vessel left behind its estimate of just £100-200 to be knocked down
in the room at £220,000.
The Somerset auctioneers had believed it to be a French creation
from the late 19th century - a reference, no doubt, to the
elaborate 'silver-gilt' and enamel mounts (they are, in fact gold
with silver gilt elements) and the fitted case that carries the
name of the Paris jewellers Morel à Sèvres.
However, two competing parties in the room were speculating that
the rock crystal body cut with foliage and chained cheetahs bore
comparison in form and decoration to ewers made c.1000 for the
treasury of the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt.
But this was not the full story: ATG understands that there was
some consternation as bidding rose well above the estimate and
showed no sign of abating.
A high-profile trade source has claimed that the vendor, who was
in the room, became alarmed, stood up and asked that the auctioneer
stop the bidding and withdraw the lot from sale. The auctioneer
reportedly refused the request and the lot was eventually knocked
down for £220,000 amidst speculation that the item was worth well
in excess of £1m.
Had proper title passed?
With this incident in mind, ATG put the scenario to specialist
lawyer Milton Silverman of Streathers to establish what the legal
position might be for a situation not covered by an auctioneer's
Conditions of Business. In his regular legal column, on page 90 of
the printed weekly newspaper ATG, June 14, he concluded that,
should the matter go to trial, the court would have to rely on
general auction and contract law and there would be two competing
He wrote: "In auction law, the bid is the offer, which it is
then up to the auctioneer to accept. If this is so, then the
auctioneer is in control, and could therefore be in trouble if he
does not follow his (or her) consignor's instructions to withdraw
"However, there is a separate 'offer' by the auctioneer to
bidders that the highest bid wins the day, and the way that this
'offer' is accepted, causing a contract to be made, is by that
highest bid. If this is the case, and a contract is formed on the
bid, then of course the auctioneer cannot withdraw the lot after
the bid, otherwise he will be in breach of contract."
Lawrences are now tied by a confidentiality agreement and cannot
discuss the case, but in light of Mr Silverman's conclusions, it
has been suggested that the vendor and winning bidder, made aware
of the legal grey areas and given the potential value of the ewer,
decided to come to a mutually beneficial financial arrangement,
with the agreement of Lawrences.
What is clear is that the sale was subsequently made void, with
the ewer being returned to the original vendor.
Christie's were approached in June to arrange a new sale by
which time Lawrences' vendor had re-established full title to the
Islamic art expert at Christie's William Robinson said the
'buyer' at Lawrences no longer has a financial interest in the
Mr Robinson and Anthony Phillips from the silver department have
together researched the ewer and its Islamic-inspired Morel
Their catalogue description will reproduce a letter from
Jean-Valentin Morel, dated October 1854, discussing the mounting of
the "crystal mauresque" at a cost of 4500 francs. The document was
discovered in the family archives of the owner: the English family
name is blurred, to keep ownership confidential.
Christie's describe the Fatimid ewer, which they date to the
late 10th or early 11th century, as "one of the rarest and most
desirable works of art from the Islamic world". Only seven fully
carved surviving examples are known and this is the first and only
one to be offered on the open market.
At the Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds at King Street on
October 7, it is estimated to realise in excess of £3m.
Mr Robinson dismissed reports that the ewer was available to a
British public institution at £5m.
By Roland Arkell
more information about carved rock crystal ewers made for the court
of the Fatimid, click here.