A Mesopotamian tablet was the earliest item in a London sale of just 61 lots that documented The History of Western Script.
Offered at Christie’s (25/20/13.5%) on July 10, they were mostly manuscript leaves or fragments from the vast collections assembled since 1955 by Dr Martin Schøyen.
Heir to a Norwegian shipping and transport business, he began collecting as a teenager and though initially focused on biblical and monastic manuscripts, his collecting later encompassed the history of writing and literary culture worldwide.
No fewer than 34 scholarly catalogues recording his acquisitions – said to number around 13,000 items – have been produced, but some things have made their way to auction.
Dated to the late Uruk period, c.3100-3000BC, the 3in (7.5cm) high clay tablet from southern Mesopotamia was the earliest item offered and features in proto-cuneiform, pictographic script an account of monthly rations. It was from this script that cuneiform evolved, the original pictographic signs becoming smaller, more abstract and composed in horizontal lines rather than vertical bands.
One of six in the Schøyen collection, it was part of a find of 77 such pictographic tablets (all in the same hand, it seems) that are now mostly in national museums – principally the Freie Universität in Berlin.
The world’s first writing system, said the cataloguer, emerged as a response to a bureaucratic need and was developed to monitor the administration of flourishing local economies of southern Iraq.
It might be viewed as a complex form of shorthand but, sadly, is today almost impossible to decipher.
Last seen at Christie’s in 1988, as part of the exceptional pictographic text archive of Professor Hans and Marie-Louise Erlenmeyer, the tablet sold this time for £50,000*.
Put a spell on you
‘Curse tablets’ were popular in the Graeco-Roman world. Often written on small lead sheets that were folded and placed at sites associated with the Underworld, they could be directed against one or more people, even at specific parts of the body.
Sold for £8500 was a curse directed at judicial opponents in a trial, with their tongues specifically targeted. Other common curses were those invoked by victims of theft, envious lovers, even rival athletes.
Recovered from an old binding, like so many other early manuscript finds, a faded, fragmented, holed and glue stained page was billed as the oldest western manuscript still in private hands.
The fragments emerged from a binding of a manuscript in the library of the Princes of Fürstenberg at Donaueschingen that could be traced back to the Benedictine Abbey of Reichenau on Lake Constance, among the richest libraries in Carolingian Europe.
A leaf from the Book of Ezekiel, it was once described by the bibliographical scholar and former head of the manuscript department at Sotheby’s, Christopher de Hamel, as “without qualification … a piece of the most important biblical manuscript one could ever conceive owning”.
The manuscript from which it came may have been written in a so far unidentified scriptorium in northern Italy in the 5th century, said Christie’s, and “…the marginalia shows that it was used liturgically, making it a testament to one of the earliest records of Christian worship”.
In a major 1982 Sotheby’s sale of just 20 manuscript lots from Donaueschingen it was bid to £16,000 by Quaritch – on behalf of Winsor T Savery of Houston, according to the recent Christie’s catalogue – though when it entered the Schøyen collections is not revealed.
This time out it made £170,000.
The £75,000 leaf
Billed as an exceptionally fine and large example of Romanesque decoration by either Norman or English scribes, a leaf from a late 11th-early 12th century manuscript of the Venerable Bede’s De tabernaculo made £75,000.
A list of chapters is framed by a large and decorative letter L on a leaf said to have been found within a book acquired in York in the 1940s by a chaplain of Bede College in Durham.
Large pendant seals of the key signatories remain attached to a finely written Letters Patent document of 1312 in which Simon of Ghent, Bishop of Salisbury, appropriates Lacock parish church for use by the nuns of Lacock Abbey.
A finely written and elegant example of English documentary script of the period, it was once part of the vast manuscript collections formed in the 19th century by Sir Thomas Phillipps and was seen at Sotheby’s in 1981 before entering the Schøyen collections. This time it sold at £26,000.
* The British Museum recently completed the official handover to Iraq of some 156 such tablets seized at Heathrow in 2013. They are thought to have been looted during the upheaval that followed the US invasion of the country in 2003 and later smuggled out of Iraq to the UAE.