800-year-old Kaaba key sold for 9.2 million pounds


London : A 800-year-old key to the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, sold for 9.2 million pounds late yesterday, setting a new record for an Islamic work of art at auction. The 12 century Abbasid period key, made of iron and measuring 37 cm long, sold at Sotheby’s in London for more than 18 times its pre-sale estimate and was bought anonymously. Its existence was previously unknown and prompted a bidding battle that took the price to more than 18 times the £400,000-£500,000 estimate in an auction of Islamic art, whose 405 lots sold for a total of £21.5 million.

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The key, one of the ultimate symbols of religious power, is engraved with the words: “This is what was made for the Holy House of God during the time of the Imam son of Imam Al Muqtadi Abu Ja’far al-Mustansir Abu’l-Abbas 573.” The key was formerly in a private collection in the Lebanon and dated from 1179-1180. It was bought anonymously and is the second-earliest of only 58 known examples. Others are in European and Middle Eastern museums. Most, 54, are in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, two are in the Nuhad Es-Said Collection, one is in the Louvre in Paris and one is in the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo.

Sotheby’s called the Kaaba key “arguably one of the most important symbols of Islam”.

According to the auctioneer, the tradition of dedicating the key to each caliph appears to have originated with the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad. “As a physical object — the key to the holiest building of an entire religion — it demonstrates the authority of the caliph and is the ultimate emblem of power,” Sotheby’s said. The key was the highlight of the auctioneer’s Islamic sale, which realized 21.5 million pounds, in excess of the pre-sale high estimate of 13.1 million pounds and a new record for an Islamic art auction. “Remarkably, the sale realized more than the Islamic department’s annual total in 2007, demonstrating beyond doubt the burgeoning and international demand for Islamic Art,” said Edward Gibbs, head of Sotheby’s Islamic art department.

The previous record for a work of Islamic art sold at auction is believed to be a bronze fountainhead in the form of a hind dating from mid-10th century Spain. It sold at Christie’s in 1997 for 3.6 million pounds. On Tuesday, Christie’s held its own London Islamic sale which fetched 11.8 million pounds, including a leaf from a mid-seventh century copy of the Holy Quran sold for 2.5 million pounds versus a pre-sale estimate of 100-150,000 pounds. It was a new world auction record for an Islamic manuscript, the company said. The leaf from a 7th-century copy of the Quran on vellum, probably from Madinah has set a new world auction record for any Islamic manuscript. Christie’s said the 36-centimeter vellum leaf was one of the earliest fragments of the Quran produced. The price paid by an anonymous collector, more than 20 times the lower estimate, was the highest for an Islamic manuscript at auction, said Christie’s.

The rarity was the highlight of a week of Islamic sales in London. Christie’s also took £11.8 million in an auction on Tuesday. “The number of international private buyers active at the top end of the market demonstrates the increasing strength in depth in the Islamic and Indian Art Worlds,” William Robinson, Christie’s international head of Islamic art, said after the auction in an e-mailed statement. Similar auctions of Islamic and Indian art by Sotheby’s this week will also test demand from collectors as credit losses mount.

Islamic and Indian art, with their historical and cultural connections, are traditionally regarded as a combined sale category by international auction houses. A 10th-century carved-marble capital from the royal palace of the Arab rulers of Spain at Medina Al-Zahra (Cordoba) sold to an anonymous buyer for 1.3 million pounds with fees, a record for an Islamic stone carving.

The sculpture had been put up for sale by The Lord’s New Church, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, where it had been hidden in a barn for more than a century. The estimate had been 50,000 pounds to 70,000 pounds.