The signature reads: M... [ib]n Ahmad Samarqandi fi muharram sanat sittmi'a ......
This undoubtedly refers to the artist, whose first name is unfortunately obscured by corrosion, although the first letter is almost certainly an M. A pottery mould and two vessels of about the same period give the name of the artist as "Ahmad Samarqandi", who is thus presumably the father of this silversmith, (see the discussion of the one in the Al-Sabah collection in Oliver Watson, Ceramics from Islamic Lands, London, 2004, pp.136 and 138).
Combinations of the decorative techniques used in this piece - silver worked in repoussé with gilded highlights and a black nielloed inlay - were used in Iranian metalwork from at least Sassanian times. The Eastern Iranian world in particular had a highly developed silver sheet metal industry, but most surviving examples from this period of the 10th to early 13th century are either small items of jewellery, of which there are many examples, horse harness fittings (Bonhams, London, 11 October 2000 lot 544), or amulet cases and pendants (Kjeld von Folsach, Art from the World of Islam in the David Collection, Copenhagen 2001, p.300, figs.463-66). Rare examples of larger items are a hoard of eleven pieces comprising three bowls, two saucers, a ewer, a vase, a jar, a cup and a dish in the L.A. Mayer Memorial Museum in Jerusalem (R.W. Ferrier, The Arts of Persia, New Haven and London, 1989, p.171, illustrated p.174, fig.5), and some in Russian collections (V. P.Darkevitch, Southern Metal Artefacts, Moscow, 1976 - in the original Russian). The decoration on the present piece, however, is quite different from any of those examples. Unlike them it fills a relatively large, flat, and rectangular space.
The decorative scheme of the plaque is highly unusual, composed of a repeated pattern of subtly integrated vegetal and figural elements forming a lattice of two overlapping tri-lobate arcades. There are two registers of figures, the lower one of pairs of confronted lions, which are apparently winged, the upper tier with frontal crowned human figures seated upon short thrones. The figure on the furthest left is seated in profile (this being the end of the plaque; the right end is missing). Issuing from the head of the each lion is a long projection, which become the sides of a series of tri-lobate arches. Issuing from the tails of each pair of lions is a fleur-de-lys which in turn issues a pair of large split-palmettes, the ends of which are held in each hand of a crowned figure. The head of each of these figures becomes the apex of another series of tri-lobate arches, approximately twice the width of the first.
A very similar kind of geometry is seen on the carved stone slabs from the 12th century palace of Mas'ud III at Ghazni, where a similarly dense repeated lattice is formed by overlapping tri-lobate arcades, with one set of arches of double width, and a corresponding use of minor elements, fleurs-de-lys and split-palmettes, as space-fillers (Alessio Bombaci, The Kufic Inscription in Persian Verses in the Court of the Royal Palace of Mas'ud at Ghazni, Rome, 1966, pls. XI, XII, figs. 141-3). Along with the name of the artist, these features strongly suggest an Eastern Iranian or Central Asian provenance for this plaque.
This is supported by one of the very few items that closely relates to the present panel, a parcel gilt and niello dagger handle in the Furusiyya Art Foundation Collection that was recently exhibited in Paris (Bashir Mohammed, The Arts of the Muslim Knight, Milan, 2007, no.144, p.151 and also p.140). The entire handle is formed by a single human figure modelled in three dimensions. The technique used is almost identical and the features very similar, particularly the scrolling vine leaves set against a niello ground. The author suggests that the dagger handle is of Afghan origin dating from the tenth or eleventh century.
There is an ambiguous relationship in the present panel between the vegetal and figural elements. What seem to be the wings of the lion could equally be split-palmettes which support the thrones of the royal figures, while at the same time forming the apex of another arcade of tri-lobate elements. This tendency could explain one of the most idiosyncratic elements in the whole composition, the royal figures clutching at the large and oddly-shaped split-palmettes. A possible clue is given by the bifurcate endings of these vegetal features, which resemble fishes' tails, and the relation of the seated figure to a curious winged personage which appears on a medallion below the handle of a twelfth century ewer in the Cleveland Museum, discussed by D.S. Rice. That character is also seated cross-legged and frontally, and holds in his outstretched hands a pair of fish. So too does another in the ornamental headpiece of a fifteenth-century Persian anthology in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where the fish quite clearly become part of the vegetal arabesque lattice within which the figure sits (D. S. Rice, 'Inlaid Brasses from the Workshop of Ahmad Al-Dhaki Al-Mawsili', Ars Orientalis, Vol. 2, 1957, pp.283-326, see p.291, figs.6, 7a, 7b). These figures appear to be based on the Zodiac sign Pisces, often depicted as a frontal seated man holding two fish. A twelfth-century bronze door boss from Khorassan, sold in these rooms 15 October lot 196 with repoussé decoration depicting the Zodiac cycle, offers a roughly contemporary comparison. However, as Rice demonstrates, this motif was often transferred to places out of its context and thus transformed.
Shortly before the production of this plaque, at some time in the twelfth century, the Eastern Iranian region appears to have experienced an acute silver shortage. Metalworkers instead turned to brass, with inlaid designs in silver and copper (Ferrier (ed.), op cit, p.177-78). Compared to this metalwork of a slightly later period, the technique and decoration of the present plaque piece seem at first slightly archaic. The repoussé method, when used on the sheet silver, encourages a sculptural treatment of figures and ornament, which is clearly related to Sassanian types, and is quite absent from the inlaid brass pieces of the thirteenth century onwards. On those, made from a material rather less ductile than silver, the decorative emphasis shifts further towards surface pattern and away from the plastic form so prevalent in pre-Mongol times.