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Of ovoid form with pierced hinged cover, supported on a trumpet base with very narrow delicate stem, three scrolling arms supporting the sides, all resting on a circular dish, the cover pierced and engraved with a very fine design of scrolling vine around paired cypress trees alternating with roundels containing similar flowering vine, arabesque interlace and floral borders above and below, the base engraved with elegant scrolling saz leaves linking cusped medallions, some gilding rubbed, small restoration at hinge, finial broken
9¼in. (23.5cm.) high
Anon sale in these Rooms, 7 October 2008, lot 433
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VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 20% on the buyer's premium.

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Sara Plumbly
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Lot Essay

Incense burners, called buhurdan in Ottoman sources, were used in both in residences and in pious spaces, mosques and especially mausolea. Estate inventories from seventeenth-century Constantinople and Edirne indicate that buhurdan designed for residential use came in several sizes; they were most often listed in tandem with rosewater sprinklers (gulab or gulabdan), perhaps because of their similar role in the more elegant rituals of daily life. Manuscript paintings from the late sixteenth century depicting craft guilds and their products suggest that the same group of workers made both types of vessels, as well as candlesticks. The location of their workshop in Constantinople is not known, but it may have been near or attached to one of gold wire-making and gilding workshops (simkehane), which sources indicate were located in the vicinity of the Çorlulu Ali Pasha Mosque and the Binbirdirek Cisterns in the old city. The artisans there worked with other alloys of copper, brass and silver, as well as made a diversity of sizes and shapes, as indicated by the list of market prices published by the Ottoman authorities in 1640.

This buhurdan, which uses cypress trees as a main motif around the cylinder, may indeed have been intended for use in a mausoleum. Cypress trees have specific-though not exclusive-connotations of death and the afterlife, which is often described as a garden; graveyards in mosque precincts and around mausolea, especially in Istanbul, are often planted with cypress trees. One of the most striking of all Ottoman buhurdans, which takes the form of a slender single cypress, comes from the tomb of Sultan Ahmed I (r. 1603-17) (TIEM no. 18). According to Nina Ergin, incense burners were sometimes bequeathed to a mausoleum by a person close to the deceased; several buhurdans at the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum in Istanbul carry inscriptions from their donors.

The format of this incense burner-an ovoid body perched atop three slender legs-is particular to the Ottoman period. It marks a departure from the squat medieval type, which often uses three sturdy legs to support a cylindrical body and rarely includes a base. Mehmet Aga-Oglu points to a change in aesthetic in the first part of the fifteenth century, based on a depiction of an cylindrical-bodied incense burner supported by four arches atop gold base, as seen in a Timurid Mir'ajname of 1436 (Bibliothèque National de France, Suppl. Turc 190, folio 3a). This general form may well have Chinese antecedents, as shown by a very early incense burner in the collections at the Victoria & Albert Museum (ca. 25-200 CE, M.375&A-1910).

This buhurdan marks a further refinement of both form and decoration, as well the crystallisation of the Ottoman filigree style. While openwork is common to many of the type, this buhurdan is alone in the variation in its repertoire: two bands of rumi scrollwork with cartouches enclose another band of similar scrollwork punctuated by mandorlas and another main band of medallions enclosing lotus-blossoms interspersed with cypresses. It finds a parallel in an incense burner which uses rumi scrollwork placed in bands as well as pointed medallions centred around lotus blossoms (sold Sotheby's, London, 3 October 2012, lot 242). An extremely close comparable is in the Khalili Collection, originally sold in these Rooms, 10 October 1989, lot 357, So similar are they that they may have been made as a pair and almost certainly in the same workshop (MTW849). That example however lacks the three legs that are retained here. The catalogue entry in Empire of the Sultans. Ottoman Art from the Collection of Nasser D. Khalili, notes a similar example in the Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf, dated to 16th century. Another closely related example - retaining the three scrolling legs but lacking the central foot - is in the Sadberk Hanim Museum, dated to the late 17th or early 18th century (I.201-3804). In all cases, the openwork serves the obvious purpose of allowing the scented smoke to escape; in this example, the high legs would also have allowed some smoke to flow downward, making for an especially dramatic presentation.

The incense itself might be one or a mix of scents, mostly originating in Arabia and Southeast Asia; records from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Constantinople show the import and sale of frankincense, myrrh, styrax, musk, ambergris, oud, and saffron, along with other substances yet to be identified. The raw material was mixed with sawdust, beeswax or another material and shaped into disks or lozenges. As noted by Ergin, many imperial mosques employed men to prepare incense and attend to the burners, as did the Topkapi Palace. Ottoman subjects, however, bought ready-made incense at the Egyptian Market in Eminönü or from the perfume-makers in Galata. The 1640 price list also mentions the cost of incense: a piaster would buy four pieces of ambergris or three pieces of styrax.

In the same list, even the smallest metal incense burner cost fifty piasters and the price doubled for larger ones. The tombak -a loan word to both Ottoman Turkish and English from Javanese via Malay-found in records may refer to gold-plated copper or a copper-zinc alloy. Tombak is relatively malleable and takes a higher shine than brass-a very similar alloy-as well as being more resistant to tarnish. In the Ottoman case, the composition is variable and artisans might manipulate it: the ruddy hue of the base of this incense-burner may result from a higher concentration of copper used for decorative effect. It was favoured in the Empire for incense burners, candlesticks, coffee cup-holders (zarf), coffee pitchers, braziers and decorative items.

We would like to thank Dr. Amanda Phillips for her assistance in cataloguing this lot.

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