A rare Mamluk ewer from medieval Egypt

Christie’s Islamic Art specialist Sara Plumbly and Diana Heath, a metal conservator, reveal the history behind this precious piece, and how it was brought back to life

‘This ewer is a really exciting discovery,’ declares Sara Plumbly, head of Islamic and Indian Art at Christie’s, in the film above. ‘It has real wow factor.’

She is referring to a rare type of brass jug, 47.5 cm in height, which originates from medieval Egypt and is densely inlaid with floral and geometric motifs in silver and gold, as well as four bands of calligraphy around its neck and body.

One of those bands, Plumbly explains, provides a clue as to exactly when and for whom the ewer was created.

‘The calligraphy around the body bears the titles of the sultan of the time, Al-Malik al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun, which indicates that it was probably made for an emir or prince,’ she says.

Al-Malik Muhammad (1285-1341) was the ninth Bahri Mamluk sultan of Egypt and enjoyed three distinct reigns: 1293-4, 1299-1309 and finally 1310-1341, when this ewer was most likely made.

Egyptian Mamluks acquired great wealth by controlling the silk and spice trade between the East and West from their base on the river Nile. They channelled much of this into workshops that produced enamelled glass, fine textiles and inlaid metalwork to local commission, as well as for export across the Mediterranean.

The shape of this ewer, with its inverted baluster body, tapering spout and base (as well as a now-missing tubular handle), is based on designs brought into the Mamluk empire by craftsmen from Mosul in modern-day Iraq. The rosettes under the ewer’s foot and inside its mouth have the same origins.

Whoever commissioned this ewer was ‘striving for maximum impact’, says Plumbly, pointing to the object’s richly decorated surface, which is liberally covered with unusually large areas of gold and silver, all painstakingly hammered into tiny carved channels.

The ewer before, left, and after it had received the attentions of metal conservator Diana Heath

The ewer before, left, and after it had received the attentions of metal conservator Diana Heath

When the ewer was consigned to Christie’s, however, it was in a rather different state. ‘It was pretty much totally black, a bit like what you can see around the foot now,’ says Plumbly.

Christie’s turned to conservator Diana Heath to polish up the silver and gold and return the ewer to its former glory.

‘The buildup of tarnish can only be removed by gently taking the surface back,’ Heath explains, carefully brushing away decades, if not centuries, of thick, black tarnish. ‘It has to be done rather meticulously and with care.’

In fact, it was only thanks to Heath’s conservation efforts that the unusual, delicate twisted silver and copper wire decoration around the base of the ewer’s handle came to light. ‘I’m not going to try to make it look as if it’s new,’ she explains to camera, ‘but I am certainly going to try to reveal as much of this decoration as possible.’

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Only a handful of this style of gold-and-silver-inlaid ewer are known to exist, and most of them are in museum collections. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo houses the closest comparable example, while the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London includes a later version. None like this, however, has ever appeared at auction before.

The ewer will be displayed in London ahead of its sale on 25 June 2020.