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Of rectangular form with hinged coved cover and bracket feet, the applied hinges and clasp with elaborate openwork terminals, the knop similar, the sides with large figural roundels flanked by smaller key-pattern roundels, some also with cusped minor figural quatrefoils, on a ground of elaborate scrolling leafy vine, a band of stylised repeated kufic benedictory inscriptions above and below, the top with four dials for the combination lock flanking the central openwork arabesque interlace knop, surrounded by hunting scenes again on a scrolling foliate ground, the sloping sides with a variety of musicians and drinkers divided by key-pattern hexagons, a band of flowing naskh inscription on vine ground below, this band between the hinges giving the name of the maker, the feet with a seated lion on each face, surface slightly rubbed, silver all missing except under the clasp, chisel marks remaining where the silver was removed, base plate probably replaced, the feet re-fixed at the same time, the lock a replacement probably copying the original
8 5/8 x 7 3/8 x 5 5/8in. (21.9 x 18.8 x 14.3cm.)
Edward Falkener, circa 1844, thence by descent until sold in these Rooms, 23 April 1996, lot 194

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Lot Essay

The naskh inscription on the four sides of the rim is largely benedictory. Its beginning is on the frontal side of the lid and reads al-'izz wa al-nasr wa al-mulk wa al-... wa al-majd wa al-mulk wa al-... (glory and victory and sovereignty and ... and magnificence and sovereignty and...)

The area between the hinges contains the signature of the maker: 'amal Muhammad ... al-Baghdadi ...'

The knotted kufic inscription on the upper and lower parts of the four sides of the body appear to be a repetition of the word sa'ada (happiness).

This is an extremely rare type of casket with a combination lock. One other example in silver-inlaid brass was sold in these Rooms, 10th October 1989, lot 526 and is now in the Khalili Collection. Like the previous piece, the present one can be shown to have been made in the Jazira during the 13th century, an attribution strongly reinforced by the nisba "al-Baghdadi" of the maker of the present example. Two further similar caskets of this type are known, but have remained unpublished. One is in a private American collection, while the other is in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. To this group a further example in the Victoria and Albert Museum probably also belongs, although Melikian places it among the products of Persia (A.S. Melikian-Chirvani, Islamic Metalwork from the Iranian World, 8-18th Centuries, London, 1982, no.90, pp.197-200). Although the inlay is now almost entirely missing in the present example (traces remain under the hinge locking into the lid), in its original condition this casket was originally the most magnificent of the group.

All these caskets have a number of common attributes which identify them as Jaziran work. Their locking mechanisms are identical. Four drop-shaped dials located in each corner on the upper side of the lid will, when placed in a certain order, allow the central handle to be turned in order to release the lock holding the frontal hinge. The lock of our piece appears to be the only functioning one of the group. The mechanics of locks like this one were first described by al-Jazari in his work Compendium from the Theory and Practice of the Mechanical Arts, probably while he was in the service of Nasir al-Din, the Artuqid ruler at Diyarbakir, between 1198-1200 AD (for a discussion of al-Jazari's work see F. Maddison, "Al-Jazari's Combination Lock: Two Contemporary Examples", The Art of Syria and the Jazira 1100-1250, ed. Julian Raby, Oxford, 1985, pp. 141-157). Al-Jazari's lock is, like ours, made up of four dials set in the four corners of a lid. When the dial combination is set correctly on the choice of three rows of letters, the notches in the discs underneath are aligned and it is possible to open the box by turning the handle in the centre of the upper part of the lid and by pulling the draw-bar on the front of the lid. While the dials of the al-Jazari lock work with three combinations set on each one, resulting in a code of twelve letters, ours is a simpler version with a four letter code (the letters were presumably incised on the silver-inlay now lost). An ivory box with a similar lock placed on the frontal side is in the treasury of St. Servatius, Maastricht (see Maddison, op. cit., p. 157, fig. 10). This has been attributed to Sicily. Two caskets with combination dials placed in a row are known, one in the David Collection (Maddison, op. cit., pp. 146-147, figs. 2-5), the other in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (Maddison, op. cit., pp. 150-151, figs. 6-8). The Boston piece was made in AH 593/1196-97 AD by an astrolabe maker with an Isfahani nisba. Both pieces are most likely Iranian.

The shapes of the caskets and the repertoire of their decoration give further support to a Jaziran origin. They have straight vertical sides and coffered lids. All sides are decorated with roundels containing figural scenes of various subjects relating to a group of Mesopotamian metalwork discussed by D.S. Rice (see "Inlaid Brasses from the Workshop of Ahmad al-Dhaki al-Mawsili", Ars Orientalis, II, 1957, pp. 283-326). The repertoire of the present piece is very varied. Two scenes of falconers flank the openwork attachment on the front. The roundels on each side of the casket feature horsemen in combat with a feline, while on the back a roundel contains a female figure seated in a howda on a camel accompanied by an attendant. Surrounding the main roundels are smaller ones depicting seated figures holding a crescent (hilal), to be interpreted as personifications of the moon, and tiny roundels composed of interlaced swastika motifs. Many of these motifs can be seen on the brasses of Mosul origin, particularly the interlaced svasticas (D.S. Rice, "The brasses of Badr al-Din Lu'lu", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, XIII, 1949, see p. 629-30, fig. 4). The seated figure holding a crescent moon as an independent and isolated motif occurs quite frequently in the bronzes of Mosul and Syria (Rice, op. cit., 1952, p. 321) and also in the Zengid coinage of Mosul and the coat of arms of Badr al-Din Lu'lu (R. Ettinghausen, "Hilal", Encyclopaedia of Islam, N.S., III, 1971, p. 382). It may be added here that the fuller, more complicated scroll work of the background can also be found on many other specimens of this group.

An important feature linking our casket into the Jaziran tradition are the very finely sculpted openwork finials of the hinges which hold the box and lid together. These are far more impressive than those on any other of the caskets in the group. Their three dimensional qualities, obtained by the varying planes of the stylised scrolling stems of the arabesques, link them to a well known group of door knockers which have been shown to originate from the Jazira, particularly Mosul (for further references see an example in these Rooms on 19th October 1993, lot 310). Al-Jazari himself illustrated a hinge very similar to ours in his description of combination locks (see Maddison, op. cit., p. 143, fig. d).
For further discussion on combination caskets, please see lot 133 in this sale.

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