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The Rothschilds and Mamluk enamelled glass
The Rothschilds and Islamic Art
With their enormous wealth, their love of art, and their creation of numerous palaces in the current styles, it is not surprising that the Rothschilds were amongst the most prolific collectors in the field of Islamic Art. Orientalist interiors had become fashionable in the third quarter of the 19th Century, sparking a general upsurge of interest in the subject. The Rothschilds were at the forefront of this. From their bases in Paris, London and Vienna, they collected Islamic Art in the areas that were most appreciated at the time. Thus they had numerous so-called Polonaise carpets, woven in brightly coloured silks combined with silver and gold brocading in the late 16th Century court workshops of Shah Abbas in Isfahan. They had collections of Islamic Arms and Armour, and a notable group of Persian miniature paintings and manuscripts including what is probably the most impressive Persian illustrated and illuminated manuscript ever created, the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp dating from around 1530. Mediaeval brass vessels inlaid with finely engraved silver set against black backgrounds, and glass vessels decorated with bright enamels combined with gold such as those offered in the next ten lots, completed this range of outstanding Islamic Art which they collected.
These items might be displayed in their collections of objets de vitrine, combined with numerous European items, either jewelled and enamelled gold objects such as those in this sale, or mediaeval enamelled or silver items, or indeed anything of value which took their fancy. This was the case with the items collected by Alphonse de Rothschild which he displayed in his house at 2 rue Saint-Florentin in Paris. Their taste was very eclectic, provided the objects concerned had quality. Other members of the family went further and had an Orientalist room such as that created in Paris by Edmond de Rothschild at 41 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. This combined stucco designs taken from the Alhambra with a 16th Century Kashan carpet, brass candlesticks, and a pendant Mamluk glass mosque lamp.
Many members of the French, German and Austrian branches of the family included Mamluk glass in their collections. Treated as one unit, they certainly had more examples than any other collector. Even individually, to judge from the list of owners compiled by Schmoranz at the end of his 1899 publication, Old Oriental Gilt and Enamelled Glass Vesssels, they ranked very high in terms both of the numbers of items that they had and in terms of the individual rarity of the vessels. Thirty years later, in his survey of dated or dateable pieces of Mamluk enamelled glass which forms the appendix to his catalogue of the examples in the Islamic Museum in Cairo, Gaston Wiet notes mosque lamps in the hands of four of the members of the family: Solomon, Gustave, Alphonse and Edmond. He fails to note the examples in the collection of their cousins in Vienna (two were sold in these Rooms 4 July 1999, one of which was in the name of Sultan Barquq and should thus have featured in the survey), nor those in the English branch of the family, who for example owned the Waddesdon beaker published by Schmoranz. Of the seven examples in the present collection, he only notes two, both of which are in reality later imitations, while omitting the two authentic lamps bearing the names of Sultans (lots 13 and 17).
There are unfortunately few records of these pieces in the Rothschild archives. The accounts ledgers, or Comptes Courants, in the Rothschild Archive in London mention nothing specific. There are payments to Alfred André in respect of the Spitzer sales, but again nothing about the two enamelled glass vessels purchased in these sales is specified. Similarly there are numerous other payments to the same agent, who appears to have provided Baron Alphonse with a great number of items, but no mention is made as to what they are for. The Comptes Courants from 1870-1905 only yield three possible other entries relevant to the Islamic glass:
15 July 1872, à Emile Mayer, 2 vases matière orientale et une écuelle - 16,500 francs
17 July 1878, à Vangas, un vase arabe - 25,000 francs
19 October 1892, à Sydney, Une lampe de mosquée d'Egypte - 5,500 francs
The only record which does certainly relate to the glass is the 'Situation de la Collection au 5 Juillet 1903', a hand-written inventory, in the Rothschild Archive in London, of the Collection of Baron Alphonse de Rothschild at 2 rue de Saint-Florentin. Written just two years before he died in 1905 it was subsequently altered in pencil, presumably at the time of his death, and values entered for each item. The descriptions are short, so while it is possible to identify some of the more individual items (seau, verre incoloré, émaillé, inscription') some are not very helpful (e.g. 3 lampes de mosquée). The lamps are each priced at a standard 1,000 francs. While all the other items are listed under Verres Arabes, the jug (lot 15), possibly on account of its appearing under the same heading in the Christie's 1882 catalogue, is listed under Verres de Venise, with nothing identifying it as Eastern. Again unfortunately there is no further information.
In his book Mittelalterlicher Gläser und Steinschnittarbeiten, Carl Johann Lamm frustratingly mentions a volume which he notes as 'Baron A. de Rothschild: Description of the Works of Art forming the Collection of Alfred de Rothschild, London, 1894, Vol. II (objets de vitrine)', to which he adds the note 'Photographien mit gedruckter Unterschrift; die Arbeit wurde nur in wenigen Exemplaren hergestellt'. This book is not known to any Rothschild scholar and indeed a copy is not included in Alfred's library which has survived intact since his death in 1918. It would appear that Lamm may have been misinformed about the contents of a two-volume book which he probably never saw - it is a strong coincidence that the title and date of the work cited by him is so very close to the two-volume work on Alfred de Rothschild's collection compiled by C. Davis and published in a very small edition in 1884, in which there is no description or illustration of any Islamic glass. The Schatzkammer quality of this collection of glass is at complete variance with Alfred de Rothschild's collection as it was known at Seamore Place and at Halton. It is hard to imagine his purchase of these pieces before passing them onto his cousin in France. The belief that Alphonse purchased these pieces at various times, rather than en bloc from Alfred, is strengthened by the fact that the two Spitzer pieces (lots 10 and 16) are housed together in the same storage case that was presumably made almost as soon as they were bought at the 1893 sale of Spitzer's collection. We believe that Lamm has made an error and accordingly Alfred de Rothschild has not been included in our description of provenance, nor has the 1894 book been added to the literature.
Every indication is that Baron Alphonse was not aware that, while some of his Mamluk glass vessels are outstanding examples, others are reproductions or vessels made in the same spirit but in the 19th Century. No distinction is made in any of the lists, and none of the books at the time refer to any of the pieces as anything but authentic. The bucket in this sale (lot 16), was obviously not Schmoranz's favourite item in the collection, to judge from his comments reproduced in the note under that lot. He fell short however of saying it was not authentic, and it could be that his bad feeling was encouraged more by its previous publication's uncritically eulogistic write-up than by the object itself. That almost all if not all the pieces are published by Lamm as being correct is probably due to the fact that he did not examine them in person. His entry under one mosque lamp appears very confused; he admits he is not sure which of two he is referring to.
In many ways the most interesting of those that are wrong are the two coloured lamps. These appear for various reasons to be from the same workshop. Furthermore, as discussed under the individual entries, there is a third lamp, of blue glass, formerly in the Charles Mannheim Collection, Paris, and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which shares many of the same features. The bird drawing on one lamp is very close to that of the copy of the Qusun lamp (lot 14), which must by definition be a copy. The original was at the same time also in the Charles Mannheim Collection. Both Mannheim and Baron Alphonse exhibited enamelled and gilded glass vessels at the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris, as did Edouard André, mentioned above, each of whom is also in some way linked to the copies which appear to have been made in Paris at this time. How far any of them were involved, or how far it was just a common supplier, we cannot at present say.
We are very grateful to Dr. Rachel Ward and to Dr. Stefano Carboni for their help in the attributions of the Islamic glass in this collection..