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Mother-of-pearl tray makes world record £962,500 in Bonhams' Islamic and Indian Art sale
Rare mother-of-pearl and black lac overlaid wood tray, Gujarat, late 16th/early 17th century; sold for £962,500. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- A unique mother-of-pearl and black lac overlaid wood tray has set a new world record of £962,500 for a piece of this type, selling to a bidder in the room for well over ten times its estimate in Bonhams’ Islamic and Indian Art sale on 6th October.

The auction, which saw bidders competing across the world, also featured a fine gem-set enamelled gold Turban Ornament (Jigha), from 18th century northern India. The Jigha sold for £68,500, smashing its pre-sale estimate of £30,000 – 40,000.

Originally estimated at £60,000 – 80,000, the 16th century tray is one of a very small number of surviving examples of mother-of-pearl objects from Gujarat. Its design, which depicts winged figures carrying birds or vessels, has never been seen before on an object of its type.

“It has been amazing to work on such an extraordinary piece,” said Oliver White, head of Bonhams Islamic and Indian Art Department. “Mother-of-pearl overlaid objects of this type are incredibly rare, but the presence of winged figures makes our tray rarer still. There are no other recorded examples which feature angels and the fine quality of work and the exceptional condition of the tray make it a unique survivor outside museum collections.”

The angels suggest Persian, Indian and European influences. Strikingly similar imagery – of a winged figure in Persian dress holding a peacock – can be seen adorning the pavilions of Nur Jahan in the Ram Bagh at Agra. These paintings provide an approximate date for this tray and imply that the circumstances of its production may have been somewhat unusual. It seems the decorative scheme was intended for an Indian patron rather than for export to European or Turkish patrons, the general destination for most mother-of-pearl inlaid items.

Gujarat has been recognized as the centre of mother-of-pearl work since the beginning of the 16th century, when the King of Melinde presented Vasco de Gama with a gold and mother-of-pearl bedstead. This particular tray can be attributed to Northern Gujarat because of its characteristic mastic-inset and mother-of-pearl decorated domed cenotaph canopies.

Mother-of-pearl trays are listed among the spoils of the Lodi Sultans of Delhi, when they were captured by Emperor Babur in 1526, and are specifically mentioned as being delivered to ladies at Kabul.

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