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Crystal Masterwork Heralds DMA’s Major New Islamic Collection

by Jerome Weeks 22 May 2014 5:51 PM

The DMA has put on display a rock-crystal pitcher made in Cairo a thousand years ago. It’s rare and precious, it has a history straight out of The Maltese Falcon — and it’s the first item in the massive Islamic art collection coming to Dallas.


Rock_crystal_ewerwideDetail of the designs in the rock crystal ewer at the Dallas Museum of Art

The Dallas Museum of Art has put on display a rock-crystal pitcher, carved in Egypt a thousand years ago. There are only seven in the world. But the ewer, as it’s called, is not just a very rare Islamic masterwork. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, it has a history like something from The Maltese Falcon.

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It was made from a single chunk of mineral quartz in 10th-century Cairo for the court of the caliph, Fatimid al-Aziz. Yet the rock crystal has been cut so thin, its clear, glass-like surface is carved with delicate designs of cheetahs and flowers. Fatimid ewers like this were made when the Fatimid family empire was at its height (al Aziz was the first of the family caliphs, or Islamic leaders). Reportedly, ninety such ewers were commissioned, but many were sold off less than a hundred years after they were made. Many were taken to Italy — which is where this ewer disappeared.  But in the 19th century, it came into an English family (who possibly acquired it on a Grand Tour of Italy in 1850). They sent it to Jean-Valentin Morel, a master French goldsmith in Sevres, who gave it an ornate spout and handle (possibly to replace broken stone parts) and protective box. Then the ewer disappeared again.

Finally, in 2008, it popped up at an auction — in a small Dorset town called Crewkerne. Richard de Unger is the son of Edmund de Unger, the Hungarian art collector who assembled the Keir Collection, which owns the ewer. He reports the ewer was labeled as a jug for “French claret,” and the upper bidding limit was put at 150 British pounds.

“It was quickly discovered to be an object of greater significance by a member of the silver trade,” Richard de Unger recalls, “who purchased it for 240,000 [pounds]. Unfortunately, he took it to the wrong expert — whose name I won’t reveal — who pronounced it a fake. So he took it back to the auction, and the auctioneer was only too happy to avoid legal litigations which would probably ensue.”

richard de unger and sabihaeditThe ‘wine jug’ was auctioned later that year at Christie’s for 3.1 million pounds or around 5.2 million dollars. Now, it’s the only one of its kind in North America — the others are in places like the Louvre and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and some of those are in fragments. It’s also the first artwork to come to Dallas from the nearly 2,000 items of the Keir Collection. The collection is a renowned trove of Islamic art — ceramics, textiles, metalwork, manuscripts — that took Edmund de Unger fifty years to assemble. But Edmund died in 2011, and the collection went looking for a home.

Richard de Unger and Sabiha Al Khemir

“Originally we started out with European institutions,” says de Unger. “We negotiated with the Louvre. It was temporarily in Berlin for a couple of years [the contract with Berlin’s Museum of Islamic Art was abruptly terminated, according to a release, due to “fundamentally different ideas for further work with the collection”l. But there’s a financial malaise due to the 2008 recession. And if you look around us,” he says, indicating the DMA itself and Dallas in general, “there’s plenty of room for expansion and dynamic growth here.”

At the same time, museum director Maxwell Anderson has wanted to reverse the DMA’s century-old neglect of Islamic art. The DMA is a “universal” art museum, after all, meaning it preserves and displays all kinds, all ages, of art. The current exhibition, Nur: Light in Art and Science from the Islamic World — curated by Sabiha Al Khemir, the DMA’s new senior adviser for Islamic art — was the first step in Anderson’s new direction. In fact, it was the first major exhibition of Islamic art the DMA has ever had.

Keir Rock Crystal Ewer_wide1But from that first step already comes this: In the next year or so, the Keir Collection will move here on a renewable, 15-year-loan. And it will transform a museum with no significant Islamic art into one with a collection ranked among the top three in the US. As the Wall Street Journal reported, “This is not just good news for Dallas; it is a boon to us all. Scholars have long been familiar with the Keir, some through visits to de Unger’s home, most through scholarly writings that include five catalogs de Unger commissioned in the 1970s and ’80s. But the public at large has had only glimpses … In Dallas, the collection will become accessible in all its depth.”

As part of the agreement struck with the de Ungers over the past year, the DMA will display 10 percent of the collection in dedicated galleries — rotating 200 to 300 works at a time. It will also assemble a digital archive. Crucially, this means that North Texas — with its growing Muslim population — will become a center for research in Islamic art.

As for the ewer, it will be on view beginning May 27 — given pride of place in a special installation on the little balcony on the DMA’s third level, overlooking the central causeway.