Though easily mistaken for a Victorian monstrosity--which pretty well describes its silver gilt mounts-- this rock crystal object of virtue might have graced Saladin's table when Richard The Lionheart dropped in for a drink.
Put up for a reserve estimate of £200 after a provincial auction house cataloged it as
"a 19th-century claret jug adorned by mythological animals, birds, and vegetal motifs, and set with European silver gilt and enamel mounts, possibly of Austro-Hungarian origin",
the 11th-century Fatamid rock crystal intaglio ewer sold in Somerset for 220,000 pounds- likely one of the biggest bargains in auction history.
The delicate body of the ewer is not a monument to the 19th century's bad taste revival , but one of the rarest treasures of medieval Egypt with a market value close to ten million dollars.
Large gem quality crystals of quartz found in 'alpine vein' deposits have been worked by lapidaries since neolithic times, but the hard stone is at once brittle and unforgiving. Hollowing out a mass of this size by slow drilling using using sand or emery ( Alexandria is a week's sail from the corundum deposits of Naxos ) may have taken months, and figuring it with animals using a bow drill may have taken as long as it took to abrade the softer glass of the Portland Vase.
Only five other examples of Fatamid engraved crystal exists, and one scarcely two inches long, a scent vial, sold at auction a few years ago for upwards of a half million dollars. One specialist dealer has described the Somerset find as the "Holy Grail" of Islamic art. Its extraordinary story reported in The Art Newspaper today, began when the 11th-century ewer was put up for sale by Lawrences auctioneers of Crewkerne, whose valuers failed to realise that it was among a handful of rock crystal ewers surviving , placing it among the rarest and most valuable objects in the Islamic art world.
The discovery recalls the Yuan dynasty porcelain vase that withstood service as an umbrella standin a South London vestibule for two generations before being brought to Southeby's and sold for several million pounds in the '80s.
The last one to surface was bought by the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1862.in 1998, one of the five extant shattered when dropped by a Florentine museum employee.