Principally made in Basra by Sabaean silversmiths and engravers in the first half of the 20th century, but rarely assayed, it was largely dismissed as ‘white metal’ tourist memorabilia and sold for prices close to scrap. That is now changing.
By just how much was seen at Chiswick Auctions’ (25% buyer’s premium) Silver and Objects of Vertu sale on June 11.
In more than 50 lots, the west London firm was offering what it believed was the first private collection of Iraqi niello silver sold at a UK auction. It had been amassed by an Anglo-Iraqi gentleman across 15 years and, although numerous in the cigarette cases and napkin rings (the most commonly encountered pieces), included a wider range of forms and makers.
In 2008, at a sale held by Bonhams in the Channel Islands, he had paid just £252 (including premium) for a lot of four items bearing presentation inscriptions in English and Arabic to Brigadier Sir Iltyd Nicholl Clayton (1886-1955).
Claydon was attached to the Middle East Office in Cairo during and after the Second World War and was later important in the formation of the Arab League and deciding of post-war British policy in the Middle East.
Three of the four items he was given by officers in the Iraqi army in 1928 were by Baghdad Onaisi (Onaisi Al Fayyadh), the Basra maker that supplied the royal family of Iraq.
These included an 11in (28cm) oval tray worked with a scene of the Taq Kasra (Ruins of Ctesiphon) and the Mosque of the great Imam Abu Hanifa al in Nu’man, Baghdad and a border of camel trains, sailing boats and palms (estimate £400-600).
It improved on estimate to bring £2800, with a Turkish coffee pot or cezva and a pair of cups and saucers with ensuite decoration following its lead by taking £1900 and £550.
Perhaps the most striking piece of the quartet was a 9in (23cm) presentation plaque (possibly signed for maker Omara Yahya) with a central scene of an artillery field gun between borders featuring a view of the Taq Kasra (ruins of Ctesiphon).
With this piece hammering at £1600, it brought the total for the four lots to £6850 (£8562 including premium) – an increase of more than 3000% on the price of 14 years ago.