Islamic Art: More Than Religious Artifacts

When you hear the words Islamic art, you may think it's strictly religious art devoted to the Muslim faith. While some of the work was indeed created in service to Islam, to think so narrowly about this vast, valuable and diverse category of art could hurt you as an investor.

Islamic Art
Source: Bonhams
Islamic Art

“Islamic art is anything that was produced under Islamic rule from the dawn of Islam in 622,” says Sara Plumbly, director of sales for Christie's in London. Annually, Christie's, Bonhams and Sotheby's hold four auctions of the works.

The category includes an array of religious and secular works produced over 1,400 years, and covers a geographical reach from Spain in the West to Indonesia and Malaysia in the Far East and, naturally, includes the Arab world in the Middle East as well as Turkey and India.

It can be sacred items or architecture, such as the magnificent Alhambra palace and fortress in Granada, Spain; miniature Mughal Indian paintings, the size of a sheet of paper or smaller; or illustrated manuscripts or everyday kitchen and decorative ware, adorned with sweeping calligraphy, for which the art is known.

The auction houses sell Islamic art from both the the 20th and 21st centuries in separate sales.

Focus on the Middle East

“All eyes the world over have turned to the Middle East [where much of the work has been produced over the centuries],” says Plumbly.

And that has helped to boost sales, interest and value in the last five to 10 years. Individual pieces can be valued below $1,000 to the millions of dollars.

For example, a Fatimid rock crystal ewer from Egypt, made between the 10th and 11th centuries, in the collection of the late Hungarian collector Edmund de Unger is estimated to be worth some $10 million.

Alternative Investing - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage
Alternative Investing - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage

Buyers of this art represent a varied group. They include individual collectors and museums located around the world, and naturally, those from the cultures and regions, where Islam is or was was a force.

Many collectors, of course, are from the Middle East, some spending crude oil money; India, where the economy is booming; and in the last few years, Turkey, which is steeped in Ottoman art. Iranians living abroad are also significant buyers.

In recent years, new museums devoted to Islamic art have opened, and some of the world's major museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which debuted a new Islamic wing in November 2011, the Louvre in Paris and the Museum of Islamic Art at Berlin's Pergamonmuseum have placed their Islamic holdings front and center.

Among the younger institutions are the Museum of Islamic Art, an I.M.Pei-designed building in Doha, Qatar, and the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Islamic Art
Source: Bonhams
Islamic Art

What's Hot in Islamic Art

What's selling well these days are Iznik pottery, from 15th- to 17th-century Anatolia, now part of Turkey; anything from the Ottoman period; and manuscripts, especially those adorned with calligraphy of the 16th-century Persian Imad Al-Hassan and the late-17th-century Turk Hafiz Uthman.

But there are entry points for new collectors, such as medieval pottery from Iran, whose value has gone up and down; and the later years of Indian bidriware, a type of decorative metal-ware used largely for serving food and drink.

“It's a great time to start forming a collection,” says Alice Bailey, the department head for Islamic and Indian works of art at Bonhams in London. “And a collection will have a higher value than individual art.”

Bailey suggests a new collector—one who isn't extremely wealthy or acquisitive, that is—could form an impressive and valuable collection over a 10- to 15-year period.

Growth Prospects for Islamic Art

"We anticipate that the areas of the market we operate in (the top end of the Old Master, Impressionist, Modern, Contemporary, Latin American, Chinese and Middle Eastern sectors) will continue to outperform the other (financial) markets and return around 10 percent per annum over a long period,” says Philip Hoffman, CEO of the Fine Arts Fund, an art investment house.

"None of the statistics frequently quoted include the Islamic sector,” he says. “However, we anticipate that with the new museum projects in the Middle East in countries such as Qatar and Abu Dhabi, there will be much more dynamic environment in the Islamic market and collectors will become more active."

To lessen chances of acquiring fakes, “buy at auction,” says Edward Gibbs, a senior director at Sotheby's London. Or buy from reputable dealers. Sotheby's has a 5-year return policy on any item determined to be a fraud. Other auction houses have similar policies to protect the buyer.

Because of U.S. trade sanctions against Iran, check with the State Department before acquiring pieces of Iranian or Persian origin.