Real or Fake?
A complete and completely 'genuine' dish of medieval Iranian pottery turns out not to be as straightforward an object as it first appears.A dish decorated with a lively horseman used to be one of the prize pieces in the Islamic collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Made in Iran some 800 years ago at the end of the 12th century, it was considered a grand specimen of lustre-decorated ware.
Lustre – a difficult technique that lays a brilliant metallic pigment onto the surface of the glaze – provided the most expensive and sophisticated of all Islamic pottery decoration.
The clay and glaze, shape and style of painting of the dish all pointed to its Iranian origin. Wares in this style were once thought to be a product of the old city of Rayy, but are now known to be made in the central Iranian town of Kashan where lustre pottery was a speciality.
In the 1940s, Arthur Lane, the Keeper of Ceramics in the Museum, and a world-renowned specialist, published this dish in his book Early Islamic Pottery, a seminal work which set the foundation for the future study of the subject. He noted an Egyptian influence in the painting style of this particular dish, particularly in the non-Iranian style of the painting of the head, with its square face and pointed beard. He contrasted this to the 'moon face' of typical Iranian beauty, and used the piece as part of his argument that the technique of lustre painting came to Iran from Egypt in the 12th century.
In this he was certainly right; but this dish is not as reliable a piece of evidence as he might have hoped. Recently, the dish was cleaned, and overpainting was discovered that hid surprising features. The dish is revealed to be not intact, but made up from dozens of fragments. When examined closely, one can see that while the fragments mostly appear to join neatly, the painting on many them doesn’t join. How can this be? It is clear that the fragments are all genuine, not modern restoration, so what has gone wrong?
The answer is that even though the fragments are all genuine, in that they are all 12th century Iranian lustre, they don’t all come from the same object. It is clear that bits of a least two (and probably more) original dishes were used to restore one 'complete' vessel. Sherds, some probably from a tile, were cut down and inserted into the incomplete vessel – some are sliced thin and inlaid into the original body.
This kind of faking, where original bits are 'lashed up' (to use the trade jargon), is common in Islamic pottery, where many fragments are found on archaeological sites all over the Middle East, but complete vessels are a rarity.
To satisfy the demand among collectors and museums, dealers indulged in a bit of creative restoration and used different fragments – all genuine! – to recreate a complete vessel. This 'new' dish was probably put together shortly before it was acquired by the Museum in 1947. The work was so skilfully done that it fooled even so great an expert as Arthur Lane.