Image above: An early 20th century Iraqi silver and niello cigarette case, Basra dated 1938, sold for £350 including premium
It’s amazing how something picked up as a souvenir is valued by the buyer, kicks around in the family for a few generations, loses its personal sentimental value but can be worth a small fortune in monetary value when discovered decades later in a clear out.
John Rogers, Chiswick Auctions’ Head of Silver & Objects of Vertu, is interested in just such objects for his Silver Auction on 20 October. His current interest is in Iraqi, Burmese and Maltese silver.
Iraqi silver Nielloware
Guest blog by John Rogers
Silver from Iraq made in the first half of the 20th century is principally found in two main types, engraved silver made by the Jewish community in Baghdad and niello silver made by the Sabean-Mandean community in Omara, Basra and Baghdad, also known as Marsh Arabs. For the 11 June auction at Chiswick Auctions, a private collection of Iraqi silver collected over the last 15 years was sold, believed to be the first large collection of Iraqi silver handled in the UK, and it was met with considerable interest.
The silver of the Baghdadi Jewish community is quite uncommon but the niello silver was extremely popular with tourists, army personnel and British ex-pats. The process of niello, an engraved design filled with a mixture of usually of sulphur, copper, silver, and lead which is then highly polished, requires silver of a significant purity to execute this technique.
Image above: An early 20th century Iraqi silver and niello dressing table box, Basra dated 1931 signed Omara, Adam, sold for £200 including premium
The two most common items to be found in Iraqi silver are napkin rings and cigarette cases, however there are also dressing table boxes, posy vases, cruets and most prized of all tea and coffee wares with trays. The niello decoration itself has a broad range of designs which often focus on famous Iraqi buildings such as the Tomb of Ezra or the Taq Kasra (Ruins of Ctesiphon).
In addition to famous buildings there are also many traditional river scenes depicting boats of various kind’s including the gufa a large or small circular coracle of basketwork, coated with bitumen that is specific to Iraq on the Tigris-Euphrates River system. Commonly there will also be camels, palm trees and occasionally boar or livestock.
There are many signatures to be found, some more clear and prominent than others, the most comprehensive list of these is published in History of Iraqi Silver (2017) by Mohammed Al Baghdadi. The most famous and highly prized of these signatures are for Zahroon and Onaisi. The highly coveted name Zahroon operated in Omara like many of the niello makers but later moved to Basra, while Onaisi became silversmith to the Royal family of Iraqi moving from Omara to Baghdad.
Image above: An early to mid-20th century Iraqi silver and niello bowl, Basra circa 1940 of gufa shape, also nielloed with a figure in a gufa (left side of image). Sold for £325 including premium
The prices for Iraqi niello silver have increased over the last ten years across all varieties, at an entry level price napkin rings are the best option with the normal examples costing £15-30 each whereas the rarer and more desirable stirrup shaped examples, if signed by Zahroon at over £100 each.
Cigatrette cases are another very approachable collecting oppotunity for Iraqi silver, an unsigned example with basic niello work may cost between £100-150, up to £500 for a more finely worked signed example with a distinct scene. The finest cases would be those nielloed with aircraft signed by Zahroon which would cost in excess of £2000.
A full cruet set composed of a salt, mustard and pepper on a stand or tray ranges in price between £150-300 based on the quality of the niello and how interesting the shape of the vessels. The very best pieces of Iraqi niello silver are those with custom order niello scenes not found on usual examples ranging from specific ships, aircraft, maps and even English cottages. Tea and coffee ware, especially those signed by major names will draw considerable attention, a normal three-piece tea set is currently around £1000 at auction, better yet is when the provenance of the item is nielloed upon it with a dated inscription to a known person.
In the collection offered in June, there were four pieces dated 1928 presented to Brigadier Sir Iltyd Nicholl Clayton KBE(1886 – 1955). A British Army officer notable for his attachment to the Middle East Office in Cairo during and after World War II and his involvement in the formation of Arab League and formulation of post-war British policy in the Middle East. Three were components of a coffee set; a cezva coffee pot, a pair of cups and saucers with spoons and an oval tray, the fourth was a desk plaque depicting a custom scene of an artillery field gun.
Image above: An early 20th century Iraqi silver and niello tray, dated 1928 signed Baghdad Onaisi (Onaisi Al Fayyadh). Sold for £3,500 including premium. Niello inscription in Arabic and English, reading ‘From The Iraqi Officer Iraq Army to Alaqid I.N Clayton O.B.E 1928’.
The coffee pot and tray were signed by Onaisi, the cups although unsigned were presumably also by this workshop, the tray had a scene of Mosque of the Great Imam Abu Hanifa al in Nu’man, Baghdad, edged with the usual river scenes. The desk plaque was signed Saqar and featured a prominent field gun, a fitting topic as Clayton remained in Iraq post-WWI, on secondment to the Iraqi Army, and served as Chief Instructor and Staff Officer to their artillery, services for which he was created an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1927.
Images above: An early 20th century Iraqi silver and niello Turkish coffee pot (cezva), dated 1928 signed Baghdad Onaisi (Onaisi Al Fayyadh). Sold for £2,375 including premium. A rare early 20th century Iraqi silver and niello presentation plaque, Basra dated 1928, signed Saqar. Sold for £2,000 including premium.
All four of these pieces were initially brought to the market in Bonham’s The Channel Island Sale, 28 April 2008, lot 173 for £252 incl. premium, they were faintly catalogued as white metal without details of the signatures or inscription, in the June auction the four pieces cumulativly took £6,850 hammer (£8562.5 incl. premium) a 3298 % increase over 13 years.
John Rogers is Chiswick Auctions’ Head of Silver & Objects of Vertu. He has nearly 15 years’ experience in collecting and studying silver. He started at Chiswick Auctions in 2016 and took over the silver department as head in January 2017. Since then, he has built the department to represent one of the main silver sales available nationwide. Chiswick Auctions Silver anction is the only dedicated silver sale offered in London. John’s passions lay in a wide cross section of the silver world, from 19th century flatware patterns to 20th century Persian silver.
This page is paid for by Chiswick Auctions.
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