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November 2, 2018
Mysteries of the Medieval Glass Collection
Archives can be an invaluable resource for understanding an object’s history of ownership or how object identities are constructed. This is certainly the case with Shangri La’s collection of artifacts previously owned by the eminent Armenian art dealer Dikran G. Kelekian (1868-1951).
Several artworks, ranging from glass to ceramics, manuscripts and tiles, were purchased for Shangri La in 1953 from Kelekian’s vast estate sale, facilitated by Parke-Bernet Galleries following his tragic death in New York City.
One object in particular has prompted a fascinating discussion about its provenience (original or archaeological context) as well as its provenance (chain of ownership):
Glass sprinklers, like object no. 47.91, are believed to have been used in a welcoming ritual, during which the open palms of guests would be drizzled with scented liquids (such as rosewater or orange blossom water) from such a vessel. The performative aspect of a sprinkler’s function coupled with the exalted status of the fragile, decorated material made them highly valued objects.
Interestingly, Shangri La’s archival object records reveal that the original culture, location, and date or period of production were not known for certain when this sprinkler joined the museum’s collection. The object description accompanying the lot in Kelekian’s estate sale, in which the sprinkler was initially attributed to Pre-Islamic Syria of the 3rd or 4th century, reflected how ancient Roman glass manufactured along the coasts of Syria was prevalent in the art market at this time, and similarities between those vessels and this glass vessel made for an easy comparison
To gain a better understanding of where an antiquity was originally found – in absence of clear provenience – if and where it travelled over the centuries, and who may have owned it during these different periods, involves taking a broad investigative approach. To clarify some of the inaccuracies in this sprinkler’s archival files, first, archaeological excavation records and academic publications were searched to compare styles and features of glass excavated from ancient Islamic sites with the dark blue coloration and applied pinched and spiraled/trailed decoration on Shangri La’s vessel. This was useful in narrowing down a more probable attribution placing the sprinkler within 11th to 12th century Iran, during the Seljuq period.
It will be imperative moving forward to find and review Kelekian’s collection archives, in hopes of locating excavation or sale records for this glassware that can confirm or deny this attribution. As research continues on this dazzling artifact and many others, you can find this sprinkler on display in the Mughal Suite with other artifacts from the Museum’s ancient and medieval glass collection!
About the writer
Brieanah Gouveia is Shangri La’s collections management intern for the fall. She is from the Big Island, and this year received her MSc in Art History from the University of Glasgow. She specializes in provenance research and is an avid reader of all things concerning the illicit antiquities trade.