A Persian-style brass bowl inlaid with silver was a holiday gift to G.H.
And she wonders if I can trace its unique combination of metals, style and history.
This is a 5.5-inch wide bowl, in the style of the ancient metalworkers of Khorassan in northeastern Iran in the 13th century.The bowl also resembles the 14th-century style of Fars metalwork of western Iran.
I’ll say more about the value of these ancient vessels later in this column.
First some history. The styles of the vessels had a revival years later. In the late 19th to the early 20th century, the artisans behind Middle Eastern metalcraft revived the ancient Mamluk Ottoman style and the ancient Cairo style. Both featured silver inlay on brass or copper, which is essentially saying the same thing because brass is an alloy of copper and zinc.
How a combination of silver and brass came to be a style in the 12th century and lasted until today is an interesting story and has much to do with etymology.
Iranian scholars have traced the style back to the Arabic/Persian word for brass, which is “berenj” (a pre-Islamic word).
The word “berenji” may be pre-Islamic onomatopoeia for the “ring” sound that a brass vessel makes when struck. The word was passed on to Persian as “tarang,” Old German as “dringen” and English as “ring,” which tells you a little about what brass was used for, such as “bell metal.”
Silver tableware became popular in the courts of Persia in the 12th-13th centuries, even though Muslim tradition bans the use of precious metals for eating and drinking. However, silver was desirable, and not an abundant natural commodity in Iran. Thus silver inlay was developed. Whatever could be made in gold, could also be made in brass, with a similar look.
You see Arabic calligraphy in the bowl.
The words are called “nasksh,” or benedictory words, which are phrases, and snippets of poems, blessings inscribed. You will see no realistic representation of flowers in the designs, but you will see abstract representations of natural elements in the bowl. There’s also a silver lappet (a design that emphasizes the diameter of the bowl) on the outside of the bowl in, appropriately, arabesques, which is where we get the word for this particular shaped design popular on Middle Eastern objects.
Brass was used in ancient Persia for many things, and because it was often inlaid with silver, when wars and conflicts broke out through the years, the silver was smelted down.
Thus, not many truly ancient metalcrafts works exist, yet they are widely collected, especially the elaborate scientific instruments made of brass inlaid with silver, such as the inventions called the astrolabe. In fact, ancient brass inlaid with silver was made in much the same fashion as G.H.’s little 19th-century bowl, meaning that a brass object is formed from sheet metal that is hammered into shape, engraved, and inlaid with silver.
There’s no carbon dating of brass. Therefore, some fraudsters published the recipes for forging these astrolabes in “Creating Antiques for Fun and Profit” (1977).
Vessels in this style are ewers, rosewater sprinklers, bracelets, bells, bowls, beakers, basins, samovars, teapots and horse equipage. They’re used in traditional architecture as openwork studs for doors, and public fountain and water taps.
There’s a large price difference between ancient vessels of brass with silver inlay and a 19th-century version even though they look similar.
Christie’s sold a vessel from the 13th century of this form for more than $15,000 in March. However they couldn’t sell it to a U.S. customer. Why? Because the U.S. prohibits the purchase of “works of conventional Iranian craftsmanship” to U.S.-based persons. That category includes objects such as carpets, textiles, decorative pieces and scientific instruments. Christie’s had a disclaimer on its auction site saying no sales were allowed to US persons.
You might have said, “I have to have this 13th-century bowl,” and you might have asked your uncle in London to buy it for you. A thing of beauty from 13th-century Persia, if purchased by your uncle in England, for import to you in the states, will need to undergo months of paperwork through the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Your uncle will need a license to send the vessel to you, because the U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned transactions with Iran. Only under special circumstances will you be allowed a license to engage in such a transaction, due to perceived threats to U.S. foreign policy. Thus, objects of great beauty suffer.
G.H.’s is neither antique nor publicly traded, and is worth $350.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.