A Fatimid carved rock crystal ewer. Egypt, last quarter 10th or first quarter 11th century, mounted by Jean-Valentin Morel, Sèvres, early 1854 ad. Photo: Courtesy Christie's

The body of tapering slightly rounded conical form on short central spreading foot, each side carved in relief with a seated cheetah held on a link chain, together flanking a central panel of interlaced arabesques with palmette terminals, a meandering band of leafy vine forming a border around the composition, the back with the base of a handle drilled and carved with paired leaves, body cracked, foot chipped, handle mostly lacking, mouth lacking, mounted in enamelled silver gilt mounts, their decoration comprising scrolling vine with palmette terminals mirroring the decoration on the crystal body, the handle similar, the hinged slightly domed cover with high floral terminal, the separate foot of spreading form similar executed, together with original red plush lined leather covered fitted box supplied by Morel, gold maker's inscription on silk lining under lid - Overall 12 1/8in. (30.7cm.) high - Estimate on request

Provenance : The mounts completed in April 1854, thence remaining within the same family to the present vendor.



The Fatimid rulers and their followers, originally with a capital at Mahdiyya on the Eastern coast of Tunisia, conquered Egypt in 969. After this victory they renamed their new capital city as Al-Qahira (the Triumphant), which still remains the Arabic name for Cairo. Works of Art in various media were created for the Fatimid court to reflect this name, and thus created a culture which was renowned throughout the known world for its opulence. Artists were arranged into over two hundred different guilds - ancient Rome only had around 150. Works of art of previously unimaginable richness were created, not just in crystal, but also in lustre decorated pottery, woodwork, architecture and precious metals.

This great period of creation, which lasted through until the mid 11th century is unfortunately best documented by its spectacular unravelling. By the mid 11th century the state had become so impoverished that, between 1061 and 1069, many of the riches of the royal treasury had to be sold, frequently at a substantial financial loss. Al-Qadi al-Rashid ibn al-Zubayr, who probably held an official post in the royal Fatimid treasury, wrote the Kitab al-Dhakhai'ir w'al-Tuhaf (The Book of Gifts and Rarities). He noted that the treasury contained some 36,000 examples of cut glass and rock crystal, a count which included ninety ewers and ninety basins of the finest and best crystal. The quality of what was dispersed was such that a ewer whose workmanship was marvelled at in 1051 when it briefly appeared in public was thought to be very modest and insignificant when it was discussed again in the context of the dispersals of the 1060s.


To date only nine other complete or nearly complete ewers are known to have survived, and apparently no basins at all, unless this description refers to the two dishes of which one is in Venice and the other in Aachen. The vast majority of surviving rock crystal Works of Art that are known have survived in church and cathedral treasuries. This was the case particularly in Italy which until recently had four of the nine ewers, two in St. Mark's cathedral, Venice, one in the cathedral at Fermo, and one in the Pitti Palace, Florence which was unfortunately shattered a few years ago. The other examples are in the Louvre Museum, Paris which was formerly in the royal treasury at Saint Denis in Paris, one in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and one stolen in 1980 from the Museum of Limoges which was formerly in the Treasury of the Abbey of Grandmont, Haut Vienne. There is a further example of similar form but much cruder workmanship that is in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, but there is some question as to whether this is of the same group. One other ewer, now in the David Collection, Copenhagen, is closely related and of the same origin and period. It however has no carving on the body and has therefore a completely different aesthetic. Of the nine there are therefore seven previously known examples that, together, form a coherent group.

All seven main ewers share many design features with the present example. The form, with the vertical handle that is mirrored in the present mount, is also a consistent feature. All are of a very similar size and overall form. All also share a number of technical features, with the lines in very high relief with near-perpendicular sides, The one exception to this is the example stolen from Limoges whose workmanship is in the most part substantially different. But while the methods of carving, and many of the minor stylistic features, are similar, the motifs vary quite considerably one from the other. Each has animal groups at each side, and arabesque designs around them. The Victoria and Albert Museum example has a hawk attacking a deer on each side, one Venice example has a lion while the other has a ram, the Fermo ewer has a bird, in this case a falcon, as do the Louvre (smaller falcon) and Pitti Palace (partridge) examples. In a similar way, the layout and the arabesque designs differ very considerably one from the other. The Victoria and Albert powerful meandering scrolling arabesques are completely different from the Venice (ram) ewer which has stronger much more linear arabesques including two panels above the animals which are completely disconnected from the rest of the design. And while the Victoria and Albert ewer is deservedly renowned for the even spacing of its decoration, some of the others, notably the Pitti and the Louvre examples include large areas of open space around the animal, comparable to that found in the present ewer.


Many of the animals depicted on the ewers have an association with hunting. In addition to falconry, which was very prevalent throughout the Islamic region, cheetahs were kept to assist the hunter, depicted on much later miniatures seated, chained, on the backs of horses behind the rider, waiting for the moment to be set after their prey. Cheetahs from a Fatimid context bearing link-chains are illustrated on the chapel de Sainte Mexme housed at the Musée des États généraux, Chinon (Arabesques et jardins de paradis, Exhibition Catalogue, Paris 1989, cat. and fig. 91). While this apparently is the only other example of a chained cheetah in Fatimid context, further untethered depictions are well known, such as on a lustre pottery bowl in the Benaki Museum, Athens (Helen Philon, Early Islamic Pottery, the Benaki Museum, London, 1981, no.467, p.221 and pl.XXIII facing p.206). Cheetahs with link-chains are however frequently depicted on Samanid pottery from the same period in Iran (M.V. Fontana, "Il sagittario, l'eclissi e il ghepardo", in M.V. Fontana & Bruno Genito eds, Studi in onore di Umberto Scerrato per il suo settantacinquesimo compleanno, Naples, 2003, I, pp.347-367, note 24).


In her thorough discussion of the ewer in the Victoria and Albert Museum Anna Contadini discusses the techniques used to create this masterpiece (Anna Contadini, Fatimid Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1998, pp.25-27). She uses research from old lapidaries using traditional methods in Germany, combined with details of how similar work was performed in China. In both cases the techniques were very similar. The initial crystal block is cut roughly to shape, and then the work of hollowing it out begins. Only when the interior is hollowed out to the required shape does the work begin on the outside of the vessel. This is remarkable in that the intricate carving on the outside is being done at the same time as cutting the crystal body to a thickness of one or two millimetres. One of the remarkable features of these crystal jugs is their great delicacy of execution.

The designs are executed with the walls almost perpendicular to the surface. The top of the long tendrils are almost invariably hatched, and the decoration within the designs tends mostly to be of small drilled circles and of short straight lines. The body of each animal is filled with dense circles, almost appearing to be in rows. This is the case whether the animal depicted is, as here, a cheetah, or, as in Venice, a ram, or even, as in Fermo, a falcon. It is not intended principally as an indication of the decoration on the original animal's fur or skin. Drilled depressions using a considerably larger drill bit are found on this ewer more than on most of the others, but the Venice lion ewer uses similarly large drill holes on the lions' paws, and it is a similar sized bit that is used to drill the holes in the handles of almost all the surviving ewers. The main place where the largest drill is used is on the cheetah's chain where its use is completely logical. It also appears on the base of the split in the animal's tail, a feature that is also found on a carved relief in the Haifa museum (E. Baer, "A Group of Seljuk Figural Bas Reliefs", in Oriens, 20, 1967, pp. 107-124, Pl. III.2). And while this split tail is not easily found on Fatimid animals, a very similar motif appears as the central motif of the design on a rock crystal bottle now in the treasury of the cathedral at Astorga (Leon, Spain) (Manual Casamar and Fernando Valdez Fernandez, "Les objets Egyptiens en crystal de roche dans al-Andalus", in L'Egypte Fatimide, son art et son histoire, Paris, 1999, p.374 and Ill.75, col.pl.27).

All the ewers except the Victoria and Albert one and the present one have a raised single band around the lowest part of the belly before it returns to the foot. Both this and the V&A example have a continuous band of arabesques at this point. All seem to have a plain drop-shaped panel on the body under the handle, as here. There are many other features that link some but not all of the ewers together; one thing that emerges is the considerable differences in detail between the different ewers. Each one has features that are not found on any of the others - the tightly cusped panel around the base of the handle in Paris, the separated arabesque elements on the Venice ram ewer, the vacant cartouche on the front of the Venice lion ewer, the large amount of vacant space behind the bird on the Pitti Palace example, to note but a few. Within the general confines of the form the artist-craftsmen were obviously allowed very considerable freedom of expression.


When the Victoria and Albert Museum ewer was purchased in 1862 it was thought to be Byzantine in origin. It was only at the end of the 19th century that opinion was changed and the attribution was altered to Fatimid. This may well have been as a result of the first proper publication of two of the ewers, those in the treasury of St. Mark's cathedral in Venice, which were first published in 1885-6 by Pasini (A Pasini, Il Tesoro di San Marco in Venezia illustrato da Antonio Pasini, canonical della Marciana, Venice, vols 1 and 2, 1885 and 1886). The whole group had to wait until the 1920s to be defined by Lamm (C. J. Lamm, Mittelälterliche Gläser und Steinschnittarbeiten aus dem nahen Osten, 2 vols, Berlin, 1929 and 1930). As a result, in the first half of the twentieth century, there was a tendency to attribute any mediaeval Islamic rock crystal to Fatimid Egypt. Today this opinion has been altered and there is a greater range of attributions, reflecting more what is known from texts of the period.

Only three Islamic mediaeval rock crystal carvings are securely attributable and dateable, each on account of its inscription. All were produced in a short period of time under the Fatimid caliphate. Two of these are ewers. The Venice lion ewer is inscribed "blessing from Allah for the Imam al-'Aziz-billah", referring to the caliph al-'Aziz who reigned 975-996 AD. The Pitti Palace example refers to Husain ibn Juwhar, a general under the caliph al-Hakim and it is thus dateable to 1000-1008 AD. The third is a crescent amulet, now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg (Avinoam Shalem, Islam Christianised, Islamic Portable Objects in the Medieval Church Treasuries of the Latin West, Peter Lang, Frankfurt-am-Main, 1998, no.72, pp.222-3, and pl.15, p.379). This is inscribed as having been made for the Fatimid Caliph "al-Zahir li-i'zaz din Allah" who ruled 1021-1036. It is of considerably simpler form and it is tempting to suggest that the weakness of the Fatimid economy was already making itself felt, and thus that our ewer probably antedates this object. Our ewer is very similar indeed to the group of seven, two of which are dated. A date on our ewer therefore in the last quarter of the 10th century or the first quarter of the 11th seems almost certain.


Jean-Valentin Morel (1794-1860)

The maker of the French mid 19th century mounts on this ewer had a long and varied career both in his native France and in England. He was the son of the Parisian lapidary, Valentin Morel (1761-1833) under whom he initially trained. He subsequently continued his training under one of the leading Paris gold box makers of the period, Adrien Vachette (1753-1839) and finally established his own business, almost certainly in 1827.

From 1834 to 1840 he was one of the leading craftsman working for Jules Fossin, who had taken over the business of the Imperial jewellers, Etienne Nitot in 1815 and he is recorded as mounting hardstone cups in gold and enamel among other things for the firm. In 1842 he went into partnership with Henri Duponchell (1794-1864) and the business seems to have prospered apparently employing, within two years, some 80 workmen including lapidaries and enamellers.

Following the dissolution of this partnership which involved a court case he moved to London, opening premises on 7 New Burlington Street in 1849 trading as a goldsmith and jeweller. Through various émigrés and former clients, who had left France in the 1848 Revolution, most notably Queen Louise of the Belgians, eldest daughter of the French King Louis-Philippe (r.1830-1848), he was introduced to English aristocracy and indeed, in 1849, to Queen Victoria herself. He was awarded the title of Goldsmith to the Crown in 1852. In spite of this and considerable critical acclaim at the 1851 Great Exhibition, he ran into financial problems again and was forced to dissolve the business in the autumn of 1852. (D. Scarisbrick, 'Jean Valentin Morel, Jeweller, Chaumet's fortunes in England', Apollo, January, 1966 p.27).

He returned to France and settled at Sèvres and in 1855 exhibited his celebrated Hope Vase at the Paris Exhibition for which he won the medal of honour. He died in 1860 in deep financial trouble and the firm ceased in that year.

The maker's mark that Morel registered in Paris in 1827 is recorded as M over V in a lozenge with a compass between. On his return to France in 1852 he was not allowed to work and, presumably thus to register a mark, in Paris because of the court ruling following the 1848 case with Duponchell (D. Scarisbrick, op. cit., p.26).

While working at Sèvres he appears to have used a different mark of VM with a vertical sword between and with four pellets above and below the letters, as on this piece. The identical maker's mark is recorded on a gold and enamel mounted heliotrope cup, which is also in addition signed by Morel at Sèvres, recorded in the Al-Tajir collection (the cup but not the mark is illustrated in The Glory of the Goldsmith, Magnificent Gold and Silver from the Al-Tajir Collection, Christie's, 1989, pp. 260-1, no. 221). The fitted box made for the present ewer and labelled with Morel's Sèvres address, substantiates that this is the maker's mark he used during this period of his career. More importantly it confirms that the mounts on this rock crystal ewer had to have been made after 1852 and before his death in 1860.

It is almost certain that the present lot is the same as the ewer that Clément de Riz describes as seeing on his visit to Morel's workshop at Sèvres in early 1854:

(Il) prépare encore une buire en cristal de roche montée sur bijoux et émaux ('He is still working on a ewer (or water jug) in rock crystal mounted on jewels and enamel').
('Mouvement des arts', L'Artiste, 1 April 1854, pp.76-79)

This and other contemporary accounts underscore Morel's position as perhaps the leading mounter of hardstones in enamelled precious metal in mid-19th century Europe, one who was uniquely qualified to tackle the difficult job of mounting this treasure sympathetically.

Given the very unusual form of the handle, which does not appear in silver of the period, there can be little doubt that Morel had broken pieces from the original on which to base his ideas. The conscious selection of Egyptian decorative motifs to enrich the mounts, surely indicate that the piece was remounted for a connoisseur fully aware of the very great rarity he possessed.

A letter discovered in an archive enables us to be certain of the commission. It is from Morel and is dated 18 October 1854. The relevant paragraph of the letter refers to correspondence from April that year when Morel wrote to the person for whom he was mounting the "Moorish crystal" ("crystal mauresque"), telling him that it was ready for collection and that he was pleased with the way the mounts had worked out. The rest of the letter is about financial matters and how Morel is trying to extract full payment for the work he had done. It notes that the agreed sum for the mounts was 4,500 frs, a very considerable amount of money at the time. This letter confirms the identity of the patron for the ewer, the date of the mounts being finished, the cost of the work undertaken, and the fact that at the time the ewer was thought to be Moorish.


The date of 1854, when the mounts were made, is earlier than that of the first publication of any of the group of rock crystal ewers. It is also earlier than the appearance on the market of the example that was sold to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1862. It is inconceivable that in these circumstances such a ewer could have been made to fit into a group of items which had yet to be defined. What is more, by that date the ewer had already had a number of accidents and damages, and was already demonstrably in its present condition. The mounts clearly show that Morel was aware of the form of the handle, and are made to show as much of the original crystal as is possible. The appearance of an eighth ewer of the same form and stylistic group as the previously known examples is a hugely important art historical event. As has been demonstrated above, the form, the style and overall aesthetic, the layout and decorative elements, together with the technique, all fit within the body of known rock crystal carvings from the high Fatimid period. The quality of carving and the design fully justify the comments of Al-Qadi al-Rashid ibn al-Zubayr in his Book of Gifts and Rarities when he referred to the rock crystal pieces that came out of the Fatimid treasury in the 1060s: "wealthy merchants transported some of [the precious items] to the other capitals and to all countries [as] they became beautiful treasures and adornments for their kings as well as ornaments and objects of pride for their kingdom".

Christie's would like to thank Dr. Richard Edgcumbe, Senior Curator of Metalwork, Silver and Jewellery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Professor Maria Vittoria Fontana of the Istituto Universitario Orientale, Naples; Isabelle Lucas, Librarian at the Ministry of Culture, Paris; Diana Scarisbrick, Jewellery Historian, London; Philip Winterbottom of Royal Bank of Scotland, Group Archives and a number of other unnamed specialists for their help in preparing this catalogue entry.

Christie's. Art Of The Islamic And Indian Worlds. 7 October 2008. London, King Street - www.christies.com