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The nineteenth century saw a boom in the demand for Iranian lustre ware in Europe – local and foreign dealers alike clambered to get their hands on these items in order to sell them to museums and private collectors especially in Britain and France. This article explores this phenomenon and considers some of the methods used for obtaining the popular items, both legitimate and questionable.

They just can't get enough

Although we can learn much from the objects themselves, knowledge of the context in which they were found and acquired can enrich your understanding immeasurably. During the nineteenth century in Britain there was a surge in interest in Iranian ceramics, including lustre. Lustre was more rare than other forms of ceramic and viewed at the time as a luxurious art object. The eye-catching aesthetic helped lustre ware to grow in popularity, which in turn led to the collections we see in museums in Britain today. 

As objects were acquired, they were removed from their original contexts to be displayed, for example, on walls or in glass cases. Even a tile, a practical element of an entire wall covering, might be individually framed and displayed as an art object. These new settings and modes of display may have increased the public appetite to see these objects.

The man on the ground

Brits stationed in Iran

Sir Robert Murdoch Smith was one of the most important British collectors of Iranian art in the nineteenth century. The Scottish engineer was stationed at the Persian Telegraph Department in Tehran for over 20 years, during which time he was engaged by the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum) to acquire objects. He made multiple shipments while posted there which included lustre objects such as tiles.

Sir Robert Murdoch Smith portrait

Locals dealing in lustre

French dealers had an established presence and Murdoch Smith certainly dealt with them for some objects, including Jules Richard and Jean-Baptiste Nicolas. Contemporary descriptions and records of these individuals and their clients help us to understand the provenance of the objects in our collections.

Understanding where things come from

We can also use things like dealer markings to identify where the objects came from. The National Museum of Scotland acquired a number of objects directly from dealers too. You can see the markings on the back of tile which show the acquisition numbers of the different museum owners but also Richard’s markings.

back of star tile with markings

Clues for the object's history

You can also see this with other objects from other dealers, such as this ewer. This object shows a paper label still attached to its base, which may provide clues to where the object has been in the past.

From monument to museum

There were two key ways in which the lustre objects found their way into the hands of dealers and collectors – either they were taken from existing monuments or they were excavated. It is possible and probably that a number of tiles were plundered from monuments, although we do not have evidence showing if the Europeans hired agents to do it or if plunderers acted independently, selling on the wares to willing customers. It was not until the later 1870s that the local government issued an edict protecting the buildings from plunderers. Indeed, the shah’s authorisation of the sharing of tiles from monuments was implicit in his attendance and praise of French dealer collections at the Parisian Universal Exposition of 1889. A number of the tiles in the NMS collection were purchased from this exhibit and sale by Jules Richard.

Excavations tell a slightly different story. The interest of private and public collectors was in whole objects, encouraging archaeological excavation at sites such as Rayy (pictured above). Digs are where many practical objects with lustre have been found: jugs, bottles, bowls, plates and more. When only fragments were found, this led to reconstructions in order to be sold.

The bowl seen here shows the fragments reconstructed. Along the cracks you can see where each piece has been joined together, with some thicker paste where the join is not perfect. Small differences in glaze or tone might mean that local potters created additional fragments to replace missing pieces.

bowl outer rim

lustre bowl outer upside down

By looking at the reconstructed items found in archaeological digs, you can also see the different methods through which the items were put back together. Unlike the previous lustre bowl, this example has retained much of its shine. It was in only a few shards which have been stitched back together using a different technique – seen here with the metal bolts running up the break like a ladder.

Something about these ceramics captured the interests of local and British audiences, causing a surge in demand in the nineteenth century which caused an increase in archaeological digs but also increased removal from local monuments and buildings. Although many of these took place will appropriate approvals, some were carried out with more dubious sanctions. The activity of local dealers and experts in these wares resulted in the cultivation of a certain taste for lustre among collectors, ultimately leading to many of the lustre ware acquisitions which you see on display at the National Museum of Scotland today. 

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