3. Red Porphyry Slab

Roman Egypt, 1st century ad; Mamluk Cairo, 14th century AD
Size: 143 × 43 cm

Soon after joining Christie’s in 1967, I was assigned a small cubbyhole in the office of Tony Derham, one of their experts in Chinese art. We became firm friends, and remained so for many years thereafter. From this small patch of territory I was instructed to build up ‘The Department of Islamic Art’, the geographical context of which stretched from Spain to China. It was the first time an auction house had such a thing. A while after after my arrival, Tony was promoted to auctioneer. On the morning of his first sale as such, while he perused the catalogue to familiarise himself with the reserve prices, registered bids and so on, we were interrupted by the arrival of a smartly dressed, blazer-clad gentleman, an elegant Levantine, who engaged us in lively conversation. When it was time to go down for the auction, Tony asked me to accompany Mr. B and look after him. We stood at the back and watched the proceedings, conducted with crisp efficiency by the new auctioneer. Halfway through the sale the star item was put on the block; an unusually large early Ming blue-and-white dish. It made a world-record price, not much by today’s standards, but then a great sum, meriting a mention in next day’s Times. At this point Mr. B put his hand on my arm, steered me out of the rooms and downstairs to the lobby. ‘That Ming dish was mine,’ he told me, ‘I bought it in Cairo for £5. Please join me for lunch at the Ritz at 1 o’clock, I have things to discuss with you.’

Over lunch he explained that he had long before befriended an Armenian family who owned a big villa in Cairo, and who had collected over generations all sorts of Islamic art. It was a subject Mr. B knew little about. The family was forced to leave Cairo when Nasser came to power, surrendering their considerable business interests. The villa, however, remained legally theirs. It was boarded up and had become invisible, looked after by an elderly relative who inhabited what had been the servants’ quarters. In order to boost his meager pension, this relative was prepared to sell works of art from the villa, but only to people designated by his cousins in exile. The curious thing, said Mr. B, is that everything, whatever it is, is for sale for the same price: £5. Including the Ming dish that had just sold. He then described what he had seen but didn’t understand, particularly the values thereof. Chests of Ottoman velvets, Mamluk enamelled glass, carved wood and stone, ceramics, paintings, and so on. Assuming that I knew about such things, he asked if I would be prepared to join him in Cairo the next time he went.

A couple of days later I made an appointment with the Managing Director of Christie’s, told him the story, and suggested that here was an extraordinary possibility to boost the profile of the market for Islamic art. There was a long pause, until he looked up at me with undisguised hostility. ‘You are forbidden to go to Egypt for any purpose, or under any pretext.’

Three weeks later, on a Monday morning, a telegram arrived from Mr. B: ‘arriving Cairo Thursday stop send flight details stop will meet you at airport stop’. At lunchtime I walked to the office of Syrian Arab Airlines off Piccadilly, which provided the cheapest fares for the Middle East, and bought a ticket to Cairo scheduled to arrive in the evening of Thursday. Before leaving for the airport I called Christie’s to say I was ill, and found myself embarrassed by the sympathy offered in response to my fraudulent illness.

Mr. B was clearly as much at home in Cairo as in other capitals of the world, and took me from the airport on a whirlwind tour of the social life of the city. At each stop we seemed to accumulate more people in our train, until we ended up in a belly-dancing establishment on the road to the pyramids. Dawn streaked the sky by the time we left, and there was little time to sleep since an early start was scheduled for our visit to the villa.

Mr. B had not exaggerated the interest of what lay concealed there. In room after room we opened cupboard after cupboard and chest after chest, while he questioned me about each piece extracted from its yellowing newspaper wrapping: its origin, its age, and above all its possible value. Not everything was of interest, but the good things, and there were many, reflected a refined connoisseurship. It took most of the day to complete our investigation, and finally in the late afternoon I wandered out into the courtyard to breathe some air free of dust. There I saw, under the portico, a great jumble of architectural elements, the wooden pieces stacked upright against the back wall and the stones strewn over the floor. As I was pulling out a wood panel to get a better look at it, the elderly guardian shuffled over to my side. ‘That comes from Ibn Tulun, you know, the frieze beneath the ceiling.’ I hadn’t expected such expertise from a man who, up until that point, had seemed to be tethered to this world only by the weight of the jelaba that enveloped him. We proceeded around the portico and he gave me a history lesson on the Islamic buildings of Cairo as illustrated by the fragments before us.

It was in one corner of the portico I spotted this slab of porphyry. ‘That was part of an imperial Roman building here, and later re-used in an early 14th century mosque’, my new professor explained. Forty years before, he went on, most of the great Islamic buildings in the city were in a state of dereliction. When bits fell down they were left where they lay. The buildings became quarries of stones for new buildings in the local quarter, and the wood, as often as not, was gathered by the poorest classes and used as firewood.

I supposed he was right about the porphyry slab. Mining began in the Gebel Dokhan mountain under the Ptolemies in the 3rd century bc, and was abandoned in the 5th century ad when the cost of the huge infrastructure involved could no longer be sustained. From Tiberius’ time onwards, all porphyry belonged exclusively to the emperor. After mining ceased, the porphyry used to embellish later Byzantine and Islamic monuments was recycled from the buildings of the Roman Empire.

When I informed Mr. B of my wish to buy the slab he looked doubtful. Small pieces were easy to transport, he said, but large items were more problematic, and particularly because I wanted to keep the slab, it was a lot of effort for no profit. Eventually we agreed that it would be sent separately at my risk. I didn’t mind how long it took, and anyway £5 was not such a grave risk. It was indeed many months later that I was summoned to Tilbury Docks to clear it through customs, and the ride home in a taxi cost more than the slab.

With business done in Cairo, Mr. B decided it was time to move on to Beirut, where there were more things to show me. That Saturday night I eluded his grasp and was taken by friends to a restaurant in the Bekaa Valley. It remains a vivid memory because it was the first time I had seen at each place on each table a Lucky Strike packet containing twenty neatly rolled joints. When I arrived at Christie’s on Monday morning, after four near-sleepless nights, no one doubted I had suffered a nasty bout of flu.