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A detail from a silk samite shirt made by the nomadic Sogdian people of central Asia.

Ancient Silk Shirt from a Fallen Empire is Set to Fetch a Bundle at Auction

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An exceptional silk shirt made by a skilled Sogdian craftsman is going up for auction at the end of April. The honey-golden color of the silk is decorated with ducks wearing flowing scarves while holding jeweled necklaces in their beaks – this was a garment made for an elite member of Sogdian society, perhaps even a royal, and now it is expected to reach a hefty sum at auction.

Sotheby’s estimates the shirt’s value as between £300,000- £500,000 (413,100-688,500 USD). It was likely a treasured piece of clothing for a member of the Sogdian royal house and then well cared for by subsequent owners because it is over 1,000 years old and there are only slight marks of wearing at the armpits and bottom on the shirt. It still shines as if it were recently woven by practiced hands.

Back of the silk shirt. ( Sotheby’s)

Alexandra Roy, the deputy director of the Middle East department at Sotheby’s, told The Guardian ,

“There are hardly any of these garments outside museums, and the condition of this one is extraordinary – they were known and coveted as cloth of gold and although it is entirely woven of silk, after 1,000 years it still really does look as if it was made of real gold.”

The silk shirt was woven sometime between the 7th to 9th century by a Sogdian artisan. The Guardian reports that the Sogdians were well-known for their textiles and Sotheby’s quotes scholar Étienne de la Vaissière, who wrote that the nomadic people were “[…] great traders of Inner Asia. They managed to sell their products – musk, slaves, silverware, silk and many other goods – to all the surrounding peoples.”

The Sogdians lived in fertile valleys around deserts in today’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan regions. They were the go-betweens on the inland silk road, which some researchers say was synonymous with the “Sogdian trading network.” Apart from their famed trading skills, documented by contemporary Sogdian, Chinese, Arabic, Byzantine, and Armenian sources, these people are also remembered for having built sites such as Samarkand, Bukhara, Khujand, Panjikent and Shahrisabz.

Sogdian merchants making donations to Buddha. 9th century fresco from the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves near Turfan, Xinjiang, China.

Sogdian merchants making donations to Buddha. 9th century fresco from the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves near Turfan, Xinjiang, China. ( Public Domain )

It has been suggested that the Sogdian silk shirt was traded or given as a high-status gift. This magnificent artifact was owned by a French collector and is going up for auction in Sotheby’s “Arts of the Islamic World” sale on April 25, 2018.

Although the estimated sum for the silk shirt is impressive, this is certainly not the most expensive antiquity to be sold in an auction . The top three items, by price, to be sold in auction are:

3. Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester, which was sold for $30.8 million at Christie’s in New York. This is a 72-page manuscript written by the famed Leonardo da Vinci complete with texts, drawings, diagrams, and sketches. It combines art and science and discusses the presence of fossils on mountains, the properties of water, theories on astronomy, and a proposal that the surface of the moon may be covered in water. Bill Gates bought the codex in 1994 and scanned the pages to make the document available online.

A page from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester. (Public Domain )

A page from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester. (Public Domain )

2. The Badminton Cabinet. It sold for $36 million at Christie’s in London in 2004 and is expected to be worth $1 billion by 2064. This is a 12-foot (3.6 meter) tall ebony cabinet commissioned by Henry Somerset-Scudamore, 3rd Duke of Beaufort, in 1726. It took 30 Florentine expert craftsmen six years to make this piece; which was bought by collector Prinz Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein and is now on display at the Liechtenstein Museum.

1. Pinner Qing Dynasty Vase, sold at $80.2 million at a private sale through Bainbridges Auction House. This is a rare Chinese golden vase featuring fish and flower motifs. It is widely praised for its purity and beauty. The vase bares the imperial seal and was crafted for Emperor Qianlong, who reigned between 1736 and 1795. No one knows for sure how it ended up in London, but stories say an explorer took it as a souvenir in the 1920s. At first it was believed to be a replica, but the authenticity of the artifact sent the price skyrocketing from $1000- $1 million…and the price just kept rising.

The Pinner Qing Dynasty Vase. ( justcollecting.com) This is reportedly the most expensive antique sold at an auction.

The Pinner Qing Dynasty Vase. ( justcollecting.com) This is reportedly the most expensive antique sold at an auction.

Top Image: A detail from a silk samite shirt made by the nomadic Sogdian people of central Asia. Source: Vincent Girier Dufournier/Sotheby's

By Alicia McDermott

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