Western myths about the Islamic world mirrored at auction

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Western politicians who take the longer view sometimes wonder why they get it so wrong with the "Islamic world." They might learn a thing or two by glancing at what happens on the auction scene.

The round of sales that began at Christie's King Street on April 8, went on at Sotheby's April 9 and ended at Christie's South Kensington two days later were enlightening on that score, if not quite as much about the works of art. These belonged to five or six cultures more different from each other than say France was from Germany in Medieval times, or Italy from England in the 18th century. Few serious historians would think of cramming the art of these countries into a single category.

Yet, this is invariably done at auction about the lands where Islam prevails. "Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds," Christie's cover proclaimed over the photograph of a 17th-century ensign from Iran. "Art of the Islamic World," Sotheby's cover intoned on April 9 over a Spanish enameled gold buckle.

Inside the catalogues, the mishmash was beyond description. To say that there was no aesthetic common denominator between the goods on offer would be the understatement of the new century.

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