Unique Gold-Inlaid Walrus-Ivory Chair
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Unique Gold-Inlaid Walrus-Ivory Chair

Amir Mohtashemi Ltd.

Made in the village of Kubachi in the Darghin region of Dagestan, a Republic in the North Caucasus, this chair represents a unique marriage of modern Western European design and Caucasian decorative tradition. The chair’s out-turned legs, high support stretcher, scrolled arms and open back enclosing two confronted S-scrolls, are almost identical to the Bentwood (no. 04) and the armchair (no. 01) designed by the Austrian cabinet-maker Michael Thonet, which can be seen in the Victoria & Albert Museum (accession nos JS 25.05.2010 and W.30-2011 respectively). Chair no. 04 was commissioned by the popular Viennese café Daum in 1849, and armchair no. 01 was designed in 1859, suggesting that this walrus ivory chair was made in the latter half of the 19th century.1

The only part of the chair devoid of ornamentation is the padded seat, which is upholstered in later caramel cotton. Dagestan was most famous for producing highly decorated arms. Multiple villages could be involved in the production of a single weapon; Amuzgi and Kharbuk craftsmen manufactured the raw weapons, before they were sent to Kubachi for decoration.2 Typical Kubachi inlay and carving techniques have been used to finish this chair.3 The main body is comprised of walrus ivory, into which thin gold wire has been hammered into engraved patterns. This technique is known as koftgari and laid out in a strictly symmetrical pattern known as тутта (tutta), or ‘branch’. Niello, a black mixture of sulphur, copper, silver, and lead, is inlaid to the etched silver of the stretcher, seat frame, and mounts. The twisting concentric vegetal motifs, formed from interweaving leaves and flowers, are known to Kubachians as мархарай (markharai/ ‘thicket’). Inscribed in koftgari amongst the markharai on the left S-scroll of the back of the chair is a maker’s signature, reading عمل محمد بن حسن (‘amal-i muhammad ibn hasan), “the work of Muhammad ibn Hasan”. This combination of inlaid ivory and niello is also seen on a flintlock rifle in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (accession no. 31.35.2), the barrel of which has an almost identical koftgari pattern. A series of Kubachian cavalry sabres (shashkas) at the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, have damascened ivory hilts and scabbards (accession nos B.O.-1916, B.O.-3806, B.O.-2184, B.O.-1920, B.O.-3803). A pair of flintlock pistols (accession nos B.O.-5356 and B.O.-4723) are similarly ornamented, and even signed by “Muhammad”, though there is no evidence to suggest that it is the same Muhammad ibn Hasan.

Such richly decorated items were used ceremonially, and often given as diplomatic gifts to royalty. A kindjal from Kubachi, decorated with koftgari and niello, was given to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in 1886, by the Russian Imperial family.4 Larger items such as cabinets, ewers and chargers were also occasionally made.5 An oval tray produced in Kubachi in 1898 made from damascened ivory and nielloed silver was sold by Christie’s, London, in 1989. It was given as a gift by Sultan Abd al-Hamid Khan as an endowment to the people of his village in 1898.6 As Mongolian authority in the region waned, Russian and Persian rule of Dagestan alternated. Finally, following the Treaty of Turkmenchay in 1828, Russian rule was consolidated. Dagestani towns started to make more commissions for Russian officers. It is likely that this chair was a commission piece, perhaps as a royal or diplomatic gift. So fine was the chair’s craftmanship that it was displayed at the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley, London, in 1924 by the dealers M. Harris & Sons.7

n.b. accession nos are clickable links

1 ‘Café Daum’, Thonet, retrieved online via
2 Chirkov, D. (ed.) Daghestan Decorative Art. Moscow: Sovietsky Khudozhnik, 1971. p. 130.
3 Rivkin, Kirill. Arms and Armor of Caucasus. USA: 2015, First Edition. p. 105.
4 Askhabov, Isa, and Askhabov, Khamzat. Поиски утраченных реликвий / Searching for Lost Relics. Moscow: Cultural Heritage, 2016. pp. 358-59.
5 Ibid. 138.
6 Christie’s. Islamic Manuscripts, Miniatures and Works of Art: London, Tuesday, 10 October 1989 at 2.30pm. London: Christie’s, 1989. p95, lot 437. 
7 M. Harris & Sons. An Abridged Introductory Catalogue of Antique Furniture and Works of Art. London: c.1924. p. 81.
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