A 12th century key to the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest site in Islam, sold for $18.1 million late on Wednesday, setting a new record for an Islamic work of art at auction.
The Abbasid period key, made of iron and measuring 37cm long, sold at Sotheby's in London for more than 18 times its pre-sale estimate and was bought anonymously. It is the only known example to remain in private hands.
The key, one of the ultimate symbols of religious power, is engraved with the words: "This is what was made for the Holy House of God during the time of our lord the Imam son of Imam al-Muqtadi Abu Ja'far al-Mustansir Abu'l-Abbas 573."
It was the highlight of the auctioneer's Islamic sale, which realised £21.5 million, in excess of the pre-sale high estimate of £13.1 million and a new record for an Islamic art auction.
"Remarkably, the sale realised more than the Islamic department's annual total in 2007, demonstrating beyond doubt the burgeoning and international demand for Islamic Art," said Edward Gibbs, head of Sotheby's Islamic art department.
The previous record for a work of Islamic art sold at auction is believed to be a bronze fountainhead in the form of a hind dating from mid-10th century Spain. It sold at Christie's in 1997 for £3.6 million.
At a separate London auction held at Bonhams on Thursday, a rare dagger that once belonged to 17th century Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan sold for £1.7 million, four times the estimate.
The work, inscribed with the emperor's name, title and date and place of its manufacture, is one of two daggers known to have been personally owned by the man who built the Taj Mahal. It was sold at Bonhams's Indian and Islamic sale.
On Tuesday, Christie's held its London Islamic auction which fetched £11.8 million, including a leaf from a mid-seventh century copy of the Koran sold for £2.5 million versus a pre-sale estimate of £100-150,000.
It was a new world auction record for an Islamic manuscript, the company said.
In addition to the example sold at Sotheby's this week, there are 58 recorded Kaaba keys, all held in museums.
Most, 54, are in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, two are in the Nuhad Es-Said Collection, one is in the Louvre in Paris and one is in the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo.
Sotheby's called the Kaaba key "arguably one of the most important symbols of Islam". According to the auctioneer, the tradition of dedicating the key to each caliph appears to have originated with the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad.
The Kaaba is the ancient cubic shrine which all Muslims face when they perform their daily prayers, and is located at the centre of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. (Reuters)
Islamic art sale sets new record