Amélie Couvrat Desvergnes (independent paper and book conservator and researcher, Utrecht, the Netherlands) and Shiva Mihan (Fellow in the School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton)
An album of calligraphy specimens is preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) in Paris, with the accession number Arabe 6870. It contains Arabic verses by Ali ibn Abi Talib (c. 600-661), the fourth Caliph and the first Shia Imam, widely known as Prayers of Ali (Munajat-i ‘Ali). The calligraphy specimens are executed in a 19th-century technique which only involved plain paper and fingernails; hence, it is called ‘fingernail art’ or nakhuni in Persian. After a brief history of fingernail art, this essay will investigate the content of this unbound album, and then discuss the origin and peregrination of the paper and its seals.
Fingernail art was first invented in Iran probably in the late Safavid period and was certainly in practice by the 18th century. This minimalistic medium is very different from the other media deployed in Persian arts of the book: instead of ink, precious pigments (such as lapis lazuli), and pure gold and silver, fingernail technique involves only a sheet of plain paper and the artist’s fingers. The artist creates drawings or calligraphy with nail pressure of the thumb and ring finger from both sides of the paper, which results in a three-dimensional, embossed effect on paper. Nasser Javaherpour, a contemporary fingernail artist, shows the technique in a video in the same way as a traditional fingernail artists would have practiced it. Fingernail artworks either display text, in the form of calligraphy, or a representational composition, involving human figures, animals or flowers. “The embossed effect on the paper creates a relief – like bas-relief on marble – in which instead of ink or colours outlining the forms and shapes, the eye is presented with a delicate interaction between light and shadow. A ‘tactile vision’, one might call it”. Therefore, the viewing angle plays a significant role in the presentation of fingernail artworks.
The pinnacle of this technique in Iran was in the Qajar period during the 19th century, from which the Golestan Palace Library in Tehran holds 15 exquisite albums. This is the richest collection of fingernail artworks in the world, very likely produced or compiled for royal libraries of the Qajar kings, judging by the notes or seals they bear. Golestan Palace albums also provide us with the signature of several artists, without which we would not have known they had existed. Some of the most prominent masters were Princess Fakhri (1796–1858), Mirza ‘Ali Akbar Naqqash (1808-1894), Muhammad Kazim (1830-1897), and Muhammad Husayn Shirazi (fl. 1279/1862). Fingernail artists were required to be highly skilled in both calligraphy and drawing, and we witness that some of them were well-versed in various calligraphic scripts.
Considering that fingernail artworks had to be executed on folios with limited dimensions in order to be manageable in the artist’s hand, most of the works found today in private collections or museums are in the form of albums or more often dispersed single folios. The Arabe 6870 (fig. 1). from the BnF includes 30 bifolios of fingernail calligraphy, once bound in its original binding and order. However, the album is currently unbound and the folios are detached from the binding, covered with blue velvet. Traces of Arabic numerals demonstrate that the early foliation in pale pencil was in a different order from the later foliation in Roman numerals. The latter lacks the correct order of lines in Ali ibn Abi Talib’s composition. We cannot be certain when the current numbering was done but possibly before the album was acquired by the BnF in 1960.
Another album of calligraphy (BnF, MS. Arabe 6715) contains the same text of Arabic prayers of Ali ibn Abi Talib in nastaʿliq script, signed by the Persian calligraphy master Mir ‘Imad al-Hasani (1554-1615) in 1016/1607 (fig. 2).
The folios in this album – re-margined with different (probably Indian) paper – were misplaced during a later rebinding; yet, the order of lines in that album is not identical to that of the album of fingernail calligraphy either. The table below displays the correct order of lines and the image numbers as seen on the digital images of the album. The current number of folios are not the same as the image numbers.
|Folio numbers||Image numbers||text|
|f. 28v||54||بسم الله الرحمن الرّحیم|
|f. 27r||52||و به نستعین|
|f. 28r||53||لك الحمد يا ذا الجود والمجد والعلى|
|8||تباركت تعطي من تشاء وتمنع|
|14||إلهي وخلاقي وحرزي وموئلي|
|15||إليك لدى الإعسار واليسر أفزع|
|7||إلهي لئن جلت وجمت خطيئتي|
|6||فعفوك عن ذنبي أجل وأوسع|
|16||إلهي لئن أعطيت نفسي سؤلها|
|17||فها أنا في روض الندامة أرتع|
|18||إلهي ترى حالي وفقري وفاقتي|
|19||وأنت مناجاتي الخفية تسمع|
|20||إلهي فلا تقطع رجائي ولا تزغ|
|21||فؤادي فلي في سيب جودك مطمع|
|22||اِلـهي لَئِنْ خَيَّبْتَني اَوْ طَرَدْتَني|
|10||فَمَنْ ذَا اَّلذي اَرْجُووَمَنْ ذا اُشَفِّعُ|
|24||إلهي أجرني من عذابك إنني|
|25||أسير ذليل خائف لك أخضع|
|26||إلهي فانسني بتلقين حجتي|
|12||إذا كان لي في القبر مثوى ومضجع|
|11||إلهي لئن عذبتني ألف حجة|
|27||فحبل رجائي منك لا يتقطع|
|28||إلهي أذقني طعم عفوك يوم لا|
|29||بنون ولا مال هنالك ينفع|
|3||إلهي لئن لم ترعني كنت ضائعا|
|2||وإن كنت ترعاني فلست أضيع|
|5||إلهي إذا لم تعف عن غير محسن|
|4||فمن لمسيء بالهوى يتمتع|
|30||إلهي لئن فرطت في طلب التقى|
|31||فها أنا إثر العفو أقفو وأتبع|
|1||اِلـهي لَئِنْ اَخْطاْتُ جَهْلاً فربّما [فطالما]|
|13||رَجَوْتُكَ حَتّى قيلَ ما هُوَ يَجْزَعُ|
|34||الـهي ذُنُوبي بَذَّتِ الطَّوْدَ وَاْعتَلَت|
|35||وَصَفْحُكَ عَنْ ذَنْبي اَجَلُّ وَاَرْفَعُ|
|42||اِلـهي يُنَحّي ذِكْرُ طَوْلِكَ لَوْعَتي|
|49||وَذِكْرُ الْخَطايَا الْعَيْنَ مِنّي يُدَمِّعُ|
|50||اِلـهي اَقِلْني عَثْرَتي وَامْحُ حَوْبَتي|
|45||فَاِنّي مُقِرٌّ خائِفٌ مُتَضَرِّعٌ|
|32||اِلـهي اَنِلْني مِنْك رَوْحاً رحمة [وَراحَةً]|
|33||فَلَسْتُ سِوى اَبْوابِ فَضْلِكَ اَقْرَعُ|
|46||اِلـهي لَئِنْ اَقْصَيْتَني اَوْ اَهَنْتَني|
|23||فَما حيلَتي يا رَبِّ اَمْ كَيْفَ اَصْنَعُ|
|36||اِلـهي حَليفُ الْحُبِّ في اللَّيْلِ ساهِرٌ|
|37||يُناجي وَيَدْعُووَالْمُغَفَّلُ يَهْجَعُ|
|Missing folio||اِلـهي وَهذَا الْخَلْقُ ما بَيْنَ نائِم وَمُنْتَبه في لَيْلَهِ يَتَضَرَّعُ|
|9||وكُلُّهُمْ يَرجُونَوالَكَ راجِياً|
|58||لِرَحْمَتِكَ الْعُظْمى وَفِي الْخُلْدِ يَطْمَعُ|
|38||اِلـهي يُمَنّيني رَجائِي سَلامَةً|
|39||وَقُبْحُ خَطيئاتِي عَلَيَّ يُشَنِّعُ|
|40||اِلـهي فَاِنْ تَعْفُوفَعَفْوُكَ مُنْقِذي|
|41||وَاِلاّ فَبِالذَّنْبِ الْمُدَمِّرِ اُصْرَعُ|
|57||[اِلـهي بِحَقِّ الْهاشِمي و مُحَمَّد [آله|
|f. 26v?||Missing folio||وَحُرْمَةِ اَطْهار هُمُ لَكَ خُضَّعٌ اِلـهي بِحَقِّ الْمُصْطَفى وَابْنِ عَمِّهِ|
|47||وَحُرْمَةِ اَبْرار هُمُ لَكَ خُشَّعٌ|
|48||اِلـهي فَاَنْشِرْني عَلى دينِ اَحْمَد|
|43||مُنيباً تَقِيّاً قانِتاً لَكَ اَخْضَعُ|
|44||وَلا تَحْرِمْني يا اِلـهي وَسَيِّدي|
|55||شَفاعَتَهُ الْكُبْرى فَذاكَ الْمُشَفَّعُ|
|56||وَصلِّ عَلَيْهِمْ ما دَعاكَ مُوَحِّد|
|f. 26r||51||وَناجاكَ اَخْيارٌ بِبابِكَ رُكَّع|
Table 1: Order of verses and the sequence of digital images. Brackets indicate variants.
The BnF fingernail calligraphy album resembles an album in the Malek National Library and Museum in some aspects. The Malek album, no. 6777, contains a fragment of an Arabic prayer associated with ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, widely known as Nad-i ‘Ali, and several other verses about Imam ‘Ali in Persian and Arabic, executed on paper with similar proportions (fig. 3). This album was purchased by the late connoisseur-collector Ezzat-Malek Soudavar outside of Iran, and was gifted to the Malek Museum in Tehran.
Currently, the bifolios in the BnF album are held in their original binding made of two boards covered with navy blue velvet, simply decorated with a band of palmette motifs, embossed all along the perimeter with a roulette. Each bifolio was folded in half and was directly glued, without sewing, to the spine of the blue velvet binding, forming a wrapped-back binding. Similar to the BnF binding, the Malek album was also covered in purple velvet adorned with a repeating pattern of gilded diamonds enclosing paisley motifs (fig. 4). In addition, another album by a female artist dated 1313/1895-96 and signed Alawiah (auction 19778, Christies) also have a blue velvet cover, decorated with similar gilt lattice and paisley pattern. Another example of nakhuni albums with velvet covers is the Malek, MS. 6008, which is bound in deep olive velvet with floral patterns. Bindings with velvet covers were in vogue and frequently used in Iran in the Qajar period in the 19th century.
Fig. 4. Velvet bindings of fingernail calligraphy albums, late 19th century, Iran.
To estimate an approximate date for the BnF album, we have examined the paper chosen for the calligraphy specimens and the signs they bear. Each bifolio in the album Arabe 6870 measures 225 x 350 mm. When unfolding the bifolio, the sheet of paper, as it left the factory, would have measured 450 x 350 mm. Seven old binding holes along the gutter (sewing edge) indicate that the bifolios were previously assembled with a stab-stitch sewing.
In the corner of each bifolio, two dry seals are stamped. Twenty-four bifolios have a dry seal with a griffin, embossed in a coat of arms. The seal impression also bears the name of Kymmene, embossed in a banner above the griffin and the number four (4) below it. Another six bifolios are stamped with an oval dry seal impression containing names in Cyrillic and the number four (4) in the middle of the frame.
Tracking the origin of the seals led us to interesting information. The first dry seal indicates that the paper was produced in the Kymmene Aktiebolag papermill in the Kymi Valley, eastern Finland, which was founded in 1873. The abundance of forest resources and the high hydraulic power to run the sawmills were the cornerstones of the Finnish pulp and paper industry. Kymmene Aktiebolag developed rapidly and became the largest paper and cardboard manufacturer in Northern Europe before World War I.
The production of chemical wood pulp began there in 1885. Hard- and soft-woods, replacing rags, were treated with sulphite to increase paper output and lower production expenses. As Kymmene papers and particularly printing papers were principally exported to Russia since 1881, a competition was organized to create a distinctive logo specifically for the Russian trade. Approximately a third of the paper exported from Finland to Russia in the 1880s was manufactured by either Kymmene or Kuusankoski Oy. By World War I, Kymmene’s share of Finnish paper exports to Russia alone was between 25 to 30 percent. Hugo Simberg’s griffin design won the contest and Kymmene purchased his design in 1899. The griffin, keeper of kings’ possessions and gold, is a significant mythical creature in Scandinavian mythology and folklore. The number (4) below the griffin refers to the paper grade (fig. 5).
The original design changed over time and became more modernised; however, the logo that appears on the BnF folios, permits dating the paper between 1899 and 1913. This in turns indicates that the BnF fingernail calligraphy album was very likely produced during the first decade of the twentieth century.
The second dry seal impression consists of Cyrillic inscriptions (fig.6) which read “Общ. троицк. дашк. бум. карт. фабр.” – or in the deployed form”Общество Троицко-Дашковской бумаго-картонной фабрики”, which can be translated “by Company of the Dashkovs paper and cardboard factory in Troitskoe”. This factory was located in the village of Troitskoe, and belonged to the administrative region of Kaluga, in southwest Moscow. The village used to be the estate of the Dashkov noble family. There is very limited information about the factory. It was probably founded in the 1890s and possibly operated until 1941. From a report dated 1905 we realize that Troitskoe papermill used to produce cardboard, papers of various colors, and paper for writing, printing and wrapping, glassine papers from wood, and rags and straw all of these produced by a workforce of 480 serfs.
In general, seal impression predominantly provides the name of the manufacturer and owner, often abbreviated, and sometimes includes a coat of arms representing of the province where the mill was located. The quality or grade of the paper in form of a number was also embossed. Since a single mill could have several different stamps that were used simultaneously or sequentially over time, it is difficult today to accurately date a paper. The embossed stamp was normally located in the upper left-hand corner of a quire of six folded sheets or bifolio. The seal was embossed by the action of a special handheld press. As a result, the stamp on the first sheet of the quire was easily decipherable, while the imprints gradually faded over the other sheets of the quire. For this reason, it is difficult to find imprints with readable inscriptions; a difficulty aggravated by the small size of the stamps and small characters used in their inscriptions.
Russian Paper Trade
To regulate paper production and ensure quality control, the Tsarist administration took some measures. In 1744, a decree made the labelling of good quality products made in Russia compulsory. The first dry seal appeared in the late eighteenth century, and by the 1820s it was used as the manufacturer’s trademark for both notepaper and foolscap paper.
From 1809 to 1917 the Grand Duchy of Finland was part of the Russian Empire as an autonomous country. As a result, trade agreements made paper export easier. The construction of the Helsinki-St. Petersburg railway in 1867-70 opened up new prospects for Finnish goods and facilitated exports, notably during winter when ships were immobilised. Initially, Kymmene company sold goods on commission at some locations in Russia. When in 1916 the Kauppaosakeyhtiö Kymmene Aktiebolag trading company was established in St. Petersburg and registered as a Russian Public Limited Company, a number of sale offices were opened in Moscow, Nizhni Novgorod, Rostov, Tiflis, Odessa, Baku, Samara, St. Petersburg, Krakow, and Kiev. Therefore, it is possible that reams of Kymmene paper stamped with the griffin seals were shipped to the Troitskoe paper mill and received the Russian-Cyrillic dry seal before being exported to Iran (Fig.7).
Russian Paper Trade to Iran
The history of papermaking in Russia has been well documented, as well as Russian-Iranian commerce, but the use of Russian papers in Iranian administrative documents and artistic production has received partial attention from scholars. Recent studies have brought to light a number of royal documents, such as farmans, raqams and manuscripts, bearing watermarks or dry seal impressions. Papers, often of blue colour, produced in the Volga region – in and around Yaroslavl’ city and in the provinces of Kostroma and Teren’ga – have been identified, thanks to their watermarks. Likewise, papers of Armenian origin were recently unveiled. Francis Richard also mentions that papers marked with dry seals appeared between 1850 and 1880 in Persian manuscripts. Russian and Armenian papermills, located on the trade routes, were well connected to Iran, first, via land trading routes through Armenia and Astrakhan and, second, via maritime routes over the Caspian Sea. Tabriz was the main point of entry for European goods transported via the overland route and transiting through the Ottoman Empire, Armenia or Syria and Iraq, while Rasht was the main port for Russian imports via the Caspian Sea. All sorts of imported papers, machine- or hand-made, gradually supplanted local handmade papers whose production significantly declined during the unstable eighteenth century. These were used not only for official documents but also for artistic production and fulfilled the ever-growing demand for paper materials alongside the development of bureaucracy and printing, such as lithography, newspapers, domestic usage and popularisation of visual art and craft among the middle classes.
Finnish Paper as Support for the Album Arabe 6870
As evoked throughout the article, the paper used for the execution of fingernail calligraphy is not a fine art paper and was not originally intended for artistic use. It is a wove paper made from chemical wood pulp in a cylinder machine. However, the surface is lightly glossy and smooth indicating that the paper was probably sized and burnished in Iran before being used. This was a common practice performed by bookbinders for imported papers which had a rougher surface appearance and were not suitable for receiving inks and colors.  The number (4) corresponds to a regular writing paper, used for correspondence or administrative purposes. Russian papers were stamped with numbers from (1) to (8), (1) being the highest quality whereas (8) was the lowest. In addition, the deterioration of the paper in multiple tears and edge embrittlement confirms its ordinary quality due to the nature of its components and the manufacturing process. Kymmene Company used sulfite to treat the wood and remove the lignin from the wood fiber. Nevertheless, the material produced is of appropriate thickness and softness for the artist to effortlessly emboss it with fingernails. We can imagine that Iranian artists were subject to vagaries and uncertainties of foreign trade and production, so they had to be content with the choice of supplies available on the market. Therefore, notebook, printing or stationary paper might have been repurposed for painting, drawing and calligraphy. On the other hand, since many fingernail specimens were made with similar types of stationery papers, this might suggest that artists found this medium easier and more convenient to use.
Finally, close-up examination reveals the artist’s technique: some corrections are visible when the calligrapher unintentionally directed his nail at a wrong angle or toward a wrong direction (fig. 8). Although a primary ruling was drawn in pencil to mark the borders around the text, it is obviously witnessed that the final ruling of gold, black and blue lines was made after calligraphy, as they do not cross letters (fig. 9).
The BnF Arabe 6870 is an album of calligraphy in fingernail art, displaying Arabic verses of the Munajat (Prayers) of the fourth Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib. Fingernail art, a technique for creating embossed and colourless calligraphy and drawing compositions, was at its pinnacle in the Qajar period, in the second half of the 19th century. Except for two missing folios, the rest of the 30 remaining folios have been misnumbered and misplaced in a previous binding. The suggested order of folios based on the sequence of the verses in the composition provide a more precise conservation in the future. This album is not signed or dated but the paper used by the artist is stamped with two different dry seals which can provide us with an estimate of the production date. The first is a Finnish seal, very likely in use from 1899 to 1913, and the second one is a Russian seal which was first used in the 1890s. These dates and the history of the fingernail art medium can lead us to hypothesize that the BnF album was very likely created around the first decade of the twentieth century.
 Wrapped back binding was developed during the Yuan and Ming dynasties (AD 1271-1644) in China. Each sheet of paper was folded, with the two printed pages facing outside and the blank sides unexposed. Thus, the folded edges became the fore-edges of the book, and the blank pages could not be seen when reading. The text-block was then pierced with holes along the spine to create some holes for the stab sewing.
 We are grateful to Mr. Noshad Rokni at the Malek National Library and Museum for sharing the information and images of the entire album and its binding with us.
 Christie’s, auction 19778, lot 33, Arts of the Islamic and Indian Worlds, 28 October 2021. Thanks to Ms. Behnaz Atighi for providing us with the image of the binding for lot 33.
 Ahvenainen, J. “The paper industry in Finland and in Russia 1885–1913”, in Scandinavian Economic History Review, 1979, 27:1, pp. 47–66.
 Ahvenainen (1979): 48.
 Hugo Gerhard Simberg (1873-1917) was a talented and eminent Finnish painter and graphic designer. For more details on the connotation of the griffin, see https://www.upm.com/about-us/company-history/thegriffin/
 We are grateful to Ari Sirén, archivist UPM, Kymmene Corporation in Finland for providing this information. In 1904, Kymmene Company Ltd. (Kymmene Aktiebolag) was founded from the amalgamation of three previously independent paper mills: Kymmene, Kuusankoski Company and Woikka companies.
 We would like to thank Olga Yastrebova, Curator for Persian manuscripts at the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg for her help in identifying the Russian dry seal.
 Melnikov, N.P. ИзлЬдованie бумаги и картона: Руководство для писчебумажныхъ Фабрикантов^, торговцев-ь бумагой, типограФ1й и потребителей. [Study of paper and cardboard: a guide for paper manufacturers, paper traders, printers and consumers]. Saint-Petersburg: Printing House E. E. Novitskago Gorokhovaya, 1906: 117 (in Russian, not translated).
 Uchastkina Z.V. and Simmons J.S.G. A History of Russian hand paper-mills and their watermarks. Monumenta Chartae Papyraceae Historiam Illustrantia or Collection of works and documents illustrating the history of paper, Hilversum: The Paper Publications Society, 1962, IX: 167.
 Klepikov S.A. and Simmons J.S.G. “Russian Watermarks and Embossed Paper-stamps of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”, in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Second Quarter, Vol. 57, No. 2, 1963, pp. 121–128.
 For more information on the successive decrees, regulations and watermark features see Uchastkina, 1962: 161-70.
 The first recorded use of the technique of blind-embossed marking by a Russian manufacturer dates from 1828, and occurs in a letter of the Emperor Nicholas I, written on paper made at the Peterhof model factory (near St. Petersburg), which had been established in 1817. Klepikov and Simmons, 1963: 128.
 Ahvenainen, 1979: 64.
 Ari Sirén, archivist at UPM, Kymmene certifies that the reams were not stamped in the factory premises themselves but outside, perhaps at the trading office, but without certainty.
 For information on the Russian paper trade and types of imported papers in Iran, see Floor, W. Traditional crafts in Qajar Iran (1800–1925), Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 2003, and also Floor and Couvrat Desvergnes (forthcoming, 2022).
 Yastrebova has examined royal documents in the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg, 2018.
 Francis Richard has identified in Persian manuscripts dated during the second third of the nineteenth century and belonging to the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the BULAC several dry seal impressions, often illegible, coming from Russian and Armenian papermills. Richard, F. “Notes sur les Papiers à Timbres Secs (dry seals) en Russe ou en Arméniens (second tiers du XIXème siècle)”, in The Trade in Papers Marked with Non-Latin Characters/Le commerce des papiers a marques a caractères non-latins, ed. Anne Regourd, Series: Islamic manuscripts and books, Leiden: Brill, 2018.
 Yastrebova and Richard, 2018.
 Yastrebova has established a possible trade route in Yastrebova, O. “Collection of Persian farmāns on Russian Paper, in the National Library of Russia (two first decades of the 19th century)”, in The Trade in Papers Marked with Non-Latin Characters/Le commerce des papiers a marques a caractères non-latins, ed. Anne Regourd, Series: Islamic manuscripts and books, Leiden: Brill, 2018: 236.
 Floor, 2003: 188; Floor and Couvrat Desvergnes (forthcoming 2022).
 Mihan, 2020 and Gruber, C. Matériaux Mystiques, l’Art Religieux et Dévotionnel de l’Iran Qajar. In L’Empire des Roses: chefs d’œuvre de l’art persan du XIXe siècle, eds. Fellinger, G. and Guillaume C. Gent: Snoeck Publishers, 2018: 76–78.