LONDON, May 15, 2010 -- How much are private collectors ready to pay for Persian rugs?
The answer came at an auction in London last month: just short of $ 10 million.
The carpet – which set a record price of $ 9,599,535 – is a "vase" carpet from Kirman, a city whose weavers are widely considered to have been among the most inventive of the classical carpet age.
The vase carpets, woven in the 16th and 17th centuries, are some of the Kirman weavers' greatest works of art, with spectacular, colorful and intricately designed patterns of swirling branches, foliage and flowers.
The floral patterns may be arranged in vases or, as in the case of the auctioned carpet, there may be no vase apparent.
Such carpets are always highly sought after and rare, with the best examples kept in museums.
But to fetch close to $ 10 million, this carpet measuring 11 feet by 5 feet had to have some unusually distinguishing features. And, in fact, it has several.
One is the unusual energy and charm of its pattern.
Christie's, the auction house which made the sale on April 15, describes its magic this way:
"The designers have worked out an arrangement that makes the blossoms completely secondary to the leaves. It is no longer the powerful scrolling of individual leaves that creates the energy of the design; here it is the rhythm set up by the interlocking leaves.
"Their stems and the drawing of the individual plants growing from each end of the carpet create one rhythm, but the coloring, which makes facing leaves from two different plants still have the same colors, creates the counterpoint. It is an apparently simple but wonderfully satisfying design."
The energy of the arrangement can be seen even more clearly from a distance than from close up.
But the carpet is also noteworthy for another reason that particularly interests carpet historians.
And that is (again to quote Christie's) it "can claim to be the earliest design which can clearly be demonstrated to be a prototype for the most popular Persian carpet design of all - the so-called herati pattern."
Here is a diagram of a herati pattern.
Kirman dominated the rug-making industry of south-eastern Iran for centuries and its weavings were remarked upon by the earliest western travelers to the region.
Marco Polo, traveling through Persia in 1270, praised the carpets of Kirman as a particular marvel.
By the 17th century, at the height of the Safavid era, Kirman’s designers were at their most inventive and their weaving techniques of a sophistication not seen in other parts of the Persian Empire.
One innovation was to set their looms so that the cotton warps were on two different levels. They then threaded the wool wefts, leaving some tight and others sinuous, to give an immediately recognizable wavy finish to the surface of the carpet.
Interestingly, it was this characteristic weaving pattern that helped an art dealer recognize this particular carpet as a Kirman vase carpet (without a vase) and bring it to auction.
The story of who the art dealer is, and where he discovered the carpet, is still being pieced together by an art world hungry for more details. But the early indications are it is the stuff of which legends are made.
The Financial Times reports that the carpet originally was bought for only €18,000 (some $ 23,000) at an obscure German auction house late last year.
"Cataloged simply as “Persian carpet” and estimated at €18,000, the finely knotted wool rug appeared at Georg Rehm, a provincial saleroom in Augsburg, in October last year," the paper says.
It continues: "Asked to confirm the sale, the auction house refused 'to divulge results ... after extensive negotiations with our suppliers and buyers'."
How the carpet fell out of the sky to arrive at "an obscure German auction house" is unknown.
But by the time it went on sale at Christie's enough of its history had become clear to interest some very competitive art collectors.
The carpet was traced to the former holdings of Martine Marie Pol, the Comtesse de Béhague, who prior to her death in 1927 maintained a renowned collection of antiquities, including both European and Oriental Carpets.
One of her many properties, the Chateau de Fleury in the Ile de France region, is shown here.
Much of the countess’s collection was dispersed in two sales in 1927 and 1928, but the Kirman vase carpet was not included in those. Christie's believes the carpet instead passed on to her heirs before being sold at some stage between the 1930s and 1950s.
Yet even as Christie's evaluators widely publicized the carpet's pedigree before the auction, they badly underestimated what price the carpet might command.
The auction house estimated the carpet to be worth from $307,600 - $461,400. But when bidding began, the price immediately began soaring toward the stratosphere.
There were seven bidders, one in the auction room and six on the phone from Britain, continental Europe, the Americas and the Middle East. Among the parties, just one was a museum, all the rest were private collectors.
Britain's Economist magazine described the bidding this way:
"At £2.4m the countess’s rug beat the record price for a carpet at auction; at £3.5m it beat the record for an auctioned Islamic work of art. By £5m, bids began jumping ahead in increments of £500,000, which proved too much for one of the two remaining bidders, who put the phone down at £5.5m, too upset to continue. The rug finally sold for £6.2m (including commission and taxes), proof for the dealer who consigned it that he had been right to trust his instincts."
The identity of the two remaining bidders is secret. But several art dealers have told The Financial Times they believe both were from Qatar.
The Gulf state has a recently opened (2008) Museum of Islamic Art with a major collection of carpets and textiles and it is not impossible the Kirman vase carpet could one day be loaned to it.
In becoming the world's most expensive carpet, the Kirman vase beat the previous record of $ 5.5 million set by the famed Pearl Carpet of Baroda in March 2009 at a Sotheby's auction in Qatar.
The Pearl Carpet of Baroda is not of hand-knotted wool but is "woven" from strings of Basra pearls: one-and-a-half million of them, harvested off the coast of Qatar and Bahrain. It is believed to have been created as a gift for the tomb of Prophet Muhammad in Medina and commissioned by the Maharaja of Baroda, who died before he could make the donation.
After the pearl rug, the previous record-holder for the most expensive auctioned carpet was a silk Isfahan rug dating to the 1600s. It previously belonged to tobacco heiress Doris Duke sold for $ 4.45 million at Christie's in New York in June 2008.
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Christie's: A Kirman Vase Carpet
Financial Times: How An 18,000 euro Rug Sold For 6 Million Pounds
The Economist: Rug Rave – Prices Fly For A Persian Carpet
Rug Rag: Pearl Carpet Of Baroda