BUDAPEST, June 19, 2010 – Hungary’s Rug Society is hosting an extraordinary look at carpets in Hungarian private collections this summer.
The exhibition, which began on the first of June and has been extended due to popular interest to the end of August, is jointly sponsored by Budapest’s Jewish Museum, which is the venue.
The 35 carpets on display include both carpets kept in Hungary and several brought in by Hungarian rug collectors living abroad.
One of the most striking pieces is a 17-century Kula carpet (above) contributed by the family of the famous carpet collector Edmund de Unger, who fled Hungary in 1948. His son Richard flew in specially with the carpet, which is rarely seen outside the family home in London.
Another extraordinary piece is a 19th century Isfahan Paradise carpet (right) contributed by a collector of Hungarian origin living in New York. The collector has not revealed his name publicly.
The exhibit was opened by Hungary’s Culture Minister Gabor Gorgey, who himself has more than a passing interest in carpets.
Gorgey has written a well-received novel telling the tumultuous history of Hungary from 1940 to 1956 by following the fate of an Isfahan Hunting Rug belonging to a fictional Jewish family.
The novel, called “The Hunting Carpet,” tells how the carpet – like Hungary itself – changes hands from the family, to the fascists, and finally in 1956 (the year of the Hungarian Revolution) to a Soviet general. The novel has been re-printed five times since it was first published in 1988.
Still other fascinating carpets at the exhibit are several Tranyslvanian carpets (below) contributed by collector of Hungarian origin living in Transylvania, now in Romania.
Historically, much of the focus of Hungarian rug collecting has been in Transylvania, where families bequeathed rich Ottoman rugs to the area’s protestant, and sometimes Catholic, churches. Transylvania, which was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire for 150 years, became part of Romania after World War I.
The fact that the show brings together so many carpets from private collections inside and outside of Hungary is a tribute to the zeal of the Rug Society.
The group, known as “Ten” for the original number of its founders in 2007, wants to re-introduce the Hungarian public to oriental carpets after interest in them all but disappeared during the communist era.
Denes Sandor, one of the group’s founders in 2007, says the current exhibit is the largest to date and the first in the capital. For the first exhibit, in 2007, the group chose a small town, for the second, in 2008, the university city of Szeged.
Sandor would like to revive the days when Hungary was one of the most active places in the Western world for carpet enthusiasts and the home of a number of “firsts.”
Among those firsts was the formation of Budapest’s Carpet Lovers Society in 1923, which debuted with an exhibit of 149 privately held carpets. That was a decade earlier than the formation of the New York-based Hajji Babba Society in 1933.
Going back further, the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest was the first major museum ever to hold a single-theme oriental carpet exhibit – showing 352 Ottoman Turkish pieces – in 1914. That was when major carpet exhibitions were still very much a novelty and had taken place previously only in Vienna (1891), Stuttgart (1909), and New York (1910).
Here is a photo of the current exhibit at the Jewish Musuem, where oriental carpets are displayed in two of the halls and Jewish textiles in a third.
The huge historical – and growing present – interest in oriental carpets can’t help but make even Hungarian collectors sometimes wonder why rugs so fascinate their countrymen.
Sandor says most people assume it must be because the Ottoman Empire directly occupied much of the central region of Hungary for a century and-a-half. But he believes the ties to carpets go much further back than that: to the Hungarians’ own nomadic origins on the Eurasian steppes.
He argues that before the Hungarians, who were renowned horsemen, settled in Hungary some 1,000 years ago, they would likely have had the same carpet culture as other steppe peoples, including using carpets to cover the floors of yurts.
The Hungarian language today remains a Finno-Urgic tongue, so such cultural echoes might not be so distant as they seem. And, says Sandor, that would at least explain why other European nations under long Ottoman rule – such as Greece or Serbia – have never shown as much enthusiasm for carpets as has Hungary.
Here is yet another fascinating carpet on display at the current exhibition.
It is believed to have been woven in Hereke, Turkey, for Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi’s celebration of 2,500 years of the Persian monarchy in 1971.
One clue to the carpet’s identity is its unusual motif of peacocks – the symbol of the Pahlavi dynasty. Another is the border motif of lions holding a sword in the right hand – the same symbol used on the flag of Iran prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
No discussion of carpets in Hungary would be complete without the extraordinary and tragic story of the Gold Train of 1945 – a tale which the location of the current exhibit in the Jewish Museum cannot fail to bring to mind.
During the 1930s and 40s, Hungary’s Nazi-allied government required Jews to deposit all their valuables – including their collections of carpets – in the national bank.
The majority of Jews were later sent to concentration camps but their seized property remained in the vaults until the end of the war. Then, as the Russian army approached, the fascists assembled a 40-wagon train to remove the goods to Germany.
The train was ill-fated from the start.
As it meandered through Hungary and Austria, anonymous trucks pulled up beside it to unload its gold and vanish.
Next, it was seized by Allied troops, first French then American.
Finally, most of its remaining valuables were sent to a military warehouse in Salzburg. From there, they went on to furnish U.S. officers’ homes during the occupation of Germany or were sold in U.S. military exchange stores.
The value of the paintings, jewels, porcelain, and carpets on the train – based upon the existing documentation – would be in the billions of dollars today. Yet most of them disappeared without a trace.
The events remained all but forgotten until 2005, when a U.S. court ruled that Washington should pay $ 6 million in compensation for the stolen property. Given the difficulty of knowing who exactly lost what, the payment was made to Jewish organizations rather than to surviving families.
The Gold Train and the tragic personal stories behind it amount to an inestimable loss for Hungary in every respect, including its once thriving carpet culture.
But the exhibit taking place in Budapest now is evidence that Hungarian collectors can still exhibit some astonishing pieces. And their pieces, plus those in the country’s famous museum collections, provide every reason for rug lovers to again regard Budapest as a carpet capital.
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Exhibition in the Jewish Museum
The First Turkish Carpet Exhibition In The West, by Ferenc Batari, Hali