The pick of the spring sales is undoubtedly Christie’s London extravaganza. Besides for having the swankest showrooms in London cosseted away on King St in St James’s their carpet department has clearly been working overtime and assembled a large (267 lots) sale. That said the following caveat must be added: The lots on offer there only shine in comparison to the other major auction “house” efforts, however, like them Christie’s sale is also short on major undiscovered or previously unknown masterpieces, in fact there isn’t one here either.
The maturity of the rug market at the present time, a situation which has been previously mentioned on Rk.com, is primarily to blame for the shortage of masterpiece examples on today’s market – not only at major auctions but also at smaller sales, as well as with dealers both big and small. This will continue I am afraid until the old generation of collectors begin to take those dirt naps, i.e. go to the happy rug-hunting ground in the sky(or maybe down-below??), and their collections/conglomerations will then be freed up to hit the auction block or be dispersed by dealers. There just aren’t enough great pieces still sleeping away anymore in closets, trunks, attics, basements or on floors as there used to be. Plus there are more and more “novice nouveau collectors” and “speculators” who may not know the fine points of rug identification but they do know a good deal when they see it, or as is the often the case just think they do. These folks are also one of the major reasons prices often get out of hand at small country sales, as was the example of the sale reported in the What’s It Worth thread posted here on RK.com in the Pictures for Discussion Topic Area.
Ok, let’s now take a look at a few of the lots Christie’s has on offer.
The most interesting and valuable from my perspective is lot 190 although the Lotto, lot 100, may well surpass it as the top sale price. Here is the photo:
Described in the catalog as north Indian from the first half 18th century, this Mughal flower carpet belongs to a rarefied bunch of carpets most folks who study Classical carpets believe were made in Jaipur. The actual whereabouts of the ateliers, i.e. factories, that produced these rugs is pure guess work, as is ascribing any royal connections to most of them. True a few have been found in situ where connections to royalty can be rightly inferred but most, like this example, made their way to Europe and America anonymously – they brought no papers describing their histories. Too bad as any such positive information would be greatly appreciated by fanciers of these highly decorative, superbly manufactured floor rugs.
Granted lot 190 is a late example without the magical windblown appearance to the flowering bushes the best of these carpets captures. It appears to be a copy of the by now quite famous wool pile silk warp example which had its day at auction some years ago and is illustrated in Dan Walker’s catalog “Flowers Underfoot” (a title I never have taken a liking to, although everything else about it is laudable) as fig. 122 on page 125. Here is a detail of lot 190:
Christies dates it to the first half of the 18th century and while this appears to them to be the probable case, considering the far earlier examples like Walker’s fig.122 are dated to the second half of the 17th, I believe both these rugs are older and feel quite comfortable dating 190 to the late 17th and Walker’s fig.122 to the late 16th. Careful comparison of the flowering plants in fig.122 with those on the earliest Kashmir shawls provides the basis for this earlier dating scheme I propose.
While the dating of lot 190 is far from positive the silly 20-30,000 pound estimate isn’t. Again the Christie’s cataloguer was influenced by prevailing “wisdom” in this case the later dating and the reduction of the carpet being the primary reasons. However, it is still a whopper – 19 feet in length and almost 11 in width – and these days carpets of this ilk and beauty just don’t show up. Their rarity combined with the decorative market’s willingness to overlook wear and other damages in pre-1800 rugs will no doubt push the price well above the guesstimate in the catalog.
All things considered the Lotto, lot 100, should bring the top price of the day and sell in excess of the 80-120,000 pound estimate, as it is in excellent condition and definitely a “early” example of this famous rug type that could easily appeal both to the “high”collector market or to the “high” decorative market – maybe even both in the same buyer?? Personally I don’t like any Lotto and would prefer to own the Mughal rug any day. Here is the photo:
Some long years ago a London dealer quipped that Lottos were the Dobag rugs of their time, as he was referring to the great numbers of these rug that were made expressly for export to Europe where they found their way into the castles and manor homes of the rulers of countries and their most important courtiers and vassals. Mostly I agree with that assessment and might go even further along with a former German carpet museum curator who called them black and white rugs – meaning they all look basically similar enough to view them in black and white, color photos being unnecessary. This viewpoint is well taken as very few have anything original or outstanding about their iconography or technical characteristics. However a few do have superb coloration due both to their being made in the most adept centers of carpet manufacturing, not in provincial or out of the way ‘factories’ where skills like masterwork dyeing were unknown, and their superior state of preservation. Lot 100 appears to be ones of these and besides having a well defined and planned field design and superb colors, the rarely seen double-open kufic border drawing will be that extra added attraction that will, I am sure, push the price beyond the high estimate. How high will it go? I wouldn’t be surprised to see it surpass 200,000 pounds.
Before leaving the sublime for the more mundane lot 188 the supposed “Isfahan” should be mentioned. Here is a detail of this large carpet, which like the Lotto and Mughal carpet is strong enough to stand as a collector piece but rare and wonderful enough to make it into the decorator market, too:
According to the catalog description: “The carpets of Isfahan were produced in great quantities(sic) for export to Europe, and for the first half of the seventeenth century there was a continuous demand. Yet within the group there were a number of variations.” Classical carpets, both Persian and Turkish, are not my chosen area of expertise but I do like some of them and have followed with interest the numerous “theories” and ideas put forward by those who are involved with trying to provenance carpets like lot 188. Christie’s cataloger ascribes this rug’s origin to Isfahan, which follows the presently accepted “wisdom” about pieces like it. However, as the cataloguer notes, there are “variations” in this group and I might prefer to provenance this carpet, and some others of the group, not to Isfahan but to Lahore. My opinion is based on coloration and design, particularly the tone of the red in the field and “the spiralling tendrils with a considerably more angular design”, as they were so described in the catalog. I do not agree with the statement “It is possible that this rare feature was imported as an idea from Kirman where the designers used comparable features.” But rather see the Kirman examples as taking rather than giving this style of tendril depiction from these earlier rugs. Regardless of this or any other provenance issues, lot 188 is a beautiful, rare, condition challenged long rug and again the 25-35,000 pound estimate appears too low and will probably be dusted as well. That is unless buyers balk at its distressed state, which is far worse than the Mughal carpet but does have completeness in its favor, or will have already blown their budgets at earlier sales.
Speaking of decorator rugs the catalog is full of pseudo-collector rugs from the Caucasus and Turkey and since these pieces are of no interest other than as floor rugs none will be discussed here. The Turkish end of the sale is far more interesting than the Caucasian one and there is only one Caucasian rug in the entire catalog is worth mention – lot 146. Here is the photo:
Described in the catalog as east Caucasian, a far better attempt than the miserable trans-Caucasian misnomer favored by rival sotheby, the late 18th century date might be a bit too cautious but the silly 3,500 - 5,000 pound guesstimate far more so. The border is a pretty classy and very honest rendition of one often found on earlier, classic period Dragon Rugs. And the field drawing, while not as well done as what appears on those rugs, still captures some of the typical Dragon Carpet iconography and intrigue, as well as having that same level of honest relationship to them the border maintains.
Again the estimate appears to be influenced by the presence of rewoven guard stripes at both ends and the smallish 9 foot by almost 6 foot size. Both of these aspect I do not find too objectionable and actually the small size is a plus, making the rug eminently more useful for the average collector who does not have the 20 foot ceilings most early Caucasian rugs, particularly Dragon Rugs, require for viewing. So expect to see this lot outperform the estimate in a major way too.
Unfortunately its all downhill from here, there are really no other lots worth discussing in length, although a few will be mentioned here for various reasons. In a chronological order from the catalog numbers, lot 65 a Tekke bird and tree asmalyk is the first:
Since first seeing this photo about a week ago I have harbored suspicions about it and now feel secure enough to venture the following: This asmalyk is in my opinion a much later, if not modern, reproduction and is in no way circa 1850, the date provided in the catalog. Since I do not plan to attend the preview or the sale this assessment is based purely on the photos but after having handled more than a few of these bird and tree asmalyks, and owning one years ago, my experience is secure enough with them to take this position.
The main clue that stands out is the drawing, particularly the proportions of the lattice and reduction of the actual space within each of the boxes it forms. Notice how the bird and tree seem almost to be after thoughts rather than the central elements of this design. If this characteristic eludes you noticing how these designs – the bird and tree - have become squashed inside this shrunk-down space within the lattice shouldn’t, as it is far more obvious. These aspects were enough for me but the virtual perfect condition and seemingly monotone character of the coloration were also important factors in making this decision. In any event I wouldn’t touch it with a pole but frankly won’t be surprised when someone who has only seen these asmalyk in books steps up to the plate swinging his checkbook like Paul Bunyon did his axe.
There isn’t another Turkmen lot of import so that leaves us with a few of the Turkish rug to mention. Tune in for Part II when they will be discussed.