Vincent Robinson put on a good show for the Ardabil and the leading daily papers were roped in. Two catalogues were eventually printed. Even the eternally cash-strapped William Morris banged the drum eventually coughing up 25 pounds himself.
Whether the London Ardabil was sold for 2000 or 2500 pounds is still a mystery, as even Jennifer Wearden contradicted herself on this point. The American collector Yerkes may have purchased his Ardabil in1892 just shortly before the V&A`s final tortured decision. The price he paid was a great deal more than the museum's.
Robinson`s first catalogue, “Eastern Carpets”, appeared in 1882 containing a potpourri of very old, antique and quite new carpets.(1)
It`s clear from the text he had very little idea about what his firm was selling.
Carpet history had still to be invented by Riegl and Bode and, compared to the mighty Stefano Bardini, Robinson was an absolute beginner. His unprecedented image building campaign launched the Ardabil on a great career - the Mona Lisa of rugs.
Leonard Stebbing`s catalogues contributed to the mythmaking as well. The patent absurdity of a "Holy" Carpet aside, there never was a mosque at the Ardabil Shrine.(2)
Certain rooms were always set aside for prayer and there is a very old, ruined mosque just outside of Ardabil but a gullible public hungry for Orientalia needed the picturesque rather than fact. Indeed this kind of propaganda has continued down to our day.
Robinson`s main business seems to have been dealing new rugs and he is known to have stocked Zieglers. Thus he was the obvious choice of vendor for the Ardabils. They are rumored to have been sighted in Tabriz and Constantinople before setting down in London.
Purportedly the Ardabil was offered to the Louvre in Paris. Friedrich Sarre bought fragments from the Frick Tree Carpet in the Tehran bazaar in 1900, although Robinson always claimed the Frick carpet had come from Ardabil. There are fragments of the same carpet in the V&A but the when and where of their acquisition remain unknown.(3)
A third piece, said to be part of the Ardabil cache, is an animal carpet with a doublette with such a chequered history it would require a separate treatment for explanation.
In 1914 A.F Kendrick wrote to Leonard Stebbing requesting more information about the London Ardabil. Why he waited 21 years to do so is anyone’s guess considering the V&A had been offered more fragments from their apparently complete rug in the meantime and, let’s not forget, the Yerkes sale had taken place 4 years before - with the sale of the second Ardabil carpet. Then there was Mumford`s notorious catalogue.
Needless to say Stebbing never replied.
Since then we have had the dubious Major Jackson, Ziegler`s man Flinn and most recently a diary entry from La Fontaine. There is a theory that the Ardabils were removed from the Shrine at Mashad and, to cover this up, were described as coming from Ardabil as if that were not scandal enough. But one thing is sure - Robinson needed a story.
However, if anyone actually knew the truth about the Ardabil and the people behind it, Heinrich Jacoby provides the best answers that can be found by reading between the lines of his invaluable little ABC book.
Internally, Robinson did eventually confirm the existence of two Ardabil carpets in a letter dated 26 January 1926 and also came clean about the restoration. This is the only known company statement on this subject.(4)
So much for the Ardabil apocrypha.
Sterling work on this has been done in our time by A.H Morton, Martin Weaver, P.R.J Ford, Annette Ittig and, lately, by Siawosch Azadi. Ford`s work is particularly important as he correlates the Ardabils with the Art of the book. These articles were published in RugNews and are now hard to find.
Like the Mona Lisa, the Ardabil is an icon everyone knows but fewer still have looked at - an Evergreen, perhaps too Victorian for contemporary taste?
Something very strange and wonderful appears at the beginning and end of these monster carpets but is only apparent in the latest photographs made by the V&A in 1992. The photographer Daniel McGrath did a superb job.(Hali 65,page 73) Another good working picture is also published in Hali 80 on page 102.(5)
Starting at the base of the field between the first two complete ogival medallions the tracery swirls out towards the borders and then contracts gracefully above the lamp.(6)
This reveals the shape of a huge vase visible at both ends.(7)
This vase, however, is not visible on the LA Ardabil because of the disfigurement it has suffered. And it`s hardly visible when viewing the carpets themselves, which are just too big for the eye to encompass. A similar shaped vase was once in the Kevorkian Collection.(8)
Removing the base of the vase something close to the re-entrant mihrab forms on certain old Turkish carpets appears – was this an intentional sleight-of-hand? Ask Maqsud!(9)