GROUND BENEATH YOUR FEET
Demystifying the exoticism and luxury of carpets
Bang went the gavel: “Sold, £4,200,000”; the Vanderbilt Mughal Star Lattice carpet made a record price for an Indian carpet, tripling its low estimate and beating the previous record by many million pounds. Woven as a special commission for a member of the late 17th century Mughal court, it is one of the most sublime classical carpets still in existence. Piled entirely in ultra-fine pashmina wool, it is also the ultimate luxury carpet.
Early written accounts associate carpets with extraordinary luxury and exoticism, equally prized in Eastern and Western cultures. It is not surprising that they have been imbued with mystical and magical qualities in literature, from Prince Husain’s magic carpet in One Thousand and One
Nights to Solomon’s flying carpet of green silk and gold. The importance of carpets as status symbols can be seen in paintings of Renaissance Europe, Safavid Persia and Mughal India alike where great rulers and even the Virgin Mary and Christ are depicted on oriental carpets.
Buying a carpet is often a daunting experience. There is a wide range of production quality and traditions from Turkey to China. So make sure you buy from a trusted source such as a reputable dealer or an auction house. The first consideration: figure out what type of carpet appeals to you. Carpets can be divided into four broad categories: tribal, village, workshop and court production.
Tribal weavings, such as the Beshir prayer rug, were woven for personal use rather than sale. Patterns are inherited, often laden with symbolism. They rely on a simple design language; it is their use of space, proportion and colour that actually lend drama.
Village weavings are similar to tribal examples but were often made specifically for sale. They have strong primary colours and bold designs, as seen in the Halevim Star Kazak rug. There is a tribal quality to their designs but, because they are made with an eye on the market, there is an element of fashion involved, an adaptation of designs.
Workshop carpets are characterised by their refinement and technical qualities. The silk Koum Kapi and Amoghli Meshed carpets are two very different but good examples. Workshop carpets are characterised by sophisticated curvilinear, often symmetrical designs, the best being made of extraordinary technical finesse and the finest materials such as kurkwool (soft wool from the throat of the sheep), silk and metal-thread.
The peak of workshop production is seen in court weavings: a mere tiny fraction of carpets ever produced. Their importance cannot be overstated; they were frequently designed in the court design studios and their patterns were
SOME OF THE GREATEST WEAVINGS PRODUCED DATE FROM THE 15TH-18TH CENTURIES. DUE TO THEIR AGE AND IMPORTANCE, THEY ARE OFTEN IN POOR CONDITION, OR COSTLY”
widely imitated. The Behague Kirman ‘vase’ carpet (sold at Christie’s in 2010 for £6,200,000) and the Corcoran Kirman sickle leaf carpet (sold in 2013 for a world record price of $33,800,000) are superlative examples of court production, showing that the greatest weavings can compete with Impressionist, Modern and Post-War works of art when it comes to commanding great prices.
Having identified what type of carpet most appeals, you need to consider the size and how it will be used. If it is for a collection or to hang on a wall, condition may not be an issue, but for everyday use ensure that the carpet can withstand wear. Remember, never judge a carpet’s age on the basis of condition alone. When looking for a carpet there are a number of key points to look for: age, design, colour, materials and finesse.
Until the later19th century, all dyes were natural. Plants such as madder, indigo (imported from India) and larkspur were used to create vivid shades of the primary colours from which other colours were mixed. In most antique carpets, whether tribal or workshop, there are six to twelve colours. After 1860, synthetic dyes were introduced, changing traditional dying processes, introducing new, sometimes harsh, colours. Some experimental dyes have not stood the test of time, appearing faded or aggressively bright so, when choosing a carpet, look for luminous, bright, clean colours. Another element to note is that because carpets are woven in horizontal lines, progressing slowly from end to end, mistakes cannot be corrected. Imperfections are part of the charm of hand-woven carpets, and while they are usually not a ‘good’ thing in workshop weavings, they can be major positive contributors to the aesthetics of tribal weavings, as in the lack of precise symmetry in the star Kazak rug.
Carpets are mostly wool, but precious threads of silk and metals can also be used. The Koum Kapi carpet combines silk with silver and gold-plated threads in a variety of techniques, which is one of the reasons it is prized. Wool quality is determined by the breed of sheep. It should feel soft and have a glossy lustre. Each carpet has a “light” and a “dark” side, depending on whether you look into or along the pile. The colour intensity seen from one end of the carpet may be vastly different from what you see from the opposite end. This is most obvious in silk rugs and carpets such as the Yarkand due to the luminosity of the material. Finesse is measured by the number of knots, counted from the reverse of the carpet. The back of the carpet is like a signature—different warps, coloured wefts and how the carpet is woven are the best indicators of where a carpet is woven. An average antique Persian carpet has a knot count of approximately 6-9 knots per cm, measured in each direction. Once the knot count is above 10 knots per cm. a carpet is considered finely woven. When a carpet is particularly fine or from a renowned workshop there may well be a signature, which is undoubtedly something to look for in a fine workshop example. The Amoghli Meshed is a good example; he was the favourite weaver who worked for the former Shah of Iran and his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi.
LUCINDA WILLAN JUNIOR SPECIALIST, CARPETS
WILLIAM ROBINSON INTERNATIONAL HEAD OF
THE GREAT ROOMS AT CHRISTIE’S, KING’S STREET, LONDON ( BELOW)
A SOUTH CAUCASIAN DRAGON CARPET ( ABOVE LEFT); A SILK AND METAL THREAD KOUM KAPI CARPET ( ABOVE RIGHT)