Prices fly for a Persian carpet
Apr 21st 2010 | From The Economist online
THERE is nothing that excites a professional art dealer more than the thought that he may have found a lost work that has slipped through the auction-house system, misidentified, misattributed or simply misunderstood.
Second to that is buying a work on a hunch that it might be much rarer and more special than the vendor realises—and making a killing once a little additional research proves it to be a piece of exceptional importance.
At the beginning of this year Christie’s received a call from a European dealer. He had a suspicion that a carpet he had recently bought was no ordinary Persian rug, but one of the famed “vase” carpets from Kirman. Made in the city that dominated the rug-making industry of south-eastern Iran for centuries, “vase” carpets are easily identifiable by a pattern of swirling branches, foliage and flowers arranged in vases.
This particular carpet, though, had no vase on it; only a continuing pattern of intricately joined leaves that gave the design an unusual energy and charm. But it was the weaving technique that alerted the dealer to the fact that it might be a “vase” carpet all the same.
Marco Polo, travelling through Persia in 1270, praised the carpets of Kirman as a particular marvel. By the 17th century, when this carpet was made, Kirman’s designers were at their most inventive and their weaving techniques of a sophistication not seen in other parts of the Persian empire. The weavers had learned 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, giving an immediately recognisable wavy finish to the surface of the carpet.
The Kirman rug was in exceptional condition given that it was 11-feet (3.4m) long, with some corroding in the wool that had been dyed black and tiny repairs in the centre. Further research proved that, although it had not been seen for more than half a century, it had a very good provenance. The bible of pre-war collecting, the six-volume “Survey of Persian Art” by Arthur Upham Pope, described this very carpet as having belonged to a Frenchwoman by the name of Martine Marie-Pol, Comtesse de Béhague.
Born at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, the countess stood out for her collecting. She was a woman in a man’s world, wealthy and possessed of a spectacular eye which she used to build up noted collections of antiquities and Islamic art.
Some of the de Behague collections were dispersed in two sales at the Château de Fleury-en-Bière in 1927 and 1928, but this carpet was not included. After her death in 1939, the remainder was inherited by her nephew, the Marquis de Ganay. It remained in the family collection until December 1987, when the bulk of it was sold at auction in Monaco.
The de Béhague carpet is similar in some aspects of the design to two spectacular “vase” carpets, one in the Calouste Goulbenkian Collection in Lisbon and the other belonging to Nasser Khalili, a British-Iranian property developer. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and the Burrell Collection in Glasgow also have two fragments from a slightly later date. All four pieces show how the designs of the “vase” carpets evolved, but it is the de Béhague carpet in particular that is the prototype for the most popular Persian carpet design of all, the herati pattern.
In contrast to most other sectors of the art market, Persian carpets have continued to show strong demand through 2008 and 2009. In 2008 the top ten carpets sold at auction ranged from $68,500 to $4.5m. In 2009, when much of the market was still in the doldrums, prices for the top ten auctioned carpets started at $128,500.
The de Béhague carpet was the centrepiece of Christie’s Islamic and Indian art sales in London earlier this month. William Robinson, Christie’s head of Islamic art, set the estimate at £200,000-300,000 ($308,000-461,000), but upon realising there was strong interest in it, he secretly hoped it might fetch £1m.
On the day of the sale, a collector of Islamic art in the room was matched by six bidders on the telephone, from Britain, continental Europe, America and the Middle East. Only one museum featured among the seven; the rest were all private collectors. Bidding opened at £150,000. The collector who was present raised three fingers to signal £300,000, and then four fingers when raised by another bidder. He soon pulled out, though, and another bidder on the telephone entered the fray at £1.8m.
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.
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