Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Mystery of the Pak-Bok. By Bruce McLaren

Dealing in fine objects has both a good and a bad side. On the good side we get to deal in objects of interest, with long and fascinating histories. On the down side we also have to occasionally be the bearer of bad news. The story is nearly always the same. A tourist has gone to Turkey or Morocco and been fleeced. The rug is brought in for a certified appraisal. That is when the unfortunate owner realizes they have been duped. They were told the rug was silk, when in fact it was cheap and nasty mercerized cotton. They have been told the rug is a Turkish Antique, when in fact the rug is new, was made in Pakistan, was laid out in the road for cars to drive on to give them that "antique" look, then overland all the way to Istanbul.

It would be improper to mention sums of money made at the misfortune of the buyer. But it remains a simple truth that so many tourists pay many thousands more than a rug is worth. On the flip side, this simple transaction makes the rug dealer a relatively great deal of money. Once these realities are taken into consideration the buyer leaves our premise, sometimes in a state of despondency at how much money they lost, or they feel sheepish having been so obviously parted with their money, or, and this is the most common reaction, they fly into a rage, tell you that you know nothing about rugs, and that they will take their rug somewhere else. This is retail. Just bite your tongue and move along.

Possibly the most common rug where these mistakes are made is the so called "Pak-Bok", meaning, a Bokhara rug in design, but made in Pakistan. In order to understand what a "Pak-Bok" is we need to first take a cursory glance at the original Bokhara rugs.

Two Turkomen on a Turkoman Rug
What defines a Turkoman has been the source of much consternation and confusion over the years. One thing I have repeatedly noticed is how little the history of the Turk is known. The Turks find their homeland far to the east in the Altai Mountains. Over the millennia wave after wave have been pushed west by the Chinese, with the last major thrust resulting in the Turks of Central Asia conquering much of the Middle East under their ruler Seljuk. This conquest saw the Turks move into Asia Minor about 1000 years ago. They settled there and over the centuries formed the nation known as Turkey. Thus most people today assume that Turks come from Turkey when it is the other way around.

Seljuk Armor. Impressive Stuff
Outside of Turkey there are an additional 10 million Turkomen in Central Asia, with their population base being in Turkmenistan, formerly a Soviet of the U.S.S.R, now a sovereign nation in it's own right. But arbitrarily drawn borders that run for hundreds of miles through deserts are easy to cross. The Uzbeks, the Karakalpaks, and many other groups also belong to the Turkic speaking family. So it is no surprise that Bukhara has a large Turkoman population. It is from the name of this town, shown here on a map, that we have also inherited the name for the rug, the "Bokhara".

Relation of Bokhara to Pakistan

To associate the name of an urban center with a non-urban, that is tribal, rug, is an inherent mistake to begin with. It is perhaps more accurate to call them Turkoman rugs and leave it at that. There are many tribal groupings in this confederacy, the largest tribes being the Tekke, Yomud, Ersari, Chowdur and Saryk. Traditionally, each tribe would use the same color palette, with reds from the madder root and deep indigo blues. The major difference would be in the use of the gul, or tribal marking which designates which tribe the rug should be associated with. So, let us take a look at four prominant examples details.

Tekke Gul
Saryk Gul

Yomud Gul

Ersari Gul
Here is a broader picture of an Antique Tekke Turkoman showing the symmetrical placement of guls, again in the classic color palette. When Europeans want a "Bokhara" rug, this is as close as one can get to a rug of that name.

Antique Tekke Rug
But the tribes were always on the move over vast swathes of land, as opposed to being house-owners in Bokhara. My own theory is that Bokhara provided the original market for these rugs.

Wonderful and ancient Bukhara
Now I could show you endless photos of Turkoman rugs but that is a subject that people write, and have written, books about for a long time. The case at hand here is the emergence of the "Pak-Bok" that has led to so many misjudged sales and gnashing of teeth.

During the 1950s and 1960s any romance associated with the ancient art of rug-making has all but disappeared. In Iran, the veritable cradle of rug weaving, the emphasis was placed on mass-production using cheap materials for a hungry Western market. A similar event occurred in Pakistan, with the emergence of the locally made "Turkoman Knock-off". Basically, the Pakistani's tapped into the market for Turkoman rugs (with which they have no meaningful connection) by mass-producing them, nearly always with the Tekke gul

Not only this, but a new array of color was added in. Instead of the traditional red, white and blue of a genuine Turkoman now came in a myriad of colors. By far the most common look retained the Turkomen color-scheme, as is seen in this example.

Even with this very brief look at Turkoman rugs allow us to draw parallels with the famous Afghan "Elephant's Foot" rugs, which parallel Turkoman rugs in color and gul design. The Afghans clearly manipulated this Turkoman design in favor of larger guls. Many of these rugs were also made in Pakistan during the mid-20th.

However, one must remember it was the 1960s which was a very bad time for design and color. People started taking drugs and thought it might be nice to have a Tekke Turkoman in mustard-yellow, for example. Taste went straight out the window. There was no lack of color to look for, these Pakistani made "Bokhara" rugs utilized them all. Here are a few unsavory examples.

The remaining outstanding conundrum, however, is obscured to a degree by story and myth. The big rug making centers in Pakistan were Karachi and Lahore. I have heard it on good authority that these rugs were woven in the train station districts of these cities, one of which was generally referred to as "Bokhara" train station because the trains headed north to Bokhara. Whether this is true or not I can't decide. Still, a good story is a good story...

Friday, December 30, 2016

Tribal Regalia Gold. The Gilbert Collection. By Bruce McLaren

People often ask me where we obtain so many antique rugs. Before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 it was possible to simply go to Iran, purchase and return with rugs. Nowadays we need to keep an ear to the ground if there is good merchandise about. There are auctions we attend, ranging from the local auction houses, to the top-of-the-chain auction houses like Christies and Sothebys that employ multiple rug specialists full-time. We bid in these auctions but rarely win because the value of the rugs is so inflated. A rug we sell for $20000 may well fetch $50000 at one of these auctions.

Then there are the estate sales where occasionally you find an antique gem that the owners had been sitting on but didn't know what it was or how much it was worth. Finally, there are the Private Collections, which usually appear for sale when the owner is deceased. This was the case last week when we bought about 50 pieces from the Gilbert Collection.

The Gilbert Collection is named for Dr. Alan Gilbert who was Professor Emeritus of Classics at Duke University. Dr. Gilbert had wide-ranging interests when it came to rugs and textiles, as will be made apparent below. He began his collection in the 1950s, which was a great time to do so as the Middle East was yet to be completely pillaged by antiquarians. The very best pieces in the collection are housed in the Textile Museum in Washington DC. A lot of the collection was donated to the Duke University Art Museum, which consequently sold their part of the collection at a Sotherbys auction.

Still, there was more! Like panthers we pounced, protecting are quarry from other seedy-looking rug merchants. Now, we have our own part of the Gilbert Collection. There are all manner of rugs and textiles, from Uzbek Suzanis to Baluchi Tribal bags to Turkish prayer rugs, to fine fragments of antique kelims. To demonstrate how expansive this collection is I will show you a sample of some of the more impressive pieces.

1. Turkoman Pieces. Turkoman rugs and accouterments are instantly recognizable based on color, weave and design. Nearly always rendered in red with blue and white accents, Turkoman pieces are decorated with guls, tribal markings designating the tribe that made the piece in question. Professor Gilbert definitely fell into that category of "Turkomaniacs" as he had multiple rugs, pillows, bags and other trappings. Perhaps the finest Turkoman piece is the collection is this Torba, or door-hanging, richly woven with intensely colored naturally dyed yarn, dating to the 1880s, in perfect condition, even including the tassels (what are usually the first things to go).

And look at this antique pillow. The colors and design are really very fine.

But perhaps the most remarkable piece is this bag. These bags were hung inside the wall of the tent for storage. The flatweave of the bag is unbelievably fine. The knotted and piled strips are not only finely woven but are also very unusual. This is a classic.

2. Caucasian Rugs. The Caucasus Mountain range which run west to east from the Black Sea to the Caspian, is home to many tribes, some famous for rug-making, perhaps most notably the Kazak. There are different styles of Kazak rugs but some of them are immediately recognizable based on design alone. Just take a look at this "Double Eagle" Kazak, antique and in mint condition. A really fantastic piece.

Another Kazak is shown here on account of how different it is from any other Kazak I have ever seen, a remarkable design with blue as the dominant color.

The most prominent tribe apart from the Kazak are the Karabagh ("Black Garden"). The manner of weaving employed is very similar and only a few tell-tale signs to do with the warp strings separate the two. One of the most famous and desirable Karabaghs is the so-called "Cloud Band", one of which we managed to acquire - antique, distinctive, fair condition, great colors and design.

Also of note is this Talish, a lesser known Caucasian Tribal group in Azerbaijan. This Talish is very distinctive on account of having an open blue field. I for one had never seen a piece like it.

3. Persian Tribal Regalia. We are already beginning to see the wide interest that Professor Gilbert had when it came to collecting textiles. There are naturally all sorts of Persian Tribal paraphernalia included. Here are some examples, beginning with these Qashqai donkey bags.

Here is a Soumak, which is a bit like a Persian kelim, but is sturdier and more textured and akin to brocade or flat-woven pile. These are difficult to find anymore, anywhere, but the one we picked up is a classic.

There are also quite a few tribal mats, perhaps the pick being this Luri mat from Luristan in the east of Iran.

4. Turkish Rugs. I had mentioned in the introduction that the collection included Turkish pieces. Here I will show you two of the best. An absolutely cracking antique kelim with perfect colors and no blemishes.

Also of note is this Turkish Yastik, made using the classic Turkish Oushak color scheme.

So there you have it people, lots of Tribal Gold on the premises!