Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What Are The Oldest Oriental Rugs? By Bruce McLaren.

The term "Antique" is bandied about rather too freely in the world of oriental rugs. Dealers know full well that by simply adding that term to their description the potential buyer will be struck dumb with awe and reach for their cheque book. But what, exactly, is an "Antique" and what, for that matter, do we know about the oldest oriental rugs. Furthermore, do people even still write cheques? If not have I just dated myself as an Antique? Does my bum look big in this existential crisis?

Well it so happens that the term "Antique" has a specific meaning, which is, 100 years or older. So if that dodgy rug dealer is trying to pawn you off some 1950s Baktiari made with chemical dyes as an antique then you now know the real score. Also as a rule, rugs made before and after the Second World War differ significantly and fall into two more categories of a much more vague nature. We have established that rugs made before 1913 are genuine antiques. Rugs made between 1913 and 1945 are often described as "Semi-Antique". Rugs made after 1945 are rarely of collectible value. The simple reason for this is that after the war the Shah of Iran, in an effort to industrialize his country, brought rug production out of the villages and into factories. Chemical dyes replaced vegetable dyes. Quantity went up and quality came down.

The whole "Antique" debate leads logically into a further field of discussion, namely, what are the oldest rugs in the world? Well, who doesn't want to know that, right?

Flatwoven rugs like kilims have been found at sites in ancient Anatolia dating back to 7000 BC. But the earliest piled rugs are another matter, certainly appearing by 1000 BC. But evidence for the existence of such rugs is limited to textual records that have miraculously survived the machinations of time. We know from textual sources, for example, that the Archaemenid Court at Pasargadae of the Persian King Cyrus the Great (c.600 BC) was full of carpets. Textual sources also explain that Alexander the Great (c.300 BC) was dazzled by the carpets in the tomb of Cyrus, which is pictured here..

Tomb of Cyrus the Great.
A more dubious example, but tantalizing nonetheless, was the discovery of carved pavements in the Northen Palace at Nineveh back in the 19th century. Nineveh was one of the great Assyrian cities and, as an aside, was where Jonah ended up after being in the whale. How he got from the inside of a whale to Nineveh is beyond my understanding but there we have it. Now the carved pavements probably date to c.700 BC. Naturally one has to ask if these were copies or representations of carpets and if they were then we can see that quite elaborate motifs were being employed already at this early date. Just something to think about...

Possible early carpet representation carved in stone pavement. Neo-Assyrian.
We can now turn to the oldest surviving actual carpet, the famous Pazyryk Carpet. Pazyryk is located in the Altai mountaun range of Central Asia, the traditional homeland of the Turkish peoples. Throughout history there have been multiple waves of Turkish migrations from the Altai region, west towards Central Asia and Iran. Chinngis Khan was also from that neck of the woods. In the map below see the red circle to the right.

Location of Altai Mountains (circled).
A burial mound, or kurgan, was excavated at Pazyryk in 1949, revealing many treasures. Of note was this carpet, pictured below, thought to be made around 350 BC, before being brought east to this final resting place. The rug is woven with a type of knot known as the Gordes knot (symmetrical), after a town in Turkey. Center field is deep red and the border has deer and horsemen. If it ever comes up for sale it will fetch a pretty penny.

The Pyzyryk Carpet. Oldest Surviving Carpet. c.350 BC.
As incredible as it sounds a gap of almost 2000 years follows until we find our next surviving antique carpet. Once more, we must fall back on the textual data.

The first textual reference to Persian carpets is from the Sassanid Period (200-600 AD). We know that in the Sassanid Court of the Imperial Palace at Ctesiphon (near Baghdad) was a carpet of almost unbelievable dimensions. This was the "Baharestan (Garden) Carpet", which, as would be expected, depicted a garden. The rug measured 450x90 feet and was woven with silk, gold and precious stones. The throne in the palace was covered with 30 Bahestani carpets representing the 30 days of the month and four more carpets representing the four seasons. Unfortunately all of this was cut up, divided and handed out as booty with the Islamic conquest of 637 AD.

In the 8th century AD textual records indicate that Azerbaijan Province was the largest producer of carpets. Central Asia was also a big producer around Khwarazm and Bukhara. Between the 8th and 13th centuries AD there is a break in the carpet record, both physically and textually. Thousands of carpets must have been woven during this interlude although none have survived. Yet other textiles from this period depict elaborate designs that were quite likely also employed in carpet production. Finally, in the 13th century AD, Marco Polo comes to the rescue, informing us that carpet production was thriving  in Iran and Central Asia and that the best carpets were being made in Konya in Turkey.

Marco Polo. He saw some stuff.
By the 15th century AD carpet weaving flourished in Iran, Syria, Egypt and Timurid Central Asia and carpets were being traded in Europe. These carpets comprised two major families or groups. First there were the Turkish Carpets with their bold geometric designs and distinctive tribal brands or guls (flowers). The second group comprise the so-called "city rugs" of Persian, which were made with fine yarn and high knot counts allowing for greater elaboration of design, with curvilinear and floral motifs.

One such example of this second group is the so-called "Ardebil Carpet" from Safavid period Persia (c.1550 AD), the oldest rug known after the Pazyryk Carpet. Believe it or not this carpet was made as a pair and they both survive. One is housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the other one is in my dining room, ahem, I mean in a museum in California. This carpet measures 17x34 feet and is finely woven at 400 knots per inch. Court carpets such as this were designed by palace artists and used stylized flower and leaf forms, as found in the calligraphy of the time.

The Ardebil Carpet.
From this time on we start to see more and more carpets and carpet fragments surviving, to be kept in museums and private collections today. However, in a fascinating development the earliest carpets of this period are to be found in the paintings of the European Renaissance. Carpets from the east were prized possessions and were often included in painting backdrops. The carpets that are depicted often go by the name of the painter, for example "Holbein Carpet" or "Lotto Carpet" but many of them are instantly recognizable based on design.

This development is so curious that it warrants a few examples. Take a look at Hans Memling's Still Life With A Jug Of Flowers from c.1500 AD.

Now compare the carpet in the painting with this Azerbaijani Carpet from approximately the same period. Pretty amazing right?!

Antique Azerbaijani Carpet.
Another remarkable example from the same period may be seen here, in the The Alms Of Saint Antony by Lorenzo Lotto. Compare the rug in the painting...

Now compare the carpet in the painting with this Azerbaijani Carpet from approximately the same period. Pretty amazing again right?!

Anyway, there are scores of such examples like this and the subject is one all to itself. Needless to say the collectors who are really in the money spend a lot of time arguing over whether a carpet is a "Genuine Holbein" or not.

As a final note on rugs in paintings I should mention that during the 15th and 16th centuries AD the town of Ushak in Anatolia became one of the largest centers of carpet production in history. The fame of these rugs, again, was depicted in European paintings, as in the portrait here of Henry VIII, who reputedly said "nothing matches my silk stockings quite so well as a star oushak". Strange, but true...

A well-known painting of Henry VIII standing on a Star Oushak carpet.
During the 16th and 17th centuries we have many more surviving examples of Persian and Turkish carpets and stand on much more concrete ground when it comes to origin and design. Carpets from this period are hard to come by but they are out there and come up for sale from time to time, usually in a high-end Sothebys or Christies auction. A "Lotto" rug is going up for auction in Vienna next March and you can bet your bottom dollar it will fetch a pretty penny, maybe $20000...

And I'm not kidding. Of recent interest was the sale of the Pearl Carpet of Baroda, made in 1865. This rug was commissioned by a Maharajah and is emblazoned with over two million pearls. The rug sold for 5 million dollars and is now housed in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.

Detail of the famous Pearl Carpet.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

India. Out Buying Rugs. By Bruce McLaren.

Rug Buying In Agra

This blog is meant to give you a bit of an insight into the rug buying side of the business....

A lot of our work takes place in India. Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 the Persian Carpet market took a big hit. India and China were quick to jump in and fill the vacuum. To a lesser extent, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan have done the same thing. But India is the largest producer and that is where we do a lot of our buying and manufacturing.

At first, hand-woven rugs from India were not of a particularly high standard. India does not have a long tradition of rug making so the industry had to start pretty much from scratch. But with time you gain experience and with trial and error you make a better product. Today, hand-woven rugs coming out of India are generally of a very high standard. Some of the rugs being made now even employ the use of vegetal dyes and are a very good product.

Apart from rug making ability, India is a great country in which to do business. If you want something to happen then India can make it happen. Invariably, the response to any request is:

"Certainly it can be done!"

For example:

"Is it possible for you to procure me a green Lamborghini, a baguette made fresh in Paris this morning, an edelweiss from the Austrian Alps, and a doughnut from Krispy Kreme, by 2pm this afternoon?"

"Certainly it can be done!"

India is like that. Anything can be done, but in terms of rugs it may take a little more time and experimentation.

Anyhoo, the long and the short of it is that we do a lot of business in India. Here is how it works:

Twice a year we fly to Delhi. There we meet our agent, and then fly down the Ganges to Varanasi - the holy city of India. Varanasi is situated on the middle reaches of the Ganges on what is generally known as the Gangetic Plain. This is a vast, extremely fertile region, and is the center of rug and textile production in India. It is the surrounding districts around Varanasi that produce most of the rugs in India.

The Gangetic Plain

Once in Varanasi we hop in a truck and head on out into the wild blue yonder. You need an agent for a whole range of reasons in India, first and foremost because without an agent you would never be able to find the rug producers. Out in these rural areas there aren't street signs, the roads are poor, and some of the potholes are so big that the truck actually does go down into them - like driving through a bomb crater. On these roads it takes a long time to go short distances. Let's face the facts - although India is growing fast there is still a lot of work to be done, particularly when it comes to basic infrastructure - like roads.

Location Of Varanasi

The big rug producers are set up in large compounds. There is rarely a sign to tell you that you have arrived. A large steel door opens and the truck enters and you are in. These manufacturers are wholesale producers and only do business with companies that want to place substantial orders. They don't cater to the occasional tourist - of whom, I assure you, none ever pass through these districts.

Varanasi On The Ganges

These compounds vary in size but most of them tend to be very large. By that I mean that one compound may house hundreds of wooden looms and employ a thousand or more men.

I would like to emphasize a few things up front. Many Westerners have a lot of misconceptions about how rug making is done in India. First, there is a general assumption that child-labor is employed. This is absolutely untrue. Each manufacturer only employs adults. The reason for this is two-fold. First, the Indian government has made it illegal to use child-labor. Second, in a country with the population of India, the first available jobs always go to the adult male in the family. There is no room for Western notions about gender roles here - in India, the male needs to be the provider.

There is also a misconception that manufacturers take advantage of laborers. It is true that laborers in India get paid a fraction of what a Westerner would earn, but this is proportionate in relation to inflation. The important point here is that the manufacturing of hand-woven rugs provides employment for thousands of men who would otherwise be unemployed, and a livelihood for thousands of families who would otherwise not have one.

Furthermore, conditions are good. Food and water is provided and the environment is clean. All in all, only a good thing.

But back to the buying....

Rug Buying Near Myrzapur

Here are some videos from Bhadoi and Myrzapur, two of the major rug making districts. Inside the compound the buyers ask to see rugs of a chosen style and size. In an instant about 100 men turn the place into a hive of activity, bringing out and unrolling hundreds of rugs. The buyers then inspect the rugs, choose the ones they want, and the agent marks down all of the details. These videos give you an idea of what it looks like during this process....

Inspecting The Rugs

Inspecting The Rugs

Inspecting The Rugs

Checking The Lists

A smaller, though important area of rug production is at Agra, to the south of Delhi. Here it is on a map:

Location Of Agra In Relation To Delhi

Agra is most famous, of course, for the Taj Mahal, which is always a good reason to go there. The modern city of Agra, however, is a rambling affair that is home to a few million people and is generally not visited by tourists. There is considerable high-quality rug production in Agra, with manufacturers specializing in antique reproductions and contemporary designs.

Agra. What Tourists See

Agra. What Tourists Don't See

Here, the buying operation is as elsewhere. You visit a manufacturer with your agent, select your rugs, and arrange to have them shipped to the United States. Some call it work, but I call it pretty interesting.

Here is another video, this time showing rug buying in Agra: