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.|
|Possible early carpet representation carved in stone pavement. Neo-Assyrian.|
|Location of Altai Mountains (circled).|
|The Pyzyryk Carpet. Oldest Surviving Carpet. c.350 BC.|
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.|
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.|
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.
|Antique Azerbaijani Carpet.|
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.|
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.|