Pulling the rug out from under your average carpet-buyer

The Sickle-Leaf Carpet, woven in Persia in the mid-17th century, has sold at auction for the astonishing sum of $33,765,000. Previously, a blue leaf-patterned 17th century rug from Iran held the world record, selling for $9.6 million at Christie’s in London in 2010.

The Sickle-Left Carpet was owned by William A. Clark, industrialist and US senator from Montana, who bequeathed it to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington. The Gallery, which receives no federal funding, is using the purchase price to renovate and to secure itself a sustainable future.

The Sickle-Leaf Carpet displays a rare “vase” technique pattern and is thought to be the only one of its kind with a red background. It probably came from Kerman, in south-east Iran, a city founded as a defensive outpost in the 3rd century AD. By the 8th century it was famous for cashmere wool shawls and other textiles. When Marco Polo visited the city in 1271 it had become a major trading centre linking the Persian Gulf with Central Asia. Kerman expanded rapidly under the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1722), when many carpets and rugs were exported to Europe.

Sickle-Leaf-RugAccording to Sotheby’s, “The tremendous vitality of the carpet’s design is achieved through its highly complex network of swirling vines, which intertwine and overlap each other and flowering or fruit-laden branches. … The two elegant cypress trees, while overlaid by leaves and branches, pierce the pattern vertically. All of these elements are depicted in a rich array of vivid colour and executed with a crispness of drawing that demonstrate the superiority of the carpet’s weavers and designers.”

Trees have been used as symbols of life, paradise, and the cosmic universe from earliest times to the present. Since Cyrus the Great built the large garden he called his “Paradise Park” around 540 BC, Persian artists and authors have been depicting and writing about gardens as a paradise ever since. The paradise garden became a favourite composition for carpets, hence the “vase”-technique carpet filled with stylized floral motifs and flowering shrubs. The Sickle-Leaf Carpet with its abundance of trees and branches covered in ripe fruits and blossoms is the essence of a garden paradise.

William A. Clark was a colourful character whom Mark Twain described as “a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs.” Of highly dubious reputation, after a roller-coaster career in mining, banking and other industries, he made a fortune as one of the “Copper Kings” of Montana, and then managed to get himself elected to the US Senate. One of the richest Americans of his generation, Clark was a major buyer of art, antiques and oriental carpets on the New York art market. When he died at the age of 86, his collection of art and fine furnishings, including many large Persian carpets from his mansion on Fifth Avenue, was bequeathed to the Corcoran Gallery.

An anonymous bidder carried off the Sickle-Leaf Carpet. Quite likely it is going back to the Near East, where Islamic art museums are seeking carpets from the golden age of weaving and there is enormous interest in repatriating those in the West. But one has to wonder if the buyer knows Woody Allen’s observation in Without Feathers (1975), “What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”

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