centerlogobigAAD logo

enarzh-CNnlfrdehiplrues
Antiques

The greatest ice hockey players in the world, drawn from Canada, Russia, Sweden, the U.S. and other nations square off for rounds of best of seven game series. At the conclusion of a series of games, during which remarkable skating moves leave opponents wondering what happened, 95 mile an hour slap shots are blocked, jarring shoulder checks are thrown, teeth are sometimes lost, stitches incurred and the occasional fist fight breaks out, the players on each team line up, single file, shake hands and courteously congratulate each other on a series well played.

Tensions between the international community of antiques dealers and auction houses lack the physical aspects of a hockey game, but can be just as competitive. It is, then, with a sense of grudging respect that I offer congratulations to Sotheby’s and New York antique carpet’s department head Mary Jo Otsea on their world record sale of a 17th century Persian carpet for the astonishing sum of $ 33.8 million.

I say “astonishing” not because I feel carpets should not bring that sort of price. As a dealer specializing in antique Persian carpets for close to three decades, I believe antique carpets are one of the most beautiful and undervalued of all art forms. Rather, it is because a carpet has never sold for anywhere near this price level and, indeed, many world class carpets sell for what a very pedestrian American or European painting might fetch.

The sale of this particular carpet, a 17th century Persian carpet attributed to the south Persian city of Kerman and featuring a version of the classical ”Vase” design replete with “Sickle Leaves”, palmettes and Cypress trees, also leaves me feeling quite ambivalent for a diverse range of reasons. First, a benchmark price like this can have ramifications for the market that can be irrational. There will undoubtedly be a rush of producers of modern carpets to replicate the design in their offerings, with a range of success from great to patently awful. The wholesale market MIGHT speed up because the retail market MIGHT speed up, with all the attention this will bring to the field of antique Persian rugs and carpets. Or, it might become difficult to accomplish dealer to dealer transactions, the life blood of many areas within the broader antiques industry, because dealers might sense an impending rise in prices and be reticent to part with their best pieces.

Beyond the commercial implications of sea-change events like this is the theory of how, or why, this carpet came to the market and where it is headed. Given that, thus far, the buyer is considered anonymous, I suppose few people actually know where it will ultimately surface. Apparently, the carpet was donated to the Washington, D.C. Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1926 by William Clark. Mr. Clark, it seems, was an industrialist and United States Senator from the state of Montana and donated, among other things, this extremely rare carpet. I did a very small amount of research on the Corcoran, which I had heard of but knew precious little about, and it seems to be a smaller museum primarily specializing in American art, but with ancillary collections in other fields. It seems to be a shame that a museum, any museum, would choose to deaccession what is arguably one of the world’s great carpets, but not all museums have the massive endowments that, for instance, New York’s Metropolitan might have; and it also seems the Corcoran relies on nongovernment funding and also supports a school of art.

Businesses make decisions all the time to change directions in what they produce or sell or service, so it is understandable that museums sometimes feel a similar need. That said, in addition to warehousing objects, museums also warehouse history and a legacy from the contributors. In addition to the Corcoran, Washington, D.C. is the home to many public museums and also The Textile Museum, one of the world’s leading museums for antique carpets. Could some sort of exchange not have been worked out to keep the carpet in museum hands and perhaps even in Washington, D.C.? While I am happy for the Corcoran that they received such a windfall, I am also saddened by the uncertainty as to where this carpet will ultimately land. Will it head out of the United States? Will it go into a private collection?

THE IMPLICATIONS

Theoretically, I have felt for many years that museums have an ethical obligation to show the works they hold or they should deaccession pieces so others might enjoy them. That requires space and funding and, in this case, it might have been the best move for the carpet to be sold. But here is a clear case of where my theoretical beliefs and my emotional reality collide. I have never been to the Corcoran, and it seems like the carpet was rarely displayed anyway. I suppose it is my fault that I never did the research regarding this carpet and to make the trip to see it. I learned about the auction itself too late to attend the preview so potentially missed my chance to see this magnificent work of art in person. My fault; my loss. At the same time, though, I feel a sense of sadness that an art form I care so deeply about, that is antique Persian carpets, are still so misunderstood that a museum would consciously make the decision to sell one of the world’s great examples.

Ultimately, the sale of this carpet might be the best thing to advance both the academic appreciation of and commercial viability of the antique Oriental carpet field. Perhaps, the carpet will end up in a place where it will have even greater exposure and I hope the Corcoran is able to channel the funds in a way to help the focus and influence of its other main areas of interest. Still, the question remains: how many museums would part with one of their best Monet paintings? This is Part I of a two part series on antique Persian carpets. The second installment will deal with the later renaissance period of Persian carpet weaving in the last quarter of the 19th century and the possible implications of the sale of this carpet on the future antique carpet market.