A brilliant fragment of an important ‘Vase’ carpet from the reign of Shah Abbas the Great

Louise Broadhurst, Head of Oriental Rugs and Carpets, explains how a once-mighty carpet has come to be dispersed across the globe, from Paris to Boston to Berlin. This stunningly well-preserved section is offered in London on 1 April 2020

The rug with which specialist Louise Broadhurst is pictured above, 2.5 metres long and 1.5 metres wide, is just a fragment of what was once a huge carpet almost 15 metres long. 

It was woven during the reign of Shah Abbas the Great (1587-1629), the fifth Shah of Iran and ruler of the Safavid Empire. As a great patron of Islamic arts, he established weaving workshops that produced carpets for his owns courts and palaces, as well as to send to the West as ambassadorial gifts.

The fragment belongs to a group known as ‘Vase’ carpets, a term coined by the art historian Dr. May Beattie because of the mosaic-patterned Chinese-style vases that appear in their design. On this fragment, there are two partial vases on the lower left and upper right-hand edges woven in green, orange, yellow and pink.

Broadhurst, the head of Christie’s Oriental Rugs & Carpets department, explains that the design of this carpet would have been complex to create, with multiple, intertwined flowering vines woven in 17 different colours and an average of 36 knots per square centimetre.

It is one of a dozen known pieces of the original carpet, which was most likely divided up during the 19th century. ‘Many Vase carpets were salvaged and preserved as fragments,’ she says. In fact, no complete examples on a comparable scale have survived.

‘The top left-hand corner connects to a fragment that’s in the Louvre… in the lower part an ivory palmette connects to a fragment in the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin’ 

The apricot-coloured palmette in the upper right-hand corner of this section of the carpet aligns perfectly with another fragment that once belonged to Baroness Alice de Rothschild, a member of one of history’s most prolific collecting dynasties. That part was sold at Christie’s in 2016 for £542,500.

‘In the top left-hand corner it also connects to a fragment that’s in the Louvre, and in the lower part we have a partial ivory palmette, which connects to a fragment in the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin,’ Broadhurst explains.

It is also the mirror portion of a fragment in the Musée Historique des Tissus in Lyon, while other pieces of the original carpet can be found in the V&A in London; the Design Museum in Copenhagen; Glasgow’s Burrell Collection; the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg; Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.

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The other pieces remain in varying states, although the Rothschild fragment is generally considered to be the best-preserved, retaining its high pile, soft wool and rich colours. According to Broadhurst, however, this fragment offered at Christie’s is in equally brilliant condition. ‘The colours look as if they were woven yesterday,’ she says.

It was purchased in central Europe in the 1920s by a British collector working in the oil industry, and brought back to the United Kingdom before the outbreak of the Second World War. It remained in the same family for almost a century. 

‘It probably is the last piece of the original carpet to appear on the market,’ suggests the specialist. It makes its first appearance at auction on 1 April in London.

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