‘A rare survival from a golden age’ — a 400-year-old Persian carpet of outstanding quality

Specialist Louise Broadhurst is impressed by the luminous colours and princely provenance of a 17th-century ‘Polonaise’ carpet woven with threads of silver and gold. It is offered at auction for the first time on 1 April

In 1698, an East India Company surgeon named John Fryer published his book, A New Account of East India and Persia. Recalling the time he spent in Isfahan, a city in modern-day Iran that was then the seat of the Persian empire, Fryer remembered his astonishment at seeing carpets ‘both woollen and silk, intermixed with gold and silver, very costly, which are the peculiar manufacture of this country’.

What Fryer was describing were so-called ‘Polonaise’ carpets: luminous rugs woven with Persian silk and precious gilt-metal threads, which were made in the ateliers established by the Safavid king Shah Abbas the Great (1571-1629) in his newly appointed capital.

Their name stems from a 19th-century misconception that they originated in Poland, thanks to one example that bore the coat of arms of the Princes Czartoryski, but which was, in fact, a later addition.

‘Polonaise carpets were made with only the costliest materials and were very labour-intensive to produce,’ says Louise Broadhurst, head of Oriental Rugs & Carpets at Christie’s. ‘They’re limited in number — we know the whereabouts of just 230 examples — and many of those are fragmentary and threadbare.’

Their designs echoed the Baroque velvets and damasks seen in the West at the time, while their light pastel colours were also intended to appeal to European tastes.

This example, woven in around 1620, is in wonderful condition for its age, says Broadhurst. ‘It’s complete in size, with much of the original silk pile displaying luminous tones of tangerine orange, primrose yellow, sapphire blue and apple green.’

Close up, the carpet’s colours come to life

Close up, the carpet’s colours come to life

One of only 29 pairs of Polonaise carpets known to exist, this carpet, along with its twin, probably once belonged to the noble Italian Doria Pamphilj family. No records explain how the family acquired them, but there’s a strong chance they were a diplomatic gift — possibly from the Shah’s own court — to Pope Innocent X (1574-1655), the head of the Pamphilj family at the time.

It is most likely the pair became separated around 1878, when Olimpia Doria Pamphilj (1854-1929) married Fabrizio Colonna (1848-1923), the scion of another noble family with papal ancestry. According to protocol, artworks and objects were exchanged between the family collections of the newlyweds.

‘When the light moves across it, it comes alive, it dazzles’ — specialist Louise Broadhurst

This carpet then passed down to the couple’s granddaughter, Princess Donna Pio Falcò (1912-1999), who sold it in 1973 to the renowned Torinese dealer Pietro Accorsi (1891-1982). That same year, Accorsi sold it to a collector who has owned it for the past half a century.

The pair to this Polonaise carpet remains in the Doria Pamphilj family and is on public display at Villa del Principe, their sweeping ancestral palazzo in Genoa. Extraordinarily, they also once owned a second, larger pair of Polonaise carpets. One ended up in the collection of John D. Rockefeller, who in 1930 gifted it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The other was bought by the Shah of Iran for a reputed record price, then gifted to the National Carpet Museum in Tehran in 1976.

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The present owner of this carpet had it mounted on a stretcher, just like a prized painting. ‘When the light moves across it, it comes alive, it dazzles,’ says Broadhurst. ‘A rare survivor from a golden age, it really is of museum quality.’

Polonaise carpets in such condition are extremely valuable.

‘The last time I handled comparable Polonaise carpets was in 2019,’ says the specialist. ‘Two examples that had hung side by side for hundreds of years in a Bavarian schloss came to auction at Christie’s with estimates of £600,000-800,000 and £550,000-750,000. They sold for £3,895,000 and £3,724,750 respectively.’