It should come as no surprise that Louise Broadhurst describes this ‘Polonaise’ rug as ‘exceptional’. The head of Oriental Rugs and Carpets at Christie’s says that she has never seen a silk and metal-thread carpet with such a variety of colours.
The masterpiece dates from the early 17th century, during the reign of Shah Abbas (1571-1629), who initiated a cultural renaissance in Persia. It was sold in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds including Oriental Rugs and Carpets on 31 March 2022 at Christie’s in London.
A carpet of this quality would have been made as a gift for a visiting nobleman or ambassador. ‘That is how they were disseminated to the West, and it explains why many remain today in eminent Western collections of private individuals and world-class museums,’ says the specialist.
In the 19th century, this example belonged to the philanthropist and art connoisseur Baron Adolphe Carl von Rothschild (1823-1900), a member of the celebrated international banking family.
He lived at 47 rue de Monceau in Paris — an avenue of grand stone houses famous in the mid-1800s as a centre of haute finance. The writer and sculptor Edmund de Waal recently published a novel about Rothschild’s neighbour and fellow collector Count Moïse de Camondo. De Waal describes rue de Monceau at the time as ‘a street of conversations’, where the Rothschilds, the Ephrussis and the Camondos were at the centre of a shifting constellation of art, literature and music.
Baron von Rothschild had commissioned the fashionable architect Félix Langlais to create a handsome gallery in his home, surmounted by a glass lantern. ‘The glazed ceiling ensured that the collection was lit naturally, so that it looked its best,’ says Broadhurst.
A luminous watercolour of the gallery (above), from the late 1800s, reveals the Rothschilds’ stunning collection of classical sculptures, allegorical paintings, Islamic glassware, figural bronzes and Persian carpets. ‘It shows how intrinsic carpets and textiles were to the Rothschilds, and how they were hung and used,’ says the specialist.
Today it is thought that around 250 Polonaise rugs remain in existence, but few are in good condition. This is because
of the fragile nature of the silk and the intricately woven metal thread which over time has worn away. The exceptional condition of the present carpet makes it rarer still.
‘To have a Polonaise
that has retained so much of its silk and metal thread and that still has such an intense palette of colour is extraordinary,’ says Broadhurst.
Many Polonaise carpets were created as pairs that would have been displayed together on ceremonial occasions. The twin to the Rothschilds’ Polonaise once belonged to the American financier Charles Yerkes (1837-1905), who commemorated it in watercolour (below) in his leather-bound catalogue of carpets — a copy of which is also offered in the sale.
The Yerkes Polonaise was sold more recently at auction, but its condition had deteriorated since it was painted for the 1900-1905 catalogue — a reminder of what can happen if due care is not taken.
According to Broadhurst, the term ‘Polonaise’ is a misnomer first used at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1878, when a collection of rugs owned by the Polish Prince Czartoryski (1734-1823) was misattributed. ‘His coat of arms had been added to some of the carpets, so it was assumed they were made in Poland,’ she explains. ‘By the time the mistake was discovered, the name had stuck.’
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Broadhurst expects to see considerable interest in the Polonaise. ‘I believe it is the best Polonaise to come on the market in recent years. Not only does it have fantastic provenance [the carpet still has the original cloth label on the back listing it as belonging to Adolphe Carl von Rothschild], but it is a beautiful and technical illustration of the mastery of the Safavid weavers at their very best.’