‘This is the best example of Chinese carpet-making to be offered at auction in memory,’ says Elisabeth Parker, a consultant for Christie’s Rugs & Carpets department in New York.
Measuring over 32 feet long and about 23 feet wide, it is the largest-known Ming carpet outside of China, and one of only three known floral ‘transitional’ carpets from the late Ming period that link the imperial Wanli carpets with those made during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (1661-1722).
Louis Comfort Tiffany lived with it for many years at his fabled Long Island home, Laurelton Hall. The Tiffany Palace carpet, as it has come to be known, will be offered on 14 October in The Exceptional Sale at Christie’s in New York.
China’s long tradition of producing woven wool carpets reached its zenith under the Wanli emperor (1573-1619). Carpets of the period, probably woven in an imperial workshop in Beijing, have a distinctive weave with a thick pile knotted on silk warps. Those made in the western region of Ningxia during the later Kangxi period are thinner, with a looser weave.
Probably commissioned for the imperial court or major nobility in the first half of the 17th century, the Tiffany Palace carpet falls somewhere in between: its pile is thicker than the Ningxia type, but thinner than the Wanli examples, and is woven on a cotton foundation.
Its creation would have required a loom the same width as the carpet — a considerable feat of engineering in itself. ‘The weavers would have been shoulder to shoulder weaving and creating tension at the same time as they built up the design from the bottom to the top,’ Parker explains.
‘The pile of the carpet is still really thick — and in near original condition,’ she continues. ‘This is testament to the quality of the carpet, the weave and the remarkable skill with which it was made.’
The carpet’s distinctive floral pattern — which features a design of repeating lotus blossoms, a square medallion with pinched corners at its centre, an inner border of a cell pattern enclosing Chinese wan characters, and an outer border of fret-work — has long been admired for its symmetry and beauty.
‘Unlike the dramatic designs of earlier Ming carpets, there’s a balance to the composition that evokes a sense of serenity and infinity,’ says the specialist. ‘The ground is now a beautiful beige colour, but it would have once been red.’ Yellow and red dyes from the late Ming period have proved unstable, and in many cases have since faded.
The carpet was in the collection of Tiffany Studios when it was purchased by Louis Comfort Tiffany for $8,000 in the Tiffany Studios Carpet Collection auction in 1916. It was bought for Laurelton Hall, an 84-room Art Nouveau showpiece overlooking Oyster Bay in Long Island. (Joaquín Sorolla painted Tiffany on its waterfront patio in 1911.)
Tiffany’s collection boasted an eclectic mix of furniture and works of art from China, Japan and the Middle East, as well as an impressive group of Chinese carpets. Tiffany re-sized the carpet for his painting gallery, and repurposed the fragments as hallway runners.
In 1946, 13 years after Tiffany’s death, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation sold the carpet in an enormous sale of 1147 lots. It was purchased by Frank Michaelian, the noted dealer and collector of classical Chinese carpets.
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Some 40 years later it was acquired by the Textile Gallery in London, from where it was bought, in 1990, by the media mogul A. Jerrold Perenchio (1930-2017), a collector of museum-quality Impressionist, Modern and decorative art, and one of LA’s leading philanthropists.
On 14 October the Tiffany Palace carpet is offered at public auction for the first time in 70 years. ‘It’s really exciting to be offering such an iconic carpet — and in such remarkable condition — at Christie’s,’ says Parker. ‘We expect a lot of interest from cross-category collectors across the world.’