As the largest known Ming carpet outside of China, the iconic Tiffany Palace Carpet has long been admired by carpet collectors and academics alike for its intrinsic beauty, remarkable condition and illustrious provenance.
Although better known for silk textiles, China has a rich history of woven wool carpets inextricably linked with the traditions of the pastoral nomads of the Asian steppe. The Mongol (Yuan) court held carpets in great esteem and adapted their nomadic aesthetic into something unmistakably Chinese. During the Ming Period (1368-1644), the arts were highly developed in many areas, including the manufacture of knotted carpets reaching an artistic zenith under the Wanli emperor (1573-1619).
In his book, Classical Chinese Carpets in Western Collections: The Kangxi Period, 1661-1772 (London, 2002, p.12), Michael Franses places the Tiffany Palace Carpet within an important transitional group from the late Ming period that links the Imperial Wanli carpets with those made during the reign of the Kangxi. The Wanli type carpets, likely woven in an Imperial workshop in Beijing, have a distinctive weave with a thick pile knotted on silk warps (see Hali 173, M. Franses “The Forgotten Carpets of the Forbidden Palace”, pp. 75-85 for examples), while those woven during the Kangxi period are thinner, with a looser weave, and are attributed to the western region of Ningxia (see The Maria Theresa L. Virata Collection, Christie’s New York, 16 March 2017, lot 637). The Tiffany Palace Carpet falls somewhere in between: its pile is thicker than the Ningxia type but thinner than Wanli examples and woven on a cotton foundation with delicate designs.
In addition to the Tiffany Palace Carpet, other ‘transitional’ carpets survive in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, Western museums and private collections. The two closest examples, designated “Tiffany Palace type”, are both in museums in the United States. A daybed cover in the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City displays a pair of dragons in the center flanked by four lotuses that are nearly identical to the lotus blossoms covering the field of the present carpet, as well as sharing the same drawing of the fret-work border (see Lee Yu-Kuan, Art Rugs from Silk Route and Great Wall Areas, Tokyo, 1980, p.86, pl.61). An altar rug with identical lotus blossoms and scroll work is in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (M.S. Dimand and Jean Mailey, Oriental Rugs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1973, p.315, fig.281).
The Tiffany Palace Carpet was a highlight of the Tiffany Studios Carpet Collection auction at American Art Galleries in 1916. Tiffany Studios, established in the 1880s, sold furniture, decorations and antique Chinese rugs out of its showroom on Madison Avenue and published a well-known book in 1908 of their Chinese rugs. Most likely purchased from their agent, art dealer and collector Thomas B. Clarke (1848-1931), the carpet was then composed of three pieces with evidence of circular areas rewoven. Presumably, at one point this carpet was cut and shaped in order to accommodate columns for a specific architectural space. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) purchased it for $8,000 in this sale and brought it to Laurelton Hall.
Completed in 1905, Laurelton Hall was Tiffany’s greatest artistic achievement. Wholly designed by Tiffany, the eighty-four room, eight-level Aesthetic movement showpiece sat on 580 acres overlooking Oyster Bay, Long Island, and took more than two years to complete at a cost of over two million dollars. The interiors synthesized motifs, furniture and objects from China, Japan and the Middle East and included an impressive carpet collection, which included an Egyptian Cairene and 17th century Isfahans as well as Chinese carpets. Although the largest rooms were on the first floor, Tiffany used the present carpet for the painting gallery on the second floor. However, he re-sized and cut this carpet for the space, repurposing the fragments as hallway runners for the second floor gallery (Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Laurelton Hall, New York, 2006, p.159).
For about thirty years, the carpet remained in Tiffany’s collection. In 1918, Tiffany created the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, which established Laurelton as a retreat and study center for artists. In 1946, thirteen years after Tiffany’s death, the Foundation made the difficult decision to liquidate and sell the contents of Laurelton Hall. Parke-Bernet Galleries held the enormous sale of 1,147 lots, which included 102 ‘Oriental and Chinese rugs'. The Tiffany Palace Carpet and seven fragments were sold in three separate lots, all bought by noted dealer and collector of classical Chinese carpets Frank Michaelian. Michaelian had the carpet in his possession for close to forty years, evidently at one point using it on the floor, as it was further reduced in size, hopefully for the last time.
Because of the floral repeat and the sensitivity with which this carpet was re-sized, the overall balance and serenity of the carpet has not been affected. The Tiffany Palace Carpet stands as a testament to the artistic elegance of the late Ming period and a harbinger of the prolific output of Ningxia-type carpets during the Kangxi period.