Monday 23 June 2014

Inscrutable Isfahans

1-Walters Art Gallery,Baltimore

On the whole,members of the “Polonaise “Group correspond quite closely to the general public`s idea of what an Oriental carpet should look like,with their aristocratic bearing and bewildering array of arabesque and  courtly designs.The chief chronicler of the group,Friedrich Spuhler,has collated the number of basic design plans to 13,although with slight changes the variations are endless.Apart from a limited number of easily recognisable groups,each carpet appears as a unikum.


The above is one of eight known examples with a winged palmette design(including a pair at Skokloster)Some are presumably fragments from a larger piece.This most conspicuous of all Polonaise designs also signals the entry of the"trefoil"border into carpet history.Categorised as Spuhler`s System XIII.The group can be viewed in toto  Here

It seems the larger carpets were the design sources from which the majority of smaller pieces originated,in the same way as the Lotto and Holbein carpets were varied through using a simple excerpt from a larger endless repeat.Due to the passage of time the silk pile has often lost much of its colour.The reds especially tend to fade,and the gold or silver thread used for embellishment tarnishes to a uniform grey,or even falls out,resulting in an often unreadable design.P.R.J Ford and Nabako Kajitani discovered that the reds predominantly used were dyed with the fugitive Safflower.When illuminated under UV light the original colour re-fluoresces.The metal thread was created by winding gilded metal foil onto either undyed or yellow coloured silk.The spatial interruptions thus caused on the fibre allowed the silk to shine through,creating either a silver or golden effect.

The American art-historian Maurice Dimand,writing in the catalogue of an exhibition of Polonaise carpets in 1930,reduced the taxonomy to four groups: Medallion,Compartment,Symmetrical-Arabesque,and repeat patterns.This simplifies matters greatly in terms of organising and locating individual items.Although Dr.Spuhler`s approach is more methodical,it is difficult to apply when dealing with the withered photographic remains available.Additionally,he had the opportunity to examine many of the known examples and was able to draw on the experience of his teachers Kurt Erdmann and Ernst Kuhnel.Unlike the grouping methods employed elsewhere on this site,and in the same way as a catalogue raisonné,it is necessary to acquaint oneself with each piece singly,or as pairs.

Black and white photos are often preferable to colour,even if they are,in some cases,nearly a hunded years old,and of poor quality.A perfidious trick of the Polonaise carpet makers was the absence of a clearly defined ground colour(a device later re-appearing in some Ersari main carpets)This could be achieved by changing the colour within the areas of scrolling vines

3-Widener-Spuhler System I,with changing ground colour

or simply altering the colour in an allover compartment rug


A classic example with arabesque medallion and vine leaf scrolls is  a truncated design,perhaps a cryptic prayer rug,once in the Kestner Museum Hannover and now lost

5-Kestner Museum (Spuhler System II)

Just how subtle the design changes could be rung is evidenced by Friedrich Spuhler`s grouping of two apparently different carpets:the Najaf/Aberconway carpets and the Bernheimer long rug now in the Ryksmuseum.They both use the same design plan of palmettes trellised onto a scrolling vine system,but the treatment is so different as to be unrecognisable.Spuhler System IX.

6-The Aberconway-McLaren,V&A london


8-Bernheimer,now Ryksmuseum

Thus the naive researcher embarking upon such a study is faced with initially insurmountable problems.

The dominant feature of the Polonaise carpets is the arabesque,in particular the forked leaf variant, which finds its apogee in the great medallion of the Ardabil carpet and continues to run riot through the remaining phase of Safavid art.

9-Ardabil carpet,London

10-Ardabil London,Hali 67-168

Forked-Leaf madness:the Anhalt Carpet


12-Prince Liechtenstein-Spuhler System I

The author has assembled an index of some 200 carpets and fragments(of which there are,incidentally,very few)29 pairs have been identified,although for one pair(Moscow-Leningrad)there exist no photos.The  actual number of known Polonaise carpets varies wildly,with speculations ranging between 400(Erdmann),300 (Dimand),240(Spuhler,Coronation Carpets) and 100(Hali)A small number have appeared since 1968,including an important pair at Christies in 1988.There are probably a few more hidden in the literature.Dr.Spuhler`s dissertatation(”Seidene Representationsteppiche der Mittleren Bis Späten Safawidenzeit”)appeared in 1968,and catalogued 191 examples.In a sentiment of academic valour,the catalogue contained no illustrations whatsoever beyond the drawings of the basic designs and borders.In a pre-digital age the publication of so many pieces would have been impossible,and beyond the boundaries of a dissertation.Even today it would be impossible to assemble so many examples under one roof,unless that were the panoply of the Internet.

The expression”Polonaise”is eschewed in academic circles,but as with so many carpet tags will probably stick and is best left alone.It was introduced into English(according to A.U. Pope)by Mumford,whilst translating from the "French catalogue"(Pope 2388-a reference to the catalogue of the World Exhibition in Paris,of 1878)Dr. Spuhler`s “Representational Carpets” is a clever artifice with its connotation of Ambassadorial gifts,Doges, Medicis etc.But "Polonaise" captures the Baroque spirit.

13-Dr. Spuhler`s Dissertation-still awaiting publication in English

14-Pope,International Studio,1923

By chance the first illustration of an oriental carpet in an art-historical context is a reproduction of the Czartoryski arabesque Polonaise.Thus the initial connection of these carpets to Poland came about through their presence in an aristocratic Polish Collection.It was the work of Riegl,Bode and Valentiner which cleared the way to a definitive Persian localisation in the early 20th century.

15-The Czartoryski,E.Lievre,1866

By general consent the forebears of the Polonaise rugs were a group of all-silk carpets,15 in all,produced probably in mid 16th century Keshan.The Polonaise carpets(with some notable exceptions)differ technically in having cotton warp and cotton/silk weft.The use of metal thread as outlining and highlighting appears on the earlier Vienna and Boston Hunting carpets.Isfahan became the Capital of Persia around 1600,and it`s likely that the manufactories were moved there at that time.Production would have continued until the Afghan occupation of 1712,but may well have continued through the 18th century on a more modest scale.
A comparison of a 16th century silk Keshan and a Polonaise rug in Saint Mark`s,Venice illustrates the sea-change in artistic outlook

16-Bavarian National Museum,Munich

17-San Marco,Rome

Despite design citations from 16th century North-West Persia the muted San Marco rug is in no way comparable.

Other examples of design poaching are the Benguiat-Rockefeller-MET Polonaise and a Vase carpet from the Havermeyer Collection,now also MET

18-Rockefeller-MET (Spuhler-System XI)


Another "Vase" carpet style rug from the Salting Collection in the V&A is an example of Spuhler`s System IV


However a System IV rug can also look like the following

21-Textile Museum

The TM`s medallion rug could also have been placed in System XII alongside Battilossi`s formidable companion piece to the Pamphily carpet

22-Battilossi 3-3

An obligatory attempt at a Red Ground Floral Carpet avoids the complexity of the original and goes for a streamlined version with thicker vines

23-Rosenborg Palace

24-Rippon Boswell May 1990

The St Mark`s carpet was a present to the Doge Marino Grimani in 1603,an event celebrated in a painting by Caliari


A number of paintings in the Palace at Versailles constitute a lone group depicting Polonaise carpets

26-Louis XV

They are in fact mostly portraits of Louis VX



Including two paintings by Nattier


30-Nattier-portrait of Maria Leszcynska

31-Testelin-Colbert presenting the Academy of Sciences to Louis XIV,1667

32-Salon de la Abondance

33-Salon de la Abondance,Versailles

The last would appear to portray a silk kilim.

Kurt Erdmann illustrated what he took to be a Polonaise carpet in a painting by Veronese

34-700 Years,Erdmann

But unfortunately the research avenues open for Turkish rugs in European paintings are not available.

Polonaise at Auction

Three auctions featured items which later went on to populate major collections:The Yerkes Sale in 1910,the Gary Auction in 1928,and the little- known but legendary sale at the Palais Galliera on 28 March 1968 in Paris.The last mentioned seems to have hosted the property of Edmond de Rothschild.
The cover photo(the only piece reproduced in colour!)shows a rug woven from the same "Kartonage" as the Yerkes-Brayton Ives carpet later sold at the Corcoran Sale(see below).This reveals how close the serial production of designs could be,without creating an absolute pair.It also raises the question of if,when comparing very similar examples,we are looking at pairs or just very exact serial production.Pairs can usually be identified through their mirror-image design.Spuhler System VII.

35-Palais Galliera

A review of the more important examples on the market in recent years now follows.

First sold at Christies London on 10th June 1976 for £26,000,this went on to become the “Battilossi” carpet after selling on 4th June 1988 at Sothebys New York  for $264,000.It was re-auctioned at Christies London on 20th October 1994 for $679,590.

36-The "Battilossi"

Another large carpet,fresh to the market and in good condition, sold at Sothebys Islamic sale on 12 October 1982(Lot 67) for $397,000.

37-Sothebys 1982

At its first appearance at auction on 10 June 1976 17 October 1984,the famous King Umberto carpet did not make an ostentatious price($209,440,Sothebys)but more than made up for this by becoming the most expensive Persian rug ever auctioned up to that time($691,390,at Christies London 29 April 1993,Lot 432)

38-King Umberto

In the first Umberto sale  on 17.10.1984,a smaller,green ground example from the Royal collection outsold its larger brother at $235,620(Lot 319) and is an ambitious attempt at a Red Ground Floral carpet(on green!)

39-King Umberto 2

Although advertised in Hali 38 the appearance of an unknown pair similar to the Berlin-Keir type,was deemed unnecessary of mention by Hali`s editorial staff.The carpets never re-appeared.Possibly one of these was published by Hangeldian(Nr.78)They belong to the System VIIIa of Dr.Spuhler

40-Christies 1988

41-Christies 1988-2

Sold in 1969 by Sothebys for £6,600($15,840)at the Kevorkian Sale,this carpet from the Getty Collection at Sothebys New York on 8 December 1990(Lot 2) brought a resounding $440,000.Its close pair is in the Cleveland Museum of Art.Spuhler System III.

42-Sothebys Getty sale 1990

A second rug at the Getty sale has a twin in Tehran.Both carpets have been identified as the Yerkes carpet Nr.XIV,but this cannot be so.At the time of the Getty sale the Yerkes piece was already in Tehran(see Hali II-2-98,and Spuhler Nr.159)The Sotheby`s cataloguer has seemingly adopted the Yerkes legend.One of the pair had belonged to Baron Nathaniel Rothschild.The carpet sold for $231,000.

43-Sothebys 1990(Spuhler System VI-1a)

An ex-Benguiat rug(1932 Sale,Lot 15) was offered at Sothebys London on 28 April 1993 and is a particularly good example of Dr.Spuhler`s System III

44-Sothebys 1993, Lot 61

Freed from captivity,the Rothschild "Cloudband" Polo was sold at Christie`s on 8 July 1999.Catalogue entries to the contrary,it is probably not the pair to the item sold at the Palais Galliera,but another conveyor-belt production.It fetched $688,300,in part due to its excellent condition.Spuhler System X.

45-Rothschild Sale 187

From the Rainey Rogers Collection auctioned at Park-Bernet on 18 December 1943(407)Later with Kevorkian,this  carpet had been exhibited in Chicago in 1947.It was the biggest selling Persian rug of its time when sold at Sothebys New York on 8 December 1990 (Lot 54)for $506,000.Subsequently in the Doris Duke Collection,it broke all world records for any Oriental rug at auction by fetching $4,450,500(Christies New York 3 June 2008,Lot 37)A very special carpet,all silk,no metal thread,now in Doha.Spuhler I.

46-Christies 2008

Another all-silk carpet was withdrawn from Christies sale of  11 October 1990 after the intervention of the Polish Government.The Czartoryski carpet had been confiscated by the Nazis in 1939,along with 6 other pieces which are still missing.The auction was aborted and the carpet eventually returned.Along with the Doha and Liechtenstein carpets this is amongst the most beautiful of all Polonaise carpets.One can only only conjecture what it would have brought.

47-Christies 1990 (Spuhler system 1-plain ground)

At the Christies-Bernheimer Sale of 14 February 1996 the following debilitated example sold for an extraordinary $375,000.It had previously been offered at the Weinmüller Auction in 1960.Its pair was once with Judge Gary(later Duveen),and was  shown at the 1926 Chicago Exhibition.


A beautiful poor condition piece from the Sassoon Collection sold at Christies London on 1 May 2003 for $304,080(Lot 200)The author of Hali`s APG in Issue 129(109) confuses the Battilossi and Umberto carpets in the discussion of this auction.


From the House of Saxony via Judge Gary(and later with Moshe Tabibnia)the following carpet sold at Sothebys New York on 16 December 2005 for $273,600(Lot 41)System V Spuhler.

50-Sothebys 2005-Tabibnia

A year prior to the Doris Duke sale,Christies in London sold a carpet from the Kevorkian collection via Dildarian for $1,129,635,crashing the 1 million dollar barrier for the first time.

51-Christies 2007

The latest high-flying Polonaise went at the Corcoran Sale  in New York on 5 June 2013 (Lot 7) for $173,000.An ex-Yerkes piece via General Brayton Ives.


Pedigree is clearly essential for maximum returns,however even “no-name” Polonaise carpets can fetch amazing prices.Witness the large rug with a huge water stain which sold at Sothebys new York on 10 April 2002 for $95,600(lot 245)There seems to be quite a demand in New York for large yellow silken things amongst interior decorators!Indeed the Polonaise rugs are among the oldest serving decorative carpets in the world.

53-Sothebys 2002

The tradition of making silk and metal carpets was carried on in Iran,and went on to a further career in East Turkestan and China,where a number of formidable carpets were created.A final resurgence occurred in the weaving ateliers of Kum Kapi,under the direction of Armenian master-weavers.

Click link to view the Polonaise Carpet Index...Polonaise Carpet Index

Click link to view the Index Of Polonaise Carpet Pairs...Polonaise Pairs

Click link to view an Index Of Polonaise Carpet Closeups...Polonaise Closeups

54-chez Edmund de Unger

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