The Middle Eastern and Asian carpets offered in this auction were collected by copper baron and then senator William Andrews Clark in the late 19th and early 20th century. A taste for the exotic became popular well before the turn of the 20th century, yet, during Clark’s era, 16th-17th century weavings were extraordinarily coveted and prestigious items that attested to their owner’s sophistication and worldliness. ‘Ancient’ rugs and carpets were considered a necessity to complement the paintings collected by Clark and other business titans of the era such as Henry G. Marquand, J.P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, and Charles T. Yerkes. Prominent art dealers including Joseph Duveen, Stefano Bardini and Vitall Benguiat sought out antique carpets from titled European sources to sell to their American clients. In the 1903 auction of the collection of Henry G. Marquand, the railway tycoon and philanthropist who served as President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1889-1902, antique carpets were in such demand that the highest priced lot of the sale was a “Royal Persian rug of the 15th or early 16th century.”
Senator Clark, who described himself as “the richest man west of the Mississippi” built the largest mansion of its time in New York City on Fifth Avenue and 77th Street. He hired Henri Deglane, who had designed the Grand Palais in Paris, to create a French-style chateau with over 130 rooms including large gallery spaces in which to display his collection.
Along with his contemporaries, Senator Clark purchased many of his carpets through the renowned New York dealer, Vitall Benguiat. Indeed, not since the V. and L. Benguiat auctions held in the 1920s-30s by our predecessor, the American Art Association, has a group of 16th – 17th century carpets of the caliber of the Clark collection been offered at auction.
While he acquired many carpets through Benguiat, Senator Clark also purchased directly at auction and from other dealers. Clark became enamored of France from the time of his first visit there in 1878. He studied the language and returned to France annually, even marrying his second wife there in 1901. It was during one of his many trips to Paris that Clark acquired a sickle-leaf carpet from the dealers Bacri Frères. Now referred to as the “Clark Sickle-leaf Carpet,” this is one of the most revered of Persian ‘vase’-technique carpets; it is a carpet that truly embodies the highest quality of Safavid weaving attained during the reign of Shah Abbas I (r. 1587-1629) an era referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ of carpet weaving.
Clark purchased two ‘Polonaise’ rugs offered in this auction at the 1915 sale of the collection of General Brayton Ives, a prominent financier who had served two terms as President of the New York Stock Exchange, also held by Sotheby’s predecessor firm. General Ive’s rugs had been exhibited in the seminal 1910 “Loan Exhibition of Carpets” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Several carpets from Clark’s collection that are offered in this sale were also included in the 1910 exhibition: a rare circular Cairene carpet, an Isphahan wool carpet with metal brocade and a Mughal silk rug.
Senator Clark acquired one of his most impressive works from Vitall Benguiat; the “Lafões Carpet,” a very grand and luxurious Isphahan weaving that descended through the noble family of the Dukes of Lafões of Portugal. At over 44 feet in length and retaining lustrous pile, the Lafões carpet is the most majestic of the 17th century Isphahan rugs and carpets to be offered in this auction. Isphahan red ground, spiral-vine and palmette design carpets were favored by the Senator and his peers, and this preference is reflected by the seventeen examples of the type included in this catalogue.
It is an enormous privilege to offer carpets from the William A. Clark collection to benefit future acquisitions of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. No collection of carpets of this quality has appeared on the auction market for more than eighty years. Over the last decade, there has been renewed interest in these 16th-17th century carpets and this auction offers collectors and institutions an unprecedented opportunity to acquire works from the period when pile weaving was among the grandest art forms in the world.
This sale of Important Carpets from the William A. Clark Collection Sold by the Corcoran Gallery of Art to Benefit Future Acquisitions brought an impressive total of $43,764,750, over four times the pre-sale high estimate of $9.6 million, making it the most successful carpet auction ever held. The sale of 25 carpets was 100% sold, achieving “White Glove” status, and with every single lot achieving a price above its pre-sale high estimate. At least four bidders fought for over 10 minutes for the star lot, the important and revered 17th century Clark Sickle-Leaf Carpet, which sold for an astounding price of $33,765,000 (est. $5/7 million), a new world auction record for any carpet by a significant margin. That price also establishes a new benchmark for any Islamic work of art at auction.