In superb condition, this magnificent shirt, characterised by its rich honey-gold ground offset with designs in shades of blue, would have been considered a true ‘cloth of gold’ which was so prized by the Sogdian elite and its neighbours.
Set within the mountainous plains comprising modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the Sogdian Empire was at the centre of an extensive trade network. As the scholar Étienne de la Vaissière notes: “The contemporary Sogdian, Chinese, Arabic, Byzantine, and Armenian sources describe the Sogdians as the great traders of Inner Asia. They managed to sell their products – musk, slaves, silverware, silk and many other goods – to all the surrounding peoples” (Étienne de la Vaissière, Sogdians in China: A Short History and Some New Discoveries, Silk Road Foundation Newsletter vol. 1, no.2, Paris, December 2003).
Although the Sogdians traded extensively along the Silk Road, a notable exchange was established with China. Trading posts were established locally and examples of Sogdian silks have been found in sites in northwest China, such as Astana and Dulan. The best silks came from China, and the Sogdians, lying at the centre of various crossroads, developed the opportunity to trade with the Eastern Persian market, resulting in a strong influence of Sassanian motifs in Sogdian silk design.
The condition of the present shirt is remarkable - very few examples in this state of preservation exist. Some of the most well-known and notable models are now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, and the Abegg-Stiftung Foundation in Switzerland. A comparison can be drawn with the child’s coat in Cleveland, which was woven with a design: “[…] strongly influenced by the art of Sasanian Iran (circa 224-640 AD), especially the ribbons (patif) worn by the ducks, the necklaces held in their beaks and the pearl roundels” (J. Watt and A. Wardwell, When Silk was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1997, p.21). Although the characteristic pearl roundels do not feature on the present shirt, the heart-motif design in the borders around the birds is reminiscent of this detail. The ‘duck in a roundel’ motif also appears on a hanging in the Abegg-Stiftung Foundation, Switzerland (inv. no.5682), and further variations of this design can be seen on examples sold in these rooms (5 October 2011, lot 181).
The importance of silk lay in its portability as well as the intrinsic value of the material itself. This shirt was produced with the highest quality silk as attested by its present condition, one thousand years later. The fashion set by the Sogdians for such silks continued into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and an Ilkhanid robe offered at Sotheby’s, 9 April 2014, lot 124, was also decorated with a variation of the facing pheasant motif.
An indicator of wealth and rank, this shirt would have served an important function in the context of trade and diplomacy. Today, it provides a rare glimpse into an important civilization that left an imprint on empires spreading over multiple continents and for many subsequent centuries.