T his season, Chinese works of art at Sotheby’s are not limited to the sales on 7 and 8 November, but also appear in the Collections sale on 31 October, and in the Rugs and Carpets sale on 6 November, which has an unprecedented group of classical Chinese carpets on offer.
Carpets span many different worlds - from pieces made in villages and tribes to those made in towns and in court workshops, and from Spain to China. Consequently the character of a sale can vary enormously. In this particular auction, the outcome is a remarkable selection of early Chinese carpets. Some of these, like the Larsson lion-dog and ‘hundred antiques’ carpet, have never appeared at auction before. Others are rediscoveries, like the Scofield Thayer carpet, from the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, which was last offered at auction over 30 years ago.
The classical carpets of China were little known until the early 20th century, when they began to appear on the international market. The rug scholar Arthur Urbane Dilley wrote “The advent of Chinese rugs in America was as dramatic as their quick capture of popular approbation. As if the art arrived from another planet, The American Art Association announced the first sale of it in 1908”.
They were enthusiastically taken up by collectors such as Dilley himself, Louis Tiffany, J K Mumford, Frederick Moore, T B Clarke and the patron of modern art and literature, and collector, Scofield Thayer, whose dais carpet is included in this sale. By 1920, some 1,650 early Chinese carpets had been offered across 15 auctions in New York when the sales effectively ceased, as sources dried up.
The depredations of time and use have had their effect, and fewer than 600 classical Chinese carpets survive today, with the Palace Museum in Beijing having the largest collection, of fewer than 100 examples, mainly Wanli. Both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Textile Museum in Washington have small collections, with a majority of the remainder held in private collections In Europe and America.
This sale offers a unique opportunity to acquire several exemplary Chinese carpets. The works offered are mainly from Ninghsia in Western China, where expansion in production and availability was triggered by a military expedition to the area by the Kangxi Emperor in 1696-97. Carpets were clearly highly prized as prestigious possessions: virtually all the portraits of the Ming and Qing emperors include depictions of carpets, and photographs from circa 1900 interiors of the several halls in the Forbidden City show how carpets were then still being displayed in the palace.
The sale includes a rare early example of a silk and metal thread carpet, dated to circa 1800, inscribed for Imperial use in the Palace of Heavenly Purity, possibly for the throne platform. Carpets were used to define areas of importance, provide warmth and comfort and, through their motifs and decoration, create a harmonious aesthetic, which integrated their symbolism with the other Chinese works of art with which the royal household, their courtiers and officials surrounded themselves.
The Larsson lion-dog medallion with 'hundred antiques' dais carpet and the Thyssen- Bornemisza lion dog medallion and ‘hundred antiques’ dais cover from the beginning and end of the 18th century respectively, exemplify the tradition of using symbols and homophones to decorate works of art. This sale also includes examples of carpets and rugs displaying all the key motifs associated with the genre: dragons, designs derived from woven silks, peony and lotus flowers, and complex fretwork and geometric patterns, which together provide a rare opportunity to appreciate the range and subtle beauty of classical Chinese pile weavings.