Lot 89
  • 89


50,000 - 80,000 GBP
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • approximately 424 by 414cm; 13ft. 11in., 13ft. 7in.
  • late 17th century


The Estate of Scofield Thayer;
Sotheby's New York, 30 May 1987, lot 115;
The Textile Gallery, London, 1990.


Franses, M., ed., Classical Chinese Carpets in Western Collections: The Kangxi period, 1661-1722, London, 2002, p. 13, pl. 3; p. 47, fig.3.
Spuhler. F., The Thyssen Bornemisza Collection, London, 1998, pl. 64, pp. 232-233.
Spuhler. F., 'Marketplace', Hali, issue 36, October/November/December, 1987, p. 84.


Overall measurements: 421cm across the top, 424cm across the bottom, 414cm the left hand side, 413cm the right hand side. Now in sound usable condition overall. The pile generally even 3mm in depth with glossy wool and flexible handle. There are scattered areas of re-piling throughout which through shape and location would indicate these are old repairs from moth damage, very well executed, personal inspection advised. Repaired areas are more clearly visible from the reverse of the carpet, additional photographs of these areas can be requested from the department if required. There is a patched repair, approximately 9 by 4cm by the head of the lower left central dragon and a further, the same scale, to the left of the right hand side lower corner dragon, and smaller scattered areas.The top outer brown guard is a later replacement and some restoration to the remainder of the outer guard. The top end with Velcro attached to the underside and the bottom with linen. Could potentially benefit from a professional clean, buyers discretion. A exceptionally striking carpet with a highly well executed design and clarity.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

The dragon is a recurrent motif in Chinese decorative arts, becoming prominent initially in the Han dynasty (206BC - AD220). They are associated with Imperial authority and with the nature of the universe and were thought to embody the same dynamic forces that animated clouds and vapours. Franses, op cit, p.16 notes that almost half the surviving Imperial Wanli carpets depict dragons, and that these are generally quite naturalistic in appearance; their sinuous bodies are covered in scales; limbs and facial features are clearly recognisable. In the pieces produced in Ninghsia in the reign of Emperor Kangxi, the dragon continues to be an important motif, but their style of depiction changes, taking three primary forms: in the first they are drawn in an archaic manner, recalling their depiction in the Han dynasty, where their snake-like trunks issue multiple branches which split into vapour scrolls, whilst their heads remain recognisably dragon-like; in the second their heads remain recognisable, whilst their bodies are formed of interlocking fretwork; in the third fretwork alone is used to symbolise the dragon. Franses, ibid, notes these three forms appear concurrent. Interestingly, there is a pair of Beijing Imperial carpets, illustrated König. H., Franses. M., Gnz de Himmelssöhne, Kaiserliche Teppiche aus China 1400 – 1750, Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Köln, exhibition catalogue,  London, 2005, p. 60, cat. 3, (dated to the last quarter of the 16th century), in which the dragons are archaistic, possibly the prototypes for the sinuous Ninghsia dragons.  In Kangxi carpets, where the dragon is used to create the central medallion, he can be single or as a pair, in any of the styles noted. See Franses, M., Chinese Carpets: Early Ninghsia Carpets, Hali, Vol. 5, Issue 2, London, 1982, p. 139, fig.10 for examples of dragon medallions. In the Scofield Thayer carpet, all three styles of dragon are employed. The central medallion is composed of a pair of confronting dragons, and the vapour scrolls which support them form an implicit octagon, which is echoed by the fret ‘wreath’ on its inner edge, which then transforms to a stepped circle. The dragons which form the outer ring are individually drawn: no two are the same. The fret dragon spandrels create a dodecahedron within the square panel. The pairs of dragons in the field each chase a flaming pearl, as do the pairs in the outer corners. These latter dragons are unusually drawn for the type, with stylised forelegs, cloud scroll haunches, and both eyes shown, and their depiction suggests the draughtsman was familiar with the archaic Wanli dragons. Shou characters are embedded in each corner of the field. The dynamic tension created between the implied polygons and circles creates a remarkable and extraordinary sense of both movement and stillness in this highly sophisticated work of art.

For a related kang rug, with sinuous dragons and fret spandrels in the field, see Leitch (1935), pp. 64-65, pl. 15 (upper). The Michaelian Dragon Carpet, König & Franses, op cit, p. 114, cat. 34 has similar, although simplified sinuous dragons. Complementary seating mats also exist, see the Cole seat mat, König & Franses, 2005 , ibid, p. 118, cat. 36 and the example in the MAK, Vienna, illustrated Larsson (1988), p. 22. pl. 10. The sinuous dragons also appear with bats in the field, in the Wallach dais cover, and the Michaelian kang cover, see Franses (2002), pp. 18-19, pl. 5 and p. 15, pl. 4 respectively. Several of these comparables are pictured in relative size in Franses, ibid., pp. 46 -47, illustrating perfectly the grandeur of the carpet offered here.

For a brief overview of the history of classical Chinese carpets, see the note below and on p. 54 of the printed catalogue.

Previously in the collection of Scofield Thayer - 

“An aesthete and scion of a wealthy family, Scofield Thayer (1889–1982) was co-owner and editor of the literary magazine the Dial from 1919 to 1926. In this avant-garde journal he introduced Americans to the writings of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, Arthur Schnitzler, Thomas Mann, and Marcel Proust, among others. He frequently accompanied these writers' contributions with reproductions of modern art. Thayer assembled his large collection of some six hundred works—mostly works on paper—with staggering speed in London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna between 1921 and 1923. While he was a patient of Sigmund Freud in Vienna, he acquired a large group of watercolors and drawings by Schiele and Klimt, artists who at that time were unknown in America.

When a selection from his collection was shown at the Montross Gallery in New York in 1924—five years before the Museum of Modern Art opened—it won acclaim. It found no favor, however, in Thayer's native city, Worcester, Massachusetts, that same year when it was shown at the Worcester Art Museum. Incensed, Thayer drew up his will in 1925, leaving his collection to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He withdrew from public life in the late 1920s and lived as a recluse on Martha's Vineyard and in Florida until his death in 1982.” (Exhibition Overview ‘Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele and Picasso’, for the exhibition of works from the Collection of Scofield Thayer at the Met Breuer, 3 July - 7 Oct 2018 https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2018/obsession, accessed 30 September 2018.

At The Met Breuer

Franses (1982): Franses, M., Chinese Carpets: Early Ninghsia Carpets, Hali, Vol. 5, Issue 2, London, 1982, pp.132-40

A Note on Classical Chinese Carpets

The study of pre- 1800 Chinese carpets is a relatively recent discipline.  Carpets from Persia, India and the Ottoman Empire were extensively traded from at least the late 15th century; their aesthetic and commercial value has been well understood by collectors since they first arrived in the West.  In contrast, the classical carpets of China were little known until the early 20th century, during the final years of the Qing dynasty, (1636–1912), 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”. 1  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 (lot 89). As calculated by Michael Franses 2 some 1,650 ‘antique’ Chinese carpets had been offered across 15 auction sales in New York by 1920, when the sales effectively ceased, as the sources of these pieces dried up.  Illustrated examples in the American Art Association catalogues show many pieces in pristine condition, but the depredations of time and use have had their effect.  Franses3  suggests fewer than six hundred classical Chinese carpets survive today with the Palace Museum in Beijing having the largest collection, of something less than one hundred, mainly examples from the reign of The Wanli Emperor, fourteenth Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, (1573-1619). In addition there are ‘some sixteen rugs’3 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a similar quantity in the Textile Museum in Washington, mainly from the collection of George Hewitt Myers, with the majority of the remainder held in private collections In Europe and the United States. 

This sale offers a unique opportunity to acquire several exemplary examples of Chinese carpet weaving, both published and unpublished.  The works offered are in the main attributed to the weaving centre of Ninghsia in Western China, which seems to have seen an expansion in the production and availability of its weavings after a military expedition to the area by the Kangxi Emperor, fourth Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, (1662-1722), in 1696-97, during which he asked to see carpets being woven and was presented with several examples.4  Carpets were clearly highly prized as prestigious possessions: virtually all the portraits of the Ming and Qing emperors include depictions of carpets, see Köln, 2005,5 pp. 19-23, pp.33, 39 for examples.  Photographs of interiors of the several halls in the Forbidden City, dating from circa 1900, show how carpets were still being displayed in the palace by that date, see Köln, ibid, pp.24-25. The sale includes a rare early example of a silk and metal thread carpet inscribed for Imperial use in the Palace of Heavenly Purity, possibly for the throne platform, dated to c.1800, (lot 54).  Carpets were used on raised platforms (dais), on beds, kang, as chair, bench, table and saddle covers, 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. In particular, the Larsson lion-dog medallion with 'hundred antiques' dais carpet, (lot 71) dating from the first half 18th century, and the Thyssen- Bornemisza lion dog medallion and ‘hundred antiques’ dais cover (lot 96), from the second half of the 18th century, exemplify the tradition of using symbols and homophones to decorate works of art. Further information can be found in the catalogue entries for these pieces. 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.

1 Dilley, Arthur Urbane, Oriental Rugs and Carpets,  A Comprehensive Study, Scribner’s,  New York, 1931 cited in Franses, Michael,  A Brief Introduction to classical Chinese carpets, in Classical Chinese Carpets I, London, 2000

2    Franses, Michael,  A Brief Introduction to classical Chinese carpets, in Classical Chinese Carpets I, London, 2000, p.14

Franses, Michael , A Brief Introduction, Classical Chinese Carpets in Western Collections, The Kangxi period, 1661 – 1722, London, 2002

4 Franses, Michael , The emperors and their carpets, Classical Chinese Carpets in Western Collections, The Kangxi period, 1661 – 1722, London, 2002, p. 7&10, quoting Du Halde, Description geographique, historique , chronologique, politique et physique de l’empire de la Chine, Vol LV, fol 02, no.39, Biblioteque Nationale, Paris, 1697, p. 372 (26 April)

5  Köln, 2005: König, Hans and Franses, Michael, Glanz de Himmelssöhne, Kaiserliche Teppiche aus China 1400 – 1750, Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Köln, exhibition catalogue,  London, 2005