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Spring Oriental Rug Auctions; How Relevant Are Estimates?


by George O'Bannon

Skinner's, Christie's, and Sotheby's had Oriental rug sales in April. It seemed that rug dealers were out in force at all of them, even many of the Europeans. But the mood at the sales continues to be very business-like with a lack of enthusiasm. There was, however, one auction of rugs that did generate a lot of enthusiasm, the Nureyev sale in January. Perhaps what the rug world needs is a world-famous personality.

Something that many auction attendees don't fully appreciate is the reliability of estimates placed on auction lots. Most people assume there is a high degree of reliability. Auction catalogs explain the intent to potential buyers: "The estimates are guides for prospective bidders and, where possible, reflect prices that similar objects have sold for in the past. The estimates are determined several months before a sale and are therefore subject to revision to reflect current market conditions. Estimates should not be relied upon as a representation or prediction of actual selling prices" (Sotheby's). Christie's statement is much the same, and Skinner's has no estimate definition in its catalog. Basically, estimates are guides; don't count on them. You have to decide what you are willing to pay.

Many prices paid for pieces pointed up the vagaries of estimates in the recent sales. Some were realistic, some very unrealistic, some set deliberately low to attract bidders. Who is at an auction to buy or not buy affects the estimates' reliability, and some estimates couldn't be counted on at all because of the celebrity nature of the goods. Let's begin with the celebrity one first, the Nureyev sale.



M.A.D. readers were informed of the enormously successful and near hysterical auction on January 12-13 of Rudolf Nureyev's estate in the April issue. If proof were needed that celebrity can make people spend excessively for personal items at auction, this one proved it in spades. The catalog, printed in hardcover, sold out before the auction and is likely to become a collector's item.

The lots that brought the most ridiculous prices were his personal items and costumes from his ballets. But the things he collected, including paintings, sculpture, furniture, prints, maps, textiles, rugs, and photographs, also surpassed their estimates. One had the sense that Nureyev was not just an accumulator. It seemed he acquired a variety of arts from the European tradition of keeping one's wealth in different kinds of assets against the day when hard times return, when things had more value than money. With few exceptions, they were not bought with a focused collector's eye or knowledge.

This was particularly true of the 64 lots of kilims. Most were in excellent condition or had been restored to excellent condition. But they ranged from early 19th-century pieces with great color and design to more recent ones with obvious synthetic dyes and uninspired weaving. Two thirds of these lots sold below or within estimates, which occurred with no other group of items in the auction. Since many of the lots consisted of several rugs, the hammer prices in most cases were actually bargain-basement.

The reason for this would seem to be that the kilims did not have the close personal association with Nureyev that other items had. For instance, the Kashmir shawls, which he is known to have worn from photo documentation, had his "scent" on them. The kilims did not. All of the shawls sold above estimates and, in many instances, more than doubled the high estimates.

But this was a sale for balletomanes and fans. Few rug dealers showed up, in large part because the kilim market exists as a separate and specialized entity within Oriental rug sales. There are two markets for these weavings, decorative and collector. For the decorative market, kilims are readily available at wholesale; the collector market is highly selective and in recent years thin and erratic. There was no reason for dealers to consider buying for resale in a situation where hysterical fans might pay anything, nor were the pieces of the quality sophisticated kilim collectors are buying, in these post-"the Mother Goddess is dead" days.

The first lot offered, 335, was an unusual size for an Aksaray kilim and had a white cotton field, also unusual, which gave the bold motifs great clarity. It sold for $1150 (all prices include buyer's premium) against an $800/1200 estimate&emdash;a good buy for personal use by a prominent textile dealer. Lot 337, one of the more exceptional pieces, was a rare format for this type of stacked prayer niche design (est. $2000/3000). It sold to an absentee bidder for $4025, a reasonable retail level.

Lot 372 showed why dealers have problems selling many Turkish kilims. The 14 feet 1 inches x 6 feet 3 inches size is too long and narrow for most people to use. Although a good late 19th-century piece with striking, bold patterning, it brought only $1840 (est. $2500/3500). Lot 381 was one of the best buys in the sale at $920. This piece was double-woven, a rare technique for this type of kilim. Retail on such a piece would be around $3000, if you can find one. It had a very low estimate at $800/1200 and also included a second kilim.

Lots 384 and 390 were Thracian kilims in near-square sizes, 12 feet 10 inches x 11 feet and 12 feet 2 inches x 10 feet 4 inches, of a desirable and decorative type, and lot 390 was unusual in having rows of women around the edge of the field. The estimates of $2000/3000 each were ridiculously low&emdash;$6000/8000 would have been more in line&emdash;and they sold for $8625 and $12,650.

Lot 396 was one of the oldest kilims in the sale, probably from the first half of the 19th century and an unusual format. The $2760 price (est. $1200/1800) was a wholesale one for this rug.

For kilim buyers, the Nureyev sale was one not to have missed. If there were any buys to be had in this sale, they were it.



Of the major auctions, Skinner's April 8th sale was the most successful on a percentage of lots sold basis (88. It was well attended (there was a full house), and people seemed to be there to buy. A bank of seven telephones (the most Skinner's has had) had been installed for phone bidders. It seems the Boston sales attract many dealers for the preview who then bid on the phone. Skinner's has also found that the Boston galleries attract a larger number of private buyers than in Bolton.

There were no spectacular lots, but there were the usual types of good, small pieces for collectors. One new collector was able to pick up three very nice pieces&emdash;a Baluch bagface (lot 83) for $575 (est. $300/500), a Veramin bagface (lot 122) for $747.50, and a Yomud torba (lot 150) for $690. All of these were mainstream collector items that have been sought after for many years now.

A southwestern dealer, new on the auction scene, bought eight pieces for inventory, covering a wide range of types. There were many new dealer faces, and one wonders if they are attending auctions because fewer and fewer goods are coming their way through normal channels.

Lot 24 was a very good example of a dragon sileh. It showed considerable wear but was unusual in being woven in one piece instead of the more normal two panels. The drawing of the dragons was of a type considered early, and it sold to the phone for $4025 (est. $2000/2500), a great buy. With $500 to $700 of restoration, it will be a great piece for use or resale. In contrast, a two-panel dragon sileh at Sotheby's (lot 67), in better condition but showing obvious synthetic dyes, sold for $7475.

Skinner's has always had good Caucasian pieces, and four of the best were pictured in color in the catalog. Although still popular with buyers, prices have come down significantly in recent years. Lot 88, a Pinwheel Kazak, sold at what must have been its reserve, $8912 (est. $10,000/ 12,000). Although showing some wear and thin areas, this rug would have brought $15,000 five years ago.

The best Kazak in the sale, lot 90, had a full pile and beautiful wool and patina. It reached $6500 (est. $8000/10,000) and was bought in, but it sold post-sale at $8050. Another Kazak, lot 94, was not as interesting because of the main border pattern and the whiteness of the field, but it was in excellent condition and sold for $8050. Lot 96, a Talish rug, had great charm because of a couple holding hands and other patterns on the open, abrashed blue field. The crab design on an ivory ground for the main border was very dramatic. It sold for $5750 (est. $3000/4000) and was a great buy.

Turkoman and Baluch lots were one of the weak segments of the sale, primarily due to the quality of the goods. But lot 98, a Tekke kapunnuk, caught the interest of several bidders as it went well above expectations at $12,650 (est. $6000/8000). A local collector and phone bidder went to war on it, and the phone won. Although in very good condition and with good drawing, one of the arms was a few inches longer than the other, which was a distraction.

One can't help but comment on lot 159, the 17 feet x 11 feet 4 inches Tabriz carpet with an Ardebil design. The original Ardebil, purchased in 1893 by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, is extolled in many rug books as the most famous and finest Persian rugs ever made. There are many who would debate that judgment, but it is a beautiful rug and design. It has been copied by weavers in most of the major rug weaving regions throughout the 20th century. This particular copy was one of the most atrocious ever seen. The scale of the design and patterns was too small, the white ground of the field was too white, it had a green in particular that was the gaudiest, and other unmentionable features. It was the type of rug that gives "the finest Persian carpets" a bad name. Mercifully, it was bought in at $10,000 (est. $15,000/20,000). Sotheby's had a similar piece, smaller in size, that sold for $26,450.

In contrast to such pieces, lot 91 was a beautiful antique Sarouk from the end of the 19th century. The sparsely patterned rose field balanced the elegant blue medallion and ivory spandrels perfectly. The $13,800 price was a very good buy, and it would be a joy to live with, not a copy of something else, and expressive of the Persian village idiom.

Frequently, the auctions will offer lots of books. In this sale there were four lots of Hali magazines, which were a good example of how the prices for them can vary.

Lot 28 included 33 issues from the first nine volumes of Hali, including Vol. 1, No. 1, which can bring $600 or more at auction if offered singly, and sold for $2990 or around $90 per issue. Lot 32 also consisted of 33 issues, but from volume three through volume nine, and sold for $1092.50 (est. $1500/2000) or close to $33 per issue. Lot 30 included only the four issues of the rare volume one; estimated accurately at $1000/1200, it sold for a bargain $575 or $143.75 per issue. Lot 31, which included only volume two, sold for $460 (est. $700/900) or $115 per issue.

Although different people bought all four lots, if one had bought lots 30, 31, and 32, one would have had a better deal than lot 28 and ended up with more issues, including volumes one and two. C'est la vie, one never knows how these things will turn out. Back issues may be bought new from Hali at $120 for volume five, $110 for volume six, $100 for volume seven, $80 for volume eight, and $50 for volume ten for a retail comparison.

Skinner's next major Oriental rug sale will be held on Saturday, September 16. A summer sale was held on July7.



Of all the rugs offered in the spring trio of auctions, Christie's April 10th [1995] sale had the most important carpet. Lot 100, a 12 feet 8 inches x 13 feet 6 inches Mughal millefleur "star lattice" carpet, had been sold at Rippon-Boswell in Germany in November 1989 for $726,000 and set the record for an Oriental carpet at auction. The carpet was from the Vanderbilt estate and had hung in the Moorish smoking room of the Vanderbilt mansion in New York City. Christie's published a photo from the New-York Historical Society archives showing the carpet on the wall.

For a late 17th-/early 18th-century Moghul carpet, it was in excellent condition. Few such rugs remain in private hands, and this was a rare opportunity to examine and handle a rug of this type and quality. It attracted the attention of the European dealers in particular, who have the clients with the taste and money for this type of rug. There were questions about why it was being returned to the market so soon, and the $700,000/900,000 estimate seemed to show that the owner was willing to take a loss. The general feeling was that it was going to be hard to sell in this market.

When the bidding opened, there was no interest in the room as the auctioneer kept increasing the amount to what appeared to be the reserve, $650,000. At that point two phone bidders came into play. The bidding increased slowly with occasional hesitation by the phones about going higher. It inched up, and the carpet sold for $992,500. There was mild applause, one almost sensed relief, as the gavel fell. The rug reportedly had been bought by a European at Rippon-Boswell, and it is returning to Europe.

Lot 102, an 11 feet 11 inches x 8 feet Sarouk Ferahan, was an interesting example of how classical carpets such as the Mughal carpet were obvious inspirations for later weavers. Although certainly less dramatic, this carpet had the same star lattice design filled with similar floral forms. It sold for $16,100. Here, one could say not a copy but "in the spirit of."

Although most types of rugs have names that convey relative certainty about where or by whom they were made, there are some types still poorly identified. Kurdish rugs are probably the most notable of these. Some weavings are attributed to specific Kurdish weavers, but most Kurdish rugs are called simply Persian and Turkish Kurd. A relative recent specific Kurdish attribution is Kuchan Kurd, meaning the group of Kurds near that town in northeastern Iran. Lot 108 was attributed to them, apparently on the basis of color and simplicity of design, but the long pile was longer than normal for the group; it was more like the yatak or julkhirs sleeping rugs from Turkey and Central Asia. Central Asian julkhirs rugs are one of those still poorly understood groups, and this lot was more likely to be an Uzbek julkhirs than a Kuchan Kurd. The weaving was passed at $2400 (est. $3000/ 4000). Too strange to be bought as a Kuchan Kurd and unknown as an Uzbek julkhirs, it may have to wait a few more years to be appreciated.

This sale grossed $2,156,150 with 56of the lots selling&emdash;not a very good result, particularly if the Mughal carpet amount is deducted. The main weakness seemed to be in a large number of unsold decorative carpets. Christie's next sale is scheduled for September 12.



This sale on April 13 featured 47 lots from a private collection, which frequently makes for some very exciting bidding and prices. Lots 1 through 47 were from Mr. Benjamin Sofer of Israel and consisted primarily of Central Asian suzanis, embroidered bed covers and hangings, and rugs and kilims. It was reported that Mr. Sofer, well known in Israel for his collection, had recently suffered a theft with the best pieces being stolen. For that reason he had decided to sell out completely. The estimates on most of these pieces were lower than one would normally have expected.

Lot 1 was a Tekke Turkmen embroidered wedding trapping with a beautifully rendered pattern of five flowering plants in the field and horses and wedding participants in the top border, a rare feature on these pieces. It has been years since a similar example appeared in the auction market, and the $5000/7000 estimate seemed reasonable. There turned out to be many bidders interested, and after rapid-fire increases, it sold for $11,500&emdash;a very healthy start.

Lot 9 was a suzani, probably from Bokhara, in a typical bed cover size of 7 feet 7 inches x 3 feet 2 inches. This piece had a common lattice with flowers on the field and floral meander for the main border. But the large palmettes of the border and lattice were delicately drawn, and it sold to the phone for $5175. Lot 13, a Tashkent suzani with large red discs for patterning, termed palak, was unusual for the type because of several squares without palak patterns and brought $6900 from a left bid. Lot 36, related in style to lot 9 but unusual in having scalloped niches at the ends of the field, sold for $5462 to an American collector and authority on these weavings.

It was said that these were the lesser of Mr. Sofer's pieces because of the theft. One can see that in comparing lot 38, a 2 feet 2 inches x 2 feet 2 inches suzani called a bokche, to another Sofer piece published in color in Yanai's book, fig. 18 (see reading suggestions below). Because of their size, these pieces are almost always charming, but the embroidery was a bit too dense in this piece. As is often the case, small pieces cost more per square feet than larger ones, and it sold for $5175.

The same American collector bought lot 43, a small (5 feet 3 inches x 3 feet 8 inches) suzani with a free, unrestrained flowering plant in the field and undulating palmettes and leaves in the border. It sold for $8625 (est. $4000/6000). The major piece was a type of suzani called "large medallion." These typically are the priciest of all suzanis, and figures above $20,000 are usual. This piece had the most common hexagon medallion with four rosettes in the corner, and it sold on the phone for $18,400. The estimates on the Sofer pieces were generally below market because the consignor wanted to sell, rather than reflecting realistic market value.

Sotheby's had also managed to snare two of the rarest and most desired Salor Turkmen weavings for this sale. Sotheby's had sold two of these pieces in the December 1993 Thompson sale; one, a two-medallion weaving in excellent condition, sold for $46,000, the other, a three-medallion piece with worn silk areas and losses to the sides, sold for $51,750. Lot 82 in this sale was a three-medallion wedding trapping and was perhaps in the best condition of the three-medallion type to be offered on the auction market. Although the original edges had been replaced, the pile was unworn. The $30,000/50,000 estimate, given past performance of these pieces, was certainly reasonable, but Munich dealer Eberhart Herrmann was the consistent buyer of these pieces, and he is no longer active in the market. The bidding opened rather weakly but proceeded steadily up to $46,000; it went to a California collection.

The second piece, lot 117, was an even rarer Salor ensi. In November 1989 Christie's sold an ensi of this type for $104,000, and a year later Rippon-Boswell sold another for $135,000. This was going to be one of those tests of the market, to see if top pieces could still bring top prices. But what is top these days? This ensi was in the best condition of all known. The pile was hardly worn, it had its original selvages with only the loss of the kilim end, and there was one small reweave. But compared to the other two auctioned pieces and one exhibited in London in 1983, this ensi was uninspired. The colors were too dark, and it needed more of the light and mid-blues. It needed to be hung on a yurt entrance in a sandstorm to abrade its surface and give it some character. Given the $80,000/120,000 estimate, the consignor had provided leeway for the market to have retreated on these pieces. But rarity, not beauty, drives the Turkmen collector. The question was, were there interested buyers? The bidding was slow and mostly to the phone, which took it at $90,500, still a top price for a Turkmen rug but far below the highs of a few years ago.

A Chodor trapping, lot 133, showed what can happen when estimates are unreasonably high. This hexagonally shaped rug is apparently unique, at least no other Turkmen weaving in this shape has been published. Its function is certainly not known. Although interesting, it was not beautiful, and the $18,000/22,000 estimate was inflated, even for a unique piece. Four or five potential buyers of this rug were in the audience, and not a one bid, so it passed at $11,000. If this textile had been estimated at $6000/10,000, it is likely that bidders would have participated, driving it up to its competitive level. The high estimate, however, simply eliminated free-market forces by being too high.

Lot 90, a Moghan Kazak prayer rug, was another example of overestimation. Since this rug was missing all borders except the innermost one, it might more appropriately have been called a fragment. At least 4 inches to 6 inches were missing on all sides of the 4 feet 6 inches x 2 feet 4 inches rug (est. $10,000/15,000). It was passed at $5500. This rug was published in Prayer Rugs from Private Collections (1974), and one has the sense here that the owner feels because it was published it was worth "a lot of money." Not so.

A more beautiful and popular rug was lot 136. This Eagle Kazak was in very good condition and had a bold single medallion with archaic dragon elements at each end. In today's market the $10,000/15,000 estimate seemed high, but this design remains popular with the public in general and not just collectors, so after spirited bidding, it sold for a deserved $13,800.

Many previewers may have missed a Turkmen main carpet that arrived for display two days before the auction. This rug is one of the earliest Turkmen main carpets and deserves an 18th-century date. The closest analog to it is the famous Ballard carpet in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The field patterns consist of archaic forms that seem to be the precursors of some 19th-century Turkmen guls. This rug was to be sold in Sotheby's London sale on April 26 and was brought to New York for exposure. It may well have paid off. Estimated at 12,000/15,000, it sold to an American for 32,000 ($55,000). But when comparing the importance of this rug to Turkmen rug studies, its rarity, and the number of collectors who don't have this type, it should have sold in the $100,000 range.

The gross total for this sale was $2,399,093, and 76of the lots sold. Sotheby's next major Oriental rug sale is scheduled for September 13.

© 1995 by Maine Antique Digest

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