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21st-Century Titans Take Up The Mantle:
Amass Collections of 19th-Century Persian and Tribal Art Rugs

By: B. Alexandra Szerlip (Two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow)

November/ December 2019 Issue

Starting in the late 1800s, anxious to emulate European aristocracy, American magnates began amassing grand collections of premier-quality Persian rugs from the Safavid Dynasty (16th century through mid-18th century) and other early Oriental rugs to embellish their palatial homes.

This vaulted Great Room with its spectacular view hosts two High-Collectible Persian antique carpets that add a stirring layer of sublime artistry to the gracious ambiance.

This vaulted Great Room with its spectacular view hosts two High-Collectible Persian antique carpets that add a stirring layer of sublime artistry to the gracious ambiance.

Many of the collectors’ names remain familiar: John D. Rockefeller. J.P. Morgan. William Randolph Hearst. Over a ten-year-period, George W. Vanderbilt, a descendant of Cornelius, purchased 458 rugs for his residences, including his 250-room North Carolina Biltmore estate.

Today, pieces from these collections can be found in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and other august venues. Such top-tier pieces rarely come to auction, but when they do, they receive considerable attention. In 2013, a 17th-century Mughal rug from the Vanderbilt collection sold at Christie’s for $7.6 million.

The “Oriental Rug Market Pyramid” created by Jan David Winitz, clarifies the often confusing field of handwoven rugs for all—from new buyers to serious investors.

The “Oriental Rug Market Pyramid” created by Jan David Winitz, clarifies the often confusing field of handwoven rugs for all—from new buyers to serious investors.

For the last 40 years, Jan David Winitz, president and founder of Claremont Rug Company in Northern California, has followed in the footsteps of the art dealers who helped curate and assemble these important, early collections.

To that end, Winitz developed his “Oriental Rug Market Pyramid,” a learning tool based on his long-time knowledge and experience. It has successfully helped 21st-century rug aficionados understand the merits of these extraordinary artifacts in their quest to acquire masterworks for display in their homes (some of Claremont clients’ substantial residences can accommodate 70 rugs or more at a time.)

Winitz’s Rug Pyramid, a six-level ranking of all handwoven Oriental rugs from historical pieces to modern production, takes into consideration every aspect from artistry, craftsmanship, quality of materials, condition, rarity and age to provenance.

“…few galleries and auction houses have much access to Level 2 and Level 3 rugs, the finest pieces woven in the 19th century.”

Auction records for Museum-Level rugs, the highest tier in Winitz’s pyramid -— primarily 15th through 18th- century pieces that the early American mega-collectors amassed — continue to be broken. Several years back, one sold at auction for $9.59 million, a record at the time. In 2013, that record more than tripled when a 17th century Sickle Leaf Kirman, formerly owned by mining, banking and railroad baron William A. Clark and estimated between $5 million and $7 million, pulled in a whopping $33.7 million.

A 17th-century Sickle Leaf Kirman (Museum-Level) sold at Sotheby’s New York auction in June of 2013 for $33.7 million, 3½ times the previous record for an Oriental carpet.

A 17th-century Sickle Leaf Kirman (Museum-Level) sold at Sotheby’s New York auction in June of 2013 for $33.7 million, 3½ times the previous record for an Oriental carpet.

Today, intact Level 1 pieces are incredibly scarce and cost-prohibitive for floor use, and few galleries and auction houses have much access to Level 2 and Level 3 rugs, the finest pieces woven in the 19th century.

Thanks in great part to Claremont’s efforts, the market for these High- Collectible and Connoisseur-Caliber carpets has been escalating. Case in point is Claremont’s “Potomac Collection”, an assemblage of over 130 extremely rare 19th century pieces amassed over three generations by the heiress of a Virginia- based family held this past summer. Given the collection’s exceptionally high merit, this cache was offered for sale by invitation only to Claremont’s preferred clients. Within three months of the opening of this private sale, 80% had sold, a feat that might have taken a year to achieve a decade ago.

This vaulted Great Room with its spectacular view hosts two High-Collectible Persian antique carpets that add a stirring layer of sublime artistry to the gracious ambiance.

ABOVE LEFT: The cover rug of Sotheby’s catalog for its auction of the Estate of Vojtech Blau shows a 160-year-old Bakshaish, estimated $80,000/$120,000 and sold for $363,000.
ABOVE RIGHT: Persian Ferahan Sarouk, 8′ 5″ x 11′ 11″, circa 1850 (High-Collectible) A crowning attribute that makes certain Level 2 rugs so entrancing is that rather than following traditional designs, they entirely reinvent their pattern language, as seen in this piece’s imaginative multi-winged medallions.

For every expertly curated collection Claremont purchases, dozens of rug caches are offered that fail to meet Winitz’s exacting standards. The Potomac Collection passed muster.

The last important auction focusing on these late 18th century to 1875 rugs, from the estate of Vojtech Blau, a prominent New York carpet gallery owner in the mid-20th century, was held to soaring success by Sotheby’s in December 2006. Its top lot, a 9’ x 11’ Persian Bakshaish rug woven 160 years ago, estimated at $80,000 to $120,000, sold for $363,000.

To understand the significance of this uptick of interest in Level 2 and 3 rugs, it helps to gain insight into why broad- scale recognition of these treasures has been so long in coming.

The best of these High-Collectible and Connoisseur-Caliber rugs, which are the epicenter of this elevated collecting interest, were created from the late 18th century through 19th century, during the rule of the Persian Qatar Dynasty.. In 1925, the last of the Persian monarchies, the Pahlavis, came to power, making a point of downplaying the Qatar-period weavings for political reasons, in the same way that newly minted Egyptian pharaohs routinely defaced or destroyed the statues and monuments of their predecessors. This age-old tactic by the Pahlavis is explored in the just-published book,“The Persian Carpet:The Forgotten Years 1722-1872” by Hadi Maktabi. It says: “From the political perspective, the Safavid period was lionized, and all subsequent art history was dismissed until the restorative dawn of the Pahlavi rule” (p.7).

See High-Collectible Rugs Now Available

See Connoisseur-Caliber Rugs Now Available

A suite of four rugs, containing two High-Collectible Ferahan Sarouk carpets in the left and right seating areas, a Connoisseur-Caliber Sultanabad in the rear space and a High-Decorative Veramin rug in the foreground.

A suite of four rugs, containing two High-Collectible Ferahan Sarouk carpets in the left and right seating areas, a Connoisseur-Caliber Sultanabad in the rear space and a High-Decorative Veramin rug in the foreground.

This practice slowed the recognition of great 19th century rugs, as it facilitated the rug market’s misunderstanding of what constitutes true quality. Over the last century, it traditionally graded Oriental carpets primarily by knot count and pile height, elements favored in the 20th century Persian decorative rugs (Level 5) that the Pahlavis orchestrated—instead of at times astonishingly original artistry and colorways reflected in the carpets of the preceding century.

Another contributing factor in the delay in recognizing the artistic heights reached by the best 19th-century rugs is that the majority of those purchasing art today often make choices based to a large extent on recognizable “names” — Picasso, Matisse, Jasper Johns, Warhol to mention a few. Winitz stresses,“Imagine if these works were unsigned. That there was little evidence of who made them, or exactly when. Imagine how much more difficult it would be if a work of art had to be taken completely on its own merits, its emotive and aesthetic impact,” Winitz asserts, “This is exactly the situation with Oriental rugs.”

Signed rugs are mostly inscribed with the name of the person who commissioned them, not the weaver or workshop that wove it. In most cases, carpets can be identified only by the locale where they were woven (Sultanabad, Tabriz, Bijar, etc.). But even then, eight out of ten 19th century pieces fall into the fashion-driven High-Decorative category (Level 4)—primarily woven for the European market — handsome but often lacking visual depth and unique artistry.

ABOVE LEFT: Persian Mohtasham Kashan, 4′ 6″ x 7′ 2″, circa 1865 (High-Collectible)
The finest Qatar Dynasty rugs feature tremendously emotive color ways, akin to the patinated pigments of Old Master paintings.

Furthermore, demand for all but the best of High-Decorative rugs, Winitz notes, has decreased due to contemporary home design, which the general affluent public incorrectly sees as incompatible with antique rugs. Among his clients, many are successfully incorporating 19th century rugs into their contemporary decors, as are style- makers such as Ellen DeGeneres, he adds.

One way to spot serious collectors is by their ‘overflow’ inventories. Claremont’s storage facility currently houses 765 client rugs, 157 of which were purchased in 2019 alone. 350 of the stored pieces belong to a single collector. Eighteen other clients in the United States, Italy and Australia have opted to create their own rug “vaults”, dedicated, cedar- lined rooms; one houses 325 pieces, another 195.

ABOVE LEFT: : Persian Bakshaish Camelhair, 8′ 0″ x 11′ 1″, Early 19th Century (High-Collectible) This two-centuries-old representative of the highly prized Persian Bakshaish Camelhair genre was one of the Crown Jewels of Claremont’s “Potomac Collection” invitational event.
ABOVE RIGHT: A peek into the rug vault of a Claremont client who collects both small size and room size High-Collectible pieces.

So why stockpile? Motivations vary. Many collectors recognize the discrepancy between the perceived value of an art-level antique rug and other types of art and are convinced that Levels 2 and 3 rugs have yet to come into their own and, like Museum-Level rugs, their availability will continue to decrease and their worth will continue to accrue. Somewhat to her own surprise one Claremont client noted when viewing the suite of antique rugs in her home gallery of favorite paintings, “I love my rugs more than I love my Diebenkorns!”. Other clients are motivated, in part, through the recognition of the notably decreased access to these top-tier Qatar period weavings. Still others view their caches as tangible inheritance assets to be saved for their children.

A large seating area in this grand, casual home hosts a luxurious Camelhair Bakshaish rug.

ABOVE LEFT: Caucasian Kuba, 3′ 6″ x 4′ 6″, circa 1865 (Connoisseur-Caliber) This over 150-year-old large room-size carpet boasts a deeply nuanced palette and free-form drawing of its pattern that is not found in levels 4, 5 and 6 rugs.
ABOVE RIGHT: Persian Serapi, 11′ 2″ x 14′ 7″, circa 1865 (Connoisseur-Caliber)
This over 150-year-old room-size carpet from the Azerbaijan region boasts a deeply nuanced palette and free-form drawing of its pattern that is not found in Level 4 High-Decorative pieces or in younger Level 5 and Level 6 rugs.

And there is the added benefit of getting to create one’s own private, rotating displays. Collectors with more rugs than they can display enjoy periodically “switching things up.” Winitz notes that when his team lays down stored inventory (Claremont provides an annual rotation service for major clients), it is not uncommon for the client to remark, “It’s like an old friend coming to visit.” Such emotional attachment isn’t unusual. “Selling my rugs,” collectors often say, “would be like selling my children,” a comment they don’t usually make about the other artworks they own. “The emotional as well as intellectual and visual effects that great rugs can have — that’s what makes art so compelling!” Winitz explains.

“The eyes of clients continually get honed, just like a wine connoisseur develops a more ‘mature’ palate,” he continues. “They learn to almost instinctively recognize the difference between a “pretty” rug, an outstanding one, and one that’s a true masterwork.” New visitors to Claremont often comment on how expensive great rugs are. That’s because they’re seeing them through the lens of home furnishings. “Once their eyes have opened up, those same folks often say how undervalued they are as an art form,” he says. Winitz observes how exciting it is for clients to be able to recognize the varying qualities of antique Oriental rugs -— to differentiate between good and great, attractive and profound, commonplace and unique.

“This is one of the most fulfilling aspects of rug collecting for both my clients and myself — when they see the magnitude, nuances and visual harmony for themselves, without having a ‘name tag’ to look at or being told which rug is important and which is not. I’m always deeply satisfied to see the light of recognition in their eyes.”

Masterful & Meticulous: Antique Mohtasham Kashan Rugs

By: B. Alexandra Szerlip

The reception room of an philanthropist, an impassioned second generation antique rug collector, hosts a stunning, particularly bold room-size Mohtasham Kashan as the centerpiece when the space was not in use.

The antique Persian carpet style known as Mohtasham Kashan (Mo-ta-shom) honors the memory of the 19th century master weaver Hadji Mollah Mohammed Hassan Mohtasham who was, in turn, a descendant — and namesake — of a revered 16th century Persian poet.

Kashan refers to the Central Persian city where his workshop was located, historically a resort area frequented by the ultra-wealthy and royalty, whose support helped create a center of virtuoso craftsmanship. A German librarian, visiting during the 17th century, wrote of clay houses built along narrow alleys that were bright with skeins of dyed wool hung out to dry.

Persian Mohtasham Kashan “Vase Rug”, 4′ 7” x 7′ 1”, mid-19th century
An almost 200-year-old place woven near the beginning of the Mohtasham period, this rug captures both an ordered, formal scene and nature’s multiplicity of expression with chromatic delicacy and fascinating intentional inexactitude.

It’s highly improbable that Hassan Mohtasham actually invented the weaving style named for him, for according to Claremont Rug Company founder and president Jan David Winitz, extant examples date back to the early 19th century. Hassan Mohtasham did, though, promote the style, helping to bring it into prominence.

Though Mohtasham Kashan designs encompass a fairly broad range, from curvilinear shapes and botanical motifs (the 16th century Royal Garden of Kashan, clearly an inspiration, remains intact today) to architectural pillars (representing the Gate of Paradise), these exemplary carpets and rugs share several distinctions, including extraordinarily tightly spun foundations of white cotton warp threads and pale blue, indigo-dyed, double wefts; needle-wrapped edges (often with magenta silk); and a mind-boggling display of uber-precise detail.

Persian Mohtasham Kashan, 8′ 6” x 11′ 11”, Circa 1850
This is the result of a project that was likely years in the making, a best-of-the-best caliber room-size piece with extraordinarily fine knotting and an inimitable beauty in the drawing of its field. A one-of-a-kind border design reveals three different beaded strands meandering around the center, decorated with hanging ornaments.

And all, whether woven of first-shearing lamb’s wool or silk, Mohtashams are recognized for their exceptionally luminous pile and handkerchief-like touch, known as the rug’s “handle.” In design, the most accomplished pieces offer such a wide exploration of a complex pattern language that they could be compared to a musician’s finest solo.

Perhaps most notable and distinctive are Mohtasham Kashans’ extraordinary density, typically 350 to 400 knots per square inch. “Which means,” Winitz said, “in every square inch, there are 350 to 400 or more minute mosaic tiles that create the design. We are talking about individually hand-tied knots, fashioned from extremely lanolin-rich (thus extremely difficult to work with) yarn, fashioned prior to the invention of automated steel looms— an almost inconceivable feat of manual dexterity.”

Winitz explained that some Mohtashams boast as many as 500 knots per square inch! Consider that a dime measures three-quarters-of-an-inch across. Now imagine the width of that dime comprised of 375 meticulously uniform, nearly microscopic, horizontal knots. Most Mohtashams measure between four-by-six and five-by-seven feet. At the smaller end of that spectrum, a 500-knot-per-square-inch carpet is comprised of a total of 144,000 knots; at the higher end, 210,000. Throw in the time required to shear, card and hand-spin the wool, gather and prepare the plants and herbs to create the dyes, then the actual dyeing, then assembling the loom, and a single carpet represents at least a year of intensive work.

Persian Mohtasham Kashan antique rug in waterfront Miami Florida condo with asian inspired decor

An Asian art and antiques collector found the understated elegance of a late 19th century Mohtasham Kashan carpet created an incredible graciousness for the contemplative ambiance of this seaside sitting room.

It’s that density that allowed for such extraordinarily precise and meticulous, petit point detail that Winitz calls, “drawn” because it looks more hand-sketched tha woven. Thin, black outlines, as delicate as those made by the finest pen nib, outline a multitude of shapes, large and small. Mohtasham Kashans are noted for their complex spiral arabesques. Their weavers’ ability to create graceful, swirling lines with lyrical naturalism is unprecedented. And as with all categories of High-Collectible Oriental rugs and carpets, they exhibit a particularly artful use of color.

While some Mohtashans gain visual impact by contrasting richly saturated reds (derived from madder root or cochineal) with deep midnight blues (from indigo), many lean toward softer, pastel tones, including greens, that were difficult to achieve given that there were no direct natural dye source for the color. And yet, by overdyeing indigo with yellows (onionskin, chamomile), Kashan’s dye masters, who Winitz stressed “are more akin to chemists” managed to create delicate celadons, apple greens, mint greens, and pale turquoise. Stunning subtleties were achieved with other colors, too. Some of the finest Mohtashan carpets that have come down to us announce that mastery in spectacular, yet subtle, fashion: a flesh-toned field augmented with a range of creamy, sorbet-like apricots and corals.

The combination of delicate, almost spiderweb outlines, masterful craftsmanship and subtle shading in rugs Winitz showed me resulted in daisies, carnations, clematis, wild rose and peonies (some bursting forth, skyward, from magnificent vases) that seem almost to breathe. Acanthus leaves float, ivy tendrils sway, branch-balanced songbirds and (rarer) peacocks preen, elaborate central teardrop medallions pulse and expand. A quartet of wild boar lounges along branches above four reclining lions, all staring at nearby gazelles. A spate of monkeys munch on just-picked fruit.

Persian Mohtasham Kashan 4′ 4” x 6′ 11”, Circa 1850
Entirely singular in design, this extraordinarily crafted medallion carpet eschews the traditional corner spandrels introducing various half-revealed attendant medallions that appear to be existing on a plane beyond the border, floating on a flower strewn ground. A magical celadon to aquamarine border of great delicacy frames this scene.

Taken together, these images suggest an animated film. There’s a great temptation to luxuriate in their company with a magnifying glass in hand.

Another aspect of the Mohtasham palette is abrash (the Farsi word for “cloud”), the use of striations within a particular color, most often blue (powder blue, sky blue, cornflower blue). This technique, which may have had an unintentional start due to early weavers working with small, differing, seasonal dye batches, is all the more remarkable for having been transformed, early on, into an art form of its own, one that brings almost three-dimensional depth to two-dimensional surfaces. Its use, in combination with exceedingly compact knots, results in as many as twenty tones or shades within the space of a child’s hand.

Noteworthy, Mohtashams continued to be made into the 1920’s. One particularly spectacular silk rug, created in 1921 in shades of beige and gold, incorporated large swathes of calligraphic verses by the medieval Persian poet Sa’adi into its borders and a central motif of enormous birds of paradise. But by the 1930s, commercial pressure led to duplicates (unheard of in 19th-century pieces), and European influence introduced chrome and aniline dyes that quickly superseded traditional vegetable dye baths.

Persian Mohtasham Kashan 8′ 5” x 11′ 4”, Circa 1850
This extraordinary room size carpet’s soaring artistry, petit point knotting, and mesmerizing palette of exquisite naturally dyed colors reflect an unimaginable patience of execution that is palpable to the observer. Luminous lamb’s wool heightens the effect of the corn-silk toned field and sensitive secondary tones.

Today, the term “Mohtasham” is widely used to describe all superb-quality, lamb’s wool 19th century Kashans. Winitz says, “The best pieces are exemplars of color, pattern and scale in harmonious balance. All exhibit painstakingly fine knotting, nearly unfathomable detail work, a tremendous range and delicacy of color, and extremely luxurious pile.”

That said, the rarest and most sought-after — what Winitz terms “the high-collectibles” — remain the “early” pieces, those created between the second quarter 19th century to the 1880s. These virtuoso pieces are significantly finer, thinner and more flexible than those that followed, and the wool cut closer to the knots, another reason why the design details emerge so cleanly and sharply. Even the tapestry-like, nearly pixelated backsides of these rugs are exquisite.

That they were created at least a century after (but were very much informed by) the so-called “Golden Age of Persian Weaving” during the rule of the Safavid dynasty (also a golden age of Persian ceramics, miniatures and embroideries) is all the more noteworthy, considering that Kashan’s 19th century weavers were no longer supported by Safavid Court funding, as they had been during the 16th and 17th centuries.

This lovingly curated space features a very rare, very early Mohtasham Kashan that effortlessly coexists with this client’s wide-ranging art collection.

In 1987, Christie’s sold an 8′ x 10′ Mohtasham Kashan for just under $19,000 US. In 2004, a larger piece (just under 14′ x 23′) went under the auction hammer for $287,500 US., setting a world record. “Its celadon, green-eau de nil ground color,” wrote Hali Magazine (the international publication for carpet and textile scholarship), “made the blooms look like Monet water lilies on a dreamlike pool.” Winitz said, “Given its size and condition, the price could almost be considered a bargain today.” The record was broken again in 2010 — $345,645 US for a “tour-de-force” 8×10-footer, made during Hassan Mohtasham’s tenure and bearing an inscription cartouche immortalizing the rug’s commissioner, a local Kashan merchant.

Still, the creme de la creme rarely come to market; since 2005, only a handful of these have appeared in major auction houses. Because Winitz consistently, and strategically, purchases long-held family collections, some amassed over generations, Claremont has acquired many extraordinary examples. During their 39 years in business, a total of over 200 of what is considered, by the cognoscenti, to be the most technically advanced of all 19th century weavings, have passed through Claremont’s doors. This number points to a significantly larger output than could have been achieved by the single-family, two-generation workshop of Mohtasham and his son.

Persian Mohtasham Kashan, 10′ 5” x 13′ 10”, Circa 1875
Exemplifying the awe-inspiring combination of elegance and precision of the quintessential Persian city carpet, this oversize masterpiece with its wondrous spectrum of myriad details and sublime palette is a supreme achievement.

There is some talk within the rug market about ‘signed’ Mohtashams– meaning the workshop’s name is woven in calligraphy into borders or cartouches. This was likely done to capitalize on the Mohtasham family name which, in turn, drew gravitas from a revered, 16th-century Persian religious poet of the same name whose mausoleum still stands in Kashan today. But the signed pieces are, explains Winitz, “the rare exception, not the rule, and not necessarily the most artistically accomplished pieces. Anonymity was considered an act of humility before one’s Creator and the cosmic force that blessed the weavers and dyers with the ability to create objects of such beauty and harmony.”

It’s impossible to know how many Kashans were made in the Mohtasham style, but with or without a signature, they embody an extraordinary moment in the entire world history of rug weaving. They are the carpets of choice for many seasoned connoisseurs— people who appreciate that yesterday’s masterpieces both have the power to transform today’s homes and appreciate them as viable art investments. “There are a lot of unknowns about Mohtashams,” adds Christine Hunt Winitz, who operated Claremont with her husband, “but at the end of the day, the rugs’ spectacular artistry speaks for itself.”

Persian Mohtasham Kashan, 4′ 4” x 7′ 0”, Circa 1850
Antique Persian Mohtasham carpets as a whole reflect an incredibly wide range of artistic exploration. While many offer colorful fields of densely configured blossoms, this brilliant example emphasizes the larger color zones themselves, with complementary shifting tones of oranges and blues that combine to mesmerizing effect.

Three of Claremont’s clients have assembled collections of 30-45 Mohtasham examples. “Each of my Mohtashams is a world unto itself,” said one, “a world I study endlessly.” Another client, who had previously focused on tribal rugs, wrote to Winitz of his excitement after having included a circa 1875 room-size Mohtasham into the mix. “Walking around the house, I always alter my course to pass by this incredible work of art.”

“Only poets could have designed it,” observed Mercedes Palau-Ribes, a veteran, Madrid-based art historian, more familiar with 19th century paintings, who was recently shown her first Mohtasham Kashan. “And only angels could have woven it.”