I've seen plenty of flowery Persian rugs, but I recently saw one with a hunting scene that was almost like a tapestry. Could you tell me more?
WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS
'Many people think all Persian carpets are made with medallions and floral patterns, but there's much more,' says Heena Mir of Mir Oriental Carpets. This style usually depicts men on horses, hunting animals such as lions, surrounded by an intricate border design.
'The Persians were great hunters. It was how they, or their servants, got food, and it was a sport like fox hunting in England. Hunting carpets were commissioned by the elite as a testament to the glory of the horses for which they paid vast amounts.'
The earliest examples would have dated from around the Safavid period (1501-1722), Mir says. 'Carpet-making has been going on for 2,000 years, so it's hard to put a date on it.' They were made until the early 19th century, then lifestyles changed. 'They began exporting carpets and there was more demand for the grandiose Persian style with medallions and florals,' Mir says.
'Iranians liked their carpets wall to wall, one after another. Nothing matched,' Mir says. 'It was just the luxury of having carpets on their marble floors. Although they would work well today in a study, back then there was little separation of space. They slept in an open house.'
A good hunting carpet (such as the 1870s wool Kashan carpet pictured above) would have taken a master weaver about 21/2 to three years to complete. 'Let's say he learnt the trade from his father and started at 20,' she says. 'How many could he make? Only 10 to 12 carpets in his lifetime. Younger generations are no longer interested in carrying on the family name, but there are still some old-time weavers, such as the Serafians and the Habibians.'
Most carpets weren't signed or marked. 'Everybody knew a certain weaver's style,' says Mir. 'Some used different coloured fringes, but one weaver tied every knot and, more importantly, dyed all the colours. It can't be duplicated.'
Master weavers used only vegetable dyes. 'Chemical colours were introduced by the mid-18th century, but a lot of people didn't touch them. They would have lost their reputations. Chemical colours are very electric and bright.'
The carpets were generally made of wool. Silk was rarely used and extremely expensive. 'If they did use silk, it would have been in Qum, the holy city,' Mir says.
There were few regional differences. 'Once something extraordinary was made, word got around. Even if it took five years, the next village or town would start making it as well. But the best were made in Kashan, which was known for making other pictorial carpets.'
Compared with other types of Persian carpets, hunting carpets are generally still found in good condition. 'They were Muslim and very strict about no shoes in the home,' Mir says. 'Even visiting dignitaries had to take off their shoes.
'We used to have a lot of hunting carpets, including some replicas from Pakistan. In the year of the horse, every horse carpet in the shop was gone.'
TIPS FOR NEW COLLECTORS
'The best way to learn about carpets is to see them,' Mir says. 'Go for the artistic value. Look at the faces of the horses and the men. They should be clear and proportioned - that's workmanship for you. Even if the wool is gone, you still see the pattern at the base, so you don't lose the carpet.'
When carpets have been repaired many times, however, they lose value, she says. Look at the back of the carpet to detect repairs. The design should be consistent and clear. It's like a mirror image of the front.
'An antique carpet should be in at least 90 per cent perfect condition. Many will have been touched up on the edges and the fringes, but there should be no major holes or restoration.'
Comparing a silk hunting carpet from Qum (1960s; $35,000) with a wool one from Kashan (1870s; $250,000), Mir says, 'How do you put a price on it? At auction this Kashan carpet could go for about $1 million. We try to be fair.'
Books (Amazon.com): The Atlas of Rugs and Carpets by David Black ($273); Rugs and Carpets of the World by Ian Bennett ($156); The Oriental Carpet: A History and Guide to Traditional Motifs, Patterns, and Symbols by P.R.J. Ford ($585).
Mir Oriental Carpets: 52 Wyndham Street, Central, tel: 2521 5641
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