Ardabil Carpet Takes Center Stage

As you may have heard, Russia pulled crucial loans at the last minute from LACMA’s “Gifts of the Sultans: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts.” One of the Russian objects was to have been the show’s centerpiece, a huge Ottoman tent given to Catherine the Great (above.) LACMA had to rejigger the floorplan. The understudy now taking center stage is the museum’s own 16th-century Ardabil carpet. It’s even more important than the tent, and almost as much a rarity for visitors, as the museum displays it only sporadically.

That’s not for lack of importance. It’s been claimed that the 24-foot-long Ardabil carpet is the most important single work in LACMA’s collection, from any culture or century. It’s one of two similar carpets, the other in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Nothing is known of the carpets’ early history  beyond what’s on the carpets themselves. The inscription (the same in both the L.A. and London carpets) reads:

“Except for thy haven, there is no refuge for me in this world: / Other than here, there is no place for my head. / Work of a servant of the court, Maqsud of Kashan, 946.”

The date (946= 1539-40 AD) is extremely rare on a Persian carpet. Maqsud probably would have been a donor, not a weaver, and he must have been rich. But formidable as he must have been, Maqsud of Kashan is unknown to history, aside from this shout-out.

It’s now believed that the two carpets were originally in the shrine of Shaykh Safi al-Dinat at Ardabil, set side-by-side in a circular room just barely big enough to contain them. (Plan from the V&A Museum, which has a great Ardabil Carpet site with much more detail).

An earthquake damaged the Ardabil shrine, and the carpets—themselves in bad shape—came on the market. Persian carpets were restored like statuary in 18th-century Rome: to look brand-new. The London Ardabil is thus a “frankencarpet” stitched together from pieces of both carpets. It is just over 36 feet long, which must have been the original size. The now-smaller L.A. carpet is missing the original wide borders and the ends of the central field. This has resulted in an assymetrically placed medallion. However, the L.A. carpet  is higher quality than the original parts of its London mate, having more knots to the square inch (about 400, vs. 310 for the London carpet and 100 for a good contemporary carpet).

The restorers must have kept some leftovers as souvenirs. Small fragments of the Ardabil carpets occasionally turn up on the art market, and specimens are in museums in Boston, Washington, Glasgow, Zurich, Stuttgart, and Shiraz.

In both carpets, vines bearing blossoms of lotus and peonies sprawl across an indigo ground. At either end is a mosque lamp, one slightly bigger than the other. That’s believed to an intentional effect of perspective, something otherwise unknown in the great Safavid carpets.

The London Ardabil was purchased by Ziegler and Company, a Manchester importing firm, and sold to London dealer Vincent Robinson and Company in 1891. It became the sensation of London. William Morris wrote “I am sure that it is far the finest Eastern carpet which I have seen.” He campaigned for the purchase of the London carpet by the V&A’s predecessor institution, a deal concluded in 1893 for the price of 2000 pounds. In Britain, the Ardabil was and is iconic. Copies proliferated in all sizes. The Prime Minister has one at 10 Downing Street. Hitler had a fake “Arbabil” in his Berlin office.

Dealer Robinson said nothing about there being a second Ardabil carpet. It’s an old dealer’s trick: Sell something as “unique,” then find another one in the storeroom… The second carpet was sold in great secrecy to American robber baron Charles Tyson Yerkes, right. (I try not to use “robber baron” lightly: Unlike Morgan, Carnegie, etc., Yerkes was actually convicted of larceny. He did seven months in the Eastern State Penitentiary, which was no country club, then blackmailed politicians to get out of the remainder of his 4-year sentence.)

Vincent Robinson and Company didn’t cut Yerkes any favors. Yerkes is said to have paid an unheard-of $80,000, or about 20 times what the larger London carpet sold for. The bill of sale also stipulated that the carpet could never be returned to England.

Yerkes displayed the carpet in his New York mansion, as the pièce de résistance of a rug collection that Bernard Berensen called “unrivaled.” Eventually Yerkes’ carpet came into the possession of dealer Joseph Duveen. In 1938 Duveen lent it to an exhibition in Paris, where it was seen by J. Paul Getty. Getty wanted it, but Duveen insisted it wasn’t for sale. Months later, with war looming, Duveen agreed to sell the carpet to Getty for just under $70,000. Wrote Getty: “At that price, it was practically a gift.

Getty’s Ardabil went on the floor of New York apartment. He walked on it. A couple of years later, Egypt’s King Farouk decided the carpet would make a great wedding gift and offered Getty a quarter million dollars for it. Getty refused. He lent the carpet to the Metropolitan Museum for a while and then took it back to furnish his Malibu ranch home.

Reporting “twinges of conscience,” Getty finally decided it was too rich for even his trés riche personal use. He donated the Aradabil to the Los Angeles Museum (in Exhibition Park) in 1953, along with another first-rate Safavid carpet, the “Coronation Carpet.” That was lucky timing for the museum. In 1954, on the counsel of the best tax advisors, Getty founded his own museum in Malibu, and this inherited the remainder of his Persian carpet collection.

When the Villa museum opened in 1974, it had a gallery devoted to Persian carpets. In fact, it showed the Ardabil, too, for the Getty had offered to conserve the carpet for LACMA, in return for the right to show it. This display of carpets was the apex of the Getty collection, much better than the paintings it then owned, and comparable in quality to the French furniture. After Getty’s death, and notwithstanding the huge bequest, the trustees decided to get out of the Persian carpet field. The Ardabil was returned to LACMA, and the Getty Museum sold its Persian carpets to buy European art.

Carpets must be protected not only from light but dust. The V&A’s Ardabil carpet is on permanent view, albeit behind glass (below). For the run of “Sultans” you can see L.A.’s Ardabil the way it was intended, without glazing.

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