- Timelessness - A Pictorial Tale
- Carpets and Investment
- Sofreh - The Persian Ritual
- Some Weeks are Like That - A Provincial Tale
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I was invited to talk to an Art Seminar for Investment Fund Managers. I initially refused, recognising the contra-logical possibilities, but reneged when I came across some hard data to present. One doesn’t usually find the liquid world of the rug dealer in demand at the concrete jungle end of town. They were really Trainee Managers anyway. So here goes: When The Times of London was the pre-eminent newspaper in the glory days of Fleet Street they kept a record of antiques and art to go under the hammer at then top auction house, Sotheby’s. It was called, eponymously, the Times Sotheby’s Index.
Dealers and collectors kept market watch as the values of Chinese Snuff Bottles or Rosenthal Porcelain reacted to the auction market. The final Index was presented in the late 1970’s and it included an average of the affluent post-war years that makes fascinating reading: All categories rose, none fell. The percentage rises expressed in per annum averages ranged from 8% to 32%.
I gave the Trainee Investment Managers a short questionnaire to fill out. They were invited to punt on the main categories of art and antiques in order of investment value. Compared to the actual Index, the managers’ woeful figures pre-disposed them to very many surprises.
Surprise number one: At the bottom was, unexpectedly and infamously, English Silverware. Considered for generations as a rock solid investment, a guaranteed hedge against inflation, it performed worst. This great traditional social signifier of the intrinsic worth of a family, like Jeeves and Bertie, irrelevant in the modern era.
Surprise number two: Old Master Paintings, considered the pinnacle of European Art and proof of the artistic and cultural superiority of European Society only just made double figures. Much higher by comparison was the category Old Master Prints. Who, amongst the Investment Managers, said a print would be a better investment than an actual oil painting? None.
Surprise number three: The highest two categories and the only ones showing average rises of over 30%p.a. were Chinese Porcelains and Eastern Carpets. However, both these categories were ripe for investment as they were, in the outdated Euro-centric paradigm, labelled pejoratively, “decorative arts” or “domestic arts”. This was in support of the failing concept of Western Painting being “Fine Art” and therefore somehow superior to all other “arts” or “crafts”. A new generation of scholars, collectors and young dealers recognised a much more absolute aesthetic, one that included a range of human endeavour wider than the narrow Oxbridge paradigm. Straight after buying “Blue Poles” and De Kooning’s “Woman V”, the National Gallery purchased a Central Asian embroidery known as a Suzani and hung it next to those two great paintings to great affect.
Surprise number four: The modern world of Art Investment includes, and how could our Trainee Investment Managers have guessed it, Embroidery! The possibility that domestic embroidery may be a better investment than a clock, a piece of furniture, or a painting by a famous deceased artist was a new paradigm. We went to the tea break, agog with such revolutionary stuff.
When they came back I showed them authentic rugs and textiles with a knowledge backed by my 30 years in the trade. I showed Pre-Columbian textiles over a thousand years old, coarsely-woven antique Kazaks and fine velvety Turkoman rugs, and of course, embroideries. I also showed the commercial end of the spectrum, useless for their investment purposes, crazy silk rugs, Chinese copies, cheap auction rugs with dyes that will run, basically the other 99%.
The Trainee Managers were very open, and talented enough to absorb much of this difficult art form. I was impressed with their questions and their grasp of what is really a very moveable feast. The bazaar is no place for an amateur. I congratulated them and told the story of a Persian friend, a well-off merchant who was having some plumbing upgraded in the family haveli. With spanners in hand, he was taking taps apart. I asked him what is a merchant doing on the floor inspecting the innards of simple water taps? He replied that he was looking at the quality of the teflon/rubber washers used. Moral; Make an effort to acquire some knowledge before entering a market. Also relevant is Oscar Wilde’s famous quote “good taste is easy, just buy the best”.
Since opening my first carpet gallery at 27 Latrobe Terrace Paddington in 1974 many carpets have come back to me as trade-ins. Something we love to do, just charging a small washing fee. But it is not simply about money. Overwhelmingly, people are impressed they have a desirable and valuable item when they have had many years of wear and the daily pleasure of a beautiful object. In an age of planned obsolescence and price point mass production this is the cream on the investment cake that is good Oriental Carpets.
A record price, $14,000, recently paid for a small rug, just a metre square, highlights the discovery by a wider audience of a formerly arcane Oriental Rug called a Sofre. The Sofre is a special event rug with the same name as the dining ritual – SOFREH, pronounced soff-reh, with emphasis on the aspirated “h”. Persian cuisine is totally intertwined with Persian culture and is inseparable from Persian Carpets. Iranian families gather around the Sofreh for dinner, which is spread on the floor, usually over a larger Persian carpet or kilim. Although many modern city folk now use chairs and tables in the western manner, the Sofreh is still the cornerstone of Persian culture and a place of gathering, laughter, and relaxation.
Importantly, the dishes remain constant, rich or poor, city or country, and reflect the naturally egalitarian nature at the heart of Persian society. The Sofre have distinguishing tribal and geographic characteristics, just like traditional rugs. They are mostly some type of flat-weave but with interesting variations not found in more prosaic rugs. A single Sofreh may contain wool, cotton and camel, goat and horsehair all worked in a variety of techniques; Knotted pile, Soumak, Kelim and brocade techniques all in the same Sofreh!
Like the Sofreh, Persian cuisine is individual and very distinct. It is a cuisine filled with strong tastes and wonderful aromas and ranges in taste from sweet, to very sour, or spicy. It is not Middle Eastern. Many Persian recipes are unique in ingredients and ways of preparation. Many Iranian dishes consist of rice and stews with different sorts of meats and vegetables. Iranians spend a lot of time in the kitchen but the cuisine offers simple to very elaborate dishes.
On a recent trip to Iran I was lucky enough to encounter my favourite dish cavorting naked on mine host’s table; a type of badamjan, whole aubergines (eggplants) baked very slowly with whole dried lemons and haricot beans in a simple reduced tomato/onion/garlic sauce. The chocolate-coloured lemons had paper-thin skin and were just starting to crack and release their delicious sour brown goo as the badamjan was dished onto the plate. The usually inedible hard and prickly stems were just under-firm and also delicious. This triumph of the slow Persian oven was served with a glass of dugh, salted, fermented whey, left-over from the making of the fresh white breakfast cheese we devoured earlier in the day. A good dugh is lumpy, slightly off, and even worse, bubbly. Definitely an acquired taste but once acquired always sought-after.
Mine host was Ali, a scion of an old noble trading family, and whose father I first did business with in the 1970’s. Being a traditional “old-money” family his wife and his sister did not join us for dinner. Giggling, they laid the dishes on the table before we moved to be seated, disappearing into the kitchen to covertly listen to our conversation. Around the dinner table a slew of Danish, Italian, and Australian carpet dealers, men and women, avidly shared our great love of Tapetology. Ali was typically educated Persian; easy yet sophisticated, comfortable in a multi-lingual setting but kindly professing to prefer just English. The women listening in the kitchen were typically at home with the patois of foreign languages spoken colloquially, being all round better educated than the men; one of the unusual by-products of years of strict Ayatollah education. That is, more than half of Tertiary graduates are women but their job uptake is far less than their brothers leaving an over-supply of over-qualified women teachers in girls’ schools. Girls simply get a better education than boys in The Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Iranian Sofreh offers some extra staple ingredients that stay on the table during the course of the meal. These small dishes refresh the palate between courses and include sliced cucumbers, peeled steamed sugar beets in winter, various dips, Persian pickles and relishes, and of course yoghurt, alone or with other ingredients such as spinach. The meal starts and ends with fresh fruit such as seedless grapes, small fragrant stone fruit and the ubiquitous sweet melon slices. I was actually told once, in all seriousness, that the reason why Iran was the best country in the world was because there is a year-round supply of melons due to the climatic variations.
Most Sofrehs are usually a metre square or have the rectangular dimensions of a small rug. This is perfect for the nuclear family but one finds long narrow Sofre among various nomadic tribes to suit the enlarged families of the nomadic tribal culture. Brothers remain “at home” so when they marry (often more than once) and have children the family they require ever larger Sofre. Some Baluch Sofre are 3 by 1.5 metres. The Sofre of the great Khans of the Shahsevan and Bakhtiari were rightly sumptuous and glorious. These royal Sofre may have been brocaded in gold on silk but they were generic and not as distinctive as the woollen tribal types. There are Baluchi Sofrehs, Afghan, Shahsevan, Afshar, Lori, Qashgai and Kurdish Sofrehs, special wedding Sofre etc.
The week did not start out well. A long drive to a so-called stately home in the country gave me plenty of time to ponder the possibilities. The Livingstone Family estate sale at auctioneers Megaw & Hogg. The big house in Adelaide with a collection of William Morris designed carpets made at Killybegs in County Donegal over a century ago. Was there also an Alexander Morton as well as some Voysey large drapes? Then just down the road an elderly lady had covered the guest beds in Central Asian Suzani (large scale embroideries). To obtain the former one should run the gauntlet of the English Trade and the latter requires drilling the Arasta Bazaar in the Sultanahmet quarter of Istanbul.
The rain came down in buckets and reduced the safe speed to a crawl. The stately home had been refurbished in the 1970’s and it showed. The carpets showcased perfectly the profligacy of the period: Central Iranian Qum silks with garish turquoises and weird mushroom pinks. One has come to accept aberrations in small sizes but room sized examples are now worth an even smaller fraction of their original value. Down the hall and into another large cold room: A giant and at first sight handsome Esfahan carpet in typical central medallion and quarters style but with the vicious bleeding-dye maroons and chocolates of the period.
Back down the hall: was that an early, Circa 1830 Cedar Clothes Press? And into the bedrooms each with what must be one of the worst types of rug ever made: a colourless dry wool Turkish Kazak clipped to ape the corroded blacks of true antiques. By this time I was beginning to question my own sanity and tiredness drove me out of the house and back into the storm.
The tape loop of a bad experience playing in my head: The answer to the question “was the house furnished when you moved in?” wasÂ “Those old carpets were so dusty and worn and we didn’t really like them and those heavy drapes and old fashioned furnishings - we threw the lot out. Some went to the local second hand dealer”.Â Twenty-five years ago! Just another little Baghdad Museum moment, another little Buddhas of Bamiyan, lowering the aggregate stock of the planet.
Back home the following day and a call from Charles in Caboulture. Some Persian, Turkish and Afghan rugs. Age? “Oh yes quite old I bought them from so-and-so.” Who wouldn’t know an antique rug if he fell over it. The clincher was the reason for the fire sale of these 12 rugs: he is going sailing. If ever there was a group of modern day Philistines. Poor quality generalisations and only two days into the week. Things weren’t getting any better.
Next day a prospective customer asks for a plain green rug. And the size? Square. Of course! Negativity is becoming second nature. Oriental Carpets are rarely green, rarely square and hardly ever plain. Finally towards the end of the week a customer who is not at all knowledgeable wants to buy the two Ghoris that had been languishing at the back of the shop. Made by sub-groups of the Taimani in Central and West Afghanistan they are referred to by New Yorkers as The Kazaks of Today with their spontaneous friendly elementality and unusual use of undyed wool shades. Strangely, a prominent member of the UK trade recently saw them for the first time on a visit here and had never heard of the type. Frogs and ponds.
The completely intuitive novice cuts to the heart by sheer talent, untainted and direct. Allahu Akbar - God is Great. I am beaming, overly glad for her with her two Ghoris and then her friend is attracted to the primitive Djulykhirs woven like, and called literally, “Bearskins”. The nearest thing to Mark Rothko outside The Chapel, powerful and metaphysically brooding, the technique pre-dates actual knotted pile in the history of weaving.
So by the end of the week I had sold a few things, bought a ticket to Iran, gained some new talented customers and rejoiced in restored faith for this wonderful aesthetic world. And the Cedar Clothes Press? Well that’s another story.