Business & Design: The William A. Clark Collection

background on last week's record breaking Sotheby's auction

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Detail of the ‘Sickle Leaf’ carpet from the WAC Collection Auction

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Last Wednesday Sotheby’s held its auction of the William A. Clark collection of 25 important carpets, which netted an astonishing $43,764,750.  The crown jewel of the sale was a Safavid Empire ‘Sickle Leaf’ carpet from the first half of the 17th century which features an elaborate floral-on-red design with plum blossoms, vines, cypress trees, dramatic sickle leaves, and a detailed dark border.  The remarkable carpet has been written about by scholars and exhibited at the Sackler Gallery in the Smithsonian as well as overseas.

It brought a winning bid of $33,765,000 (or approximately $600,000 per square foot) which is an auction record for any carpet by a significant margin. The sale price was more than 4 times the auction estimate, and established a new benchmark for any Islamic work of art at auction.

Almost immediately after seeing the blog post from my friends at Doris Leslie Blau chronicling the sale I decided to investigate the back-story of the collection, and to consider the larger implications for the interior design industry.

 CJ Dellatore Sotheby's

On Thursday morning Sotheby’s posted this overview of the sale;

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The Middle Eastern and Asian carpets offered in this auction were collected by copper baron and then senator William Andrews Clark in the late 19th and early 20th century.   A taste for the exotic became popular well before the turn of the 20th century, yet, during Clark’s era, 16th-17th century weavings were extraordinarily coveted and prestigious items that attested to their owner’s sophistication and worldliness.   ‘Ancient’ rugs and carpets were considered a necessity to complement the paintings collected by Clark and other business titans of the era such as Henry G. Marquand, J.P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, and Charles T. Yerkes.   Prominent art dealers including Joseph Duveen, Stefano Bardini and Vitall Benguiat sought out antique carpets from titled European sources to sell to their American clients.  In the 1903 auction of the collection of Henry G. Marquand, the railway tycoon and philanthropist who served as President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1889-1902, antique carpets were in such demand that the highest priced lot of the sale was a “Royal Persian rug of the 15th or early 16th century.”

Senator Clark, who described himself as “the richest man west of the Mississippi” built the largest mansion of its time in New York City on Fifth Avenue and 77th Street.   He hired Henri Deglane, who had designed the Grand Palais (consider watching this 2 1/2 minute virtual tour) in Paris, to create a French-style château with over 130 rooms including large gallery spaces in which to display his collection.

Along with his contemporaries, Senator Clark purchased many of his carpets through the renowned New York dealer, Vitall Benguiat.  Indeed, not since the V. and L. Benguiat auctions held in the 1920s and 30s by our predecessor, the American Art Association, has a group of 16th – 17th century carpets of the caliber of the Clark collection been offered at auction.

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I spent a few hours reading and re-reading each of the links I added to the above text to get a history lesson, and looked through the auction catalog of the 25 carpets in Clark’s collection.  With a clear understanding of the importance of the sale I began investigating industry reaction to the auction’s outcome.  While the news outlets each reported slightly different takes, I found the comments regarding the ‘Sickle Leaf’ carpet from Jan David Winitz – the Oriental rug expert and founder of Claremont Rug Company – summed it up best in the Wall Street Journal;

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“I expected that the piece would draw strong bidding, but this [33 million] price which is more than three and one-half times higher than the highest previously paid for a rug is truly phenomenal.  The Safavid ‘Sickle Leaf’ Persian rug from the collection of William Andrews Clark is well-documented in the Oriental rug literature.  The auction comes at a time when art collectors are increasingly interested in the best-of-the-best historical Oriental rugs, which are almost entirely in museum collections and rarely come to market.

“As I commented three years ago when Christie’s sold a 17th century Kirman at auction for the previous record price of $9.59 million, there is a thirst for the great art created in the Near East. Collectors recognize two periods, the first (ca. 1500 to ca. 1700) and second (ca. 1800 to ca. 1910) both Golden Ages of Persian Weaving, as the eras when the artistic skills and cultural traditions existed to produce art at its most profound level.  I have no doubt that this sale is a precursor of a movement to come: the recognition that the best Oriental rugs woven in the 16th through 19th centuries stand on par with the highest valued art works of other mediums.”

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I found his observations intriguing – even if they could easlily be misconstrued as self-serving as a purveyor of fine Oriental rugs who stands to benefit from the ripple effects of the sale.  In the end neither Mr. Winitz of Claremont, Nader Bolour of Doris Leslie Blau, nor David Amini of Beauvais Carpets will be dismayed by the outcome of the sale.  It marks a clear bell-weather moment for their corner of our industry.  But I do think they would all agree that a few things will likely happen in the wake of last weeks events.

First, while at this moment no one but Sotheby’s (and perhaps those close to the sale) knows the identity of the purchaser, the sale did happen in the United States, which sends a message about the economy – and the design industry within it.   And second, we should expect less-than-reputable carpet dealers to begin producing rugs with similar patterning and color, which they will likely present as  Kirmans from the Safavid period in Iran.

But then I remembered a conversation I had with Mr. Bolour 6 months ago about designers favoring muted color in his East side gallery.  At the time he suggested the current ‘fashion’ was for muted hues and motifs – part of what I call the ‘beige blizzard’ of color scheme safety brought on by the great recession.

Post the Sotheby’s sale I’m left wondering if the return of rugs with such assertive palettes might signal a return to the confident creativity of the 80’s and 90’s in design when beige was synonymous with boring.   One can only hope.

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Written by CJ Dellatore

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