In Focus: The magic carpet that flew at auction, and the enormous 31ft masterpiece showcasing 18th century fake news

A ‘polonaise’ carpet once owned by Rothschilds is one of the outstanding lots at Christie’s, as a distinguished auctioneer bows out. Huon Mallalieu reports.

Until recently, I thought of ‘polonaise’ only as a musical term, for a fast dance rhythm chiefly associated with Chopin, but also used by many other 18th- and 19th-century composers. Then I discovered a recipe for cauliflower polonaise, which I have now tried (albeit with a non-vegetarian twist) and can recommend. Both presumably originated in Poland, but polonaise carpets are actually Persian.

Sotheby’s and Christie’s held their spring Islamic and Indian sales on March 30 and 31 and, given the state of the world, they will have been relieved at how they did. At Christie’s, 75% of 209 lots sold, with failures mostly at the lower end. The breakdown of successful bidders was interesting: 41% British, 25% Continental, 20% North American and 5% Middle East.

I have no information about the buyer of the £2,322,000 ‘polonaise’ carpet, which was among the outstanding lots, but it had a good provenance back to Baron Adolphe von Rothschild (1823–1900), one of the family’s foremost collectors. From him it went to Maurice de Rothschild and, for the past 50 years, it has been owned by a German noble family. The Polish tag was attached to this type of carpet only in 1878, when a group was exhibited that belonged to Prince Czartoryski, whose family coat of arms was included in the design.

These were among the most commonly exported Persian carpets during the 16th- and 17th-century Safavid period, used as gifts to European potentates. Best of all were those made during the reign of Shah ‘Abbas (1587–1629), who was passionate about the manufacture of textiles in Isfahan. They are characterised by floral arabesques, with central and corner medallions and strongly delineated borders, and were generally knotted in silk with silver and gold brocade. Naturally, given their age, colours have faded, as can be seen from a watercolour of this early-17th-century 6ft 5in by 4ft 6in example chez Rothschild in the rue Monceau.

Illustrated folio from a Shahnameh. £4.842 million

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The top price at Christie’s was £4,842,000 for a folio from a Shahnameh, with a still more illustrious, if partly shared, provenance. Commissioned by Shah Isma’il (1501–24), founder of the Safavid dynasty, and given by his son Shah Tahmasp to the Ottoman Sultan Selim II, it passed in the 20th century from Maurice de Rothschild into the unrivalled collection of Arthur J. Houghton. The painting in gouache heightened with gold and silver showed the hero Rustam and was attributed to Aka Miraq and Qasim bin Ali of Tabriz.

At £378,000, there was a Persian rarity, one of three surviving 12th-century Seljuk stucco panels showing horsemen and seated figures, which would have been displayed as a frieze on a palace wall. At 3ft 9in by 5ft 8in this was incomplete; originally, it would have been coloured.

Fig 3: A 12th-century Seljuk stucco panel. £378,000. Credit: Christie’s

The top lot at Sotheby’s, at £630,000, was still more monumental. The 6ft 9in by 31ft 7in painting in gouache on paper laid on canvas showed one of the worst defeats in British colonial history, the 1780 Battle of Pollilur, in which Tipu Sultan crushed the East India Company’s army and almost drove the British from India.

Painting of the 1780 Battle of Pollilur. The canvas measures almost 7ft in height and more than 31ft in length. £630,000. Credit: Todd-White Art Photography via Sotheby’s

As the Anglo-Indian historian William Dalrymple described it in an illuminating catalogue essay, the campaign displayed several resonant features, such as the use of fake news to blacken the enemy. What worried the British, he wrote, was not that Tipu was a religious fanatic, but rather ‘a modernising technocrat who used the weapons of the West against their own inventors’.

Detail from Painting of the 1780 Battle of Pollilur. The canvas measures almost 7ft in height and more than 31ft in length. £630,000. Credit: Todd-White Art Photography via Sotheby’s

The lot that I liked best in either sale was a large—10in square—late-16th-century Iznik tile painted in underglaze blue, green and characteristic bole red with two birds perched beside a fountain.

Figures are rare on Iznik tiles and seven are known with this design, all in museums, which pushed the price to £655,200 over a £150,000 estimate.

A 16th-century Iznik tile. £655,200. Credit: Christie’s

Other favourites were an Iznik jug of similar date, which made £22,680 at Christie’s, and a 19th-century Iznik-style mosque lamp by Samson of Paris, which made £8,820 at Sotheby’s, plus a lovely 9th–10th-century Persian rock-crystal cosmetic bowl at £126,000.

The Christie’s sale was not able as the last to be taken by William Robinson after an illustrious 40-year career from front counter to International Head of World Art. His expertise runs from modern and contemporary art to Mughal jewels and he is a loss to the rostrum. As a profile in The Hindu had it, ‘through bids, both good and bad, Robinson’s responsibility to keep the auction thrilling remains steady and unwavering. “After all, everyone likes theatre,” he says’.