Vienna, 7 July 2017
About six months ago, my wife suggested that we should get a carpet for our living room in Vienna. She felt that it would soften the room, taking the edge off the hard wooden floor – and covering some ugly marks on that same floor. It so happened that the Dorotheum Auction House, one of my favourite places in Vienna, a place I haunt whenever I’m in town and where I have parted with several largish banknotes for various objects over the years, was holding one of its regular carpet auctions.
Having armed ourselves with the auction’s catalogue, we poured over its pages and selected several promising candidates. They all tended towards the big size, my wife having persuaded me that we should try to cover as much of the floor as possible. We then proceeded to the Auction House itself to inspect our choices – I always pity the poor fellows who have to labour through those stacks of heavy carpets to get to the one you want to look at. In any event, surrounded by would-be bidders doing the same thing, we solemnly looked our choices over. I for one was somewhat self conscious about this since I had no real idea what to look for other than to see if we liked the colour combinations and the feel. But we managed to look as if we knew what we were doing. In the event, we plumped for one of our choices, and then waited for the auction day.
On the big day, we filed into the auction room. My wife does the bidding, I’m too nervous about the whole thing, terrified that I will make a false move and find myself landed with some horror and being required to pay a stellar price for it. She had her paddle at the ready as the auctioneer moved with brisk efficiency through the lots. Our chosen lot came up on the screen, the auctioneer opened the bids, and quick as a flash my wife’s paddle went up for the minimum bid. We were confident we would get it at that price since most of the earlier lots had not gone beyond the minimum, but alas! this time someone else’s paddle went up hot on the heels of my wife’s. The bid climbed inexorably, and we regretfully threw in the towel.
Rather glum about it all, we went back to the unsold lots. There had been another carpet which had taken my wife’s fancy but which I had not been sure about. It had not been sold, so we had another look. After some to-ing and fro-ing, especially on my part – it seemed very big, and the colours were a bit on the pale side – we decided to go with it. Here is the picture of it from the auction catalogue.
A few days later, two men huffed and puffed it up the stairs and into our apartment. We laid it out and I had a moment of panic about its size. It’s 4.90 by 3.80 metres (16 by 12.5 feet, for readers still on British units), so a fair good size. Had I measured the room right?! But all was good; it fit – snugly, but it fit.
No sooner had the two men put it down than two other men came and took it away, huffing and puffing their way back down the stairs. They were Iranian; in the intervening days, we had discovered a carpet shop around the corner, run by a small Iranian who – so we discovered as we chatted with him – had escaped from Iran during the 1979 revolution. Since he also cleaned carpets, we decided to have ours cleaned before laying it down permanently.
Now in place, cleaned and ready to do its job for the next twenty years or so, I’m truly glad we bought it. It really lights up the room. Its paleness, which had led me to hesitate initially, is actually a good thing – too much colour in such a big carpet would have overwhelmed the room. The dark red border gives just enough of a splash of colour. The relative emptiness of its design is also good. Again, if it had been too busy, it would have overwhelmed the room.
My wife and I are currently spending a lot of time staring at that carpet from very close range. As part of our summer campaign to lose weight, we do an exercise routine (almost) every day, faithfully following a series of fitness videos my wife has found on the internet. As we do burpees, planks of various descriptions, bridges, and I know not what else, we get to stare close up at the carpet. In my case at least, given my predilection for all things historical, it has led me to wonder about its history. After some research I am ready to report.
The auction catalogue had informed us that the carpet had been manufactured in the 1990s in Egypt. So the carpet itself is not old, which is just as well since we wouldn’t have been able to afford anything remotely antique. But is the design perhaps an ancient Egyptian design? The answer is no. Egypt has very little history of carpet making. After a moment of glory in the 16th Century, whatever it had shriveled away and was only resurrected in the 1950s after supplies of carpets from Iran, the traditional source, dried up – no doubt the result of soured relations between the two countries after Nasser’s left-wing takeover in Egypt and the CIA-backed coup in Iran which brought the right-wing Shah Pahlavi to power. But the Egyptians just made copies of Iranian designs and as far as I can make out has continued in this tradition ever since. In fact, the auction catalogue described the carpet’s design as “Indo-Persian”.
So do we have here a traditional Iranian design? Again, the answer is no, and here it becomes interesting. It seems that the Iranian carpet industry was actually started by Europeans. The demand back in Europe was far outstripping the very artisanal production in Iran, so various European companies stepped in to bring a certain level of industrialization to the country’s carpet makers. One of these was an Anglo-Swiss company by the name of Ziegler, which set up shop in Sultanabad in the 1870s. It was one of the company’s Sultanabad managers who came up with very non-Oriental carpet designs for their Iranian carpets which later came to be known as Ziegler carpets: “large, simplified designs of a languorous nature … featur[ing] whimsical draughtsmanship [with] quite deliberate distortions introduced to break up the monotony of a repeating design”, the whole with a light palette of colours.
As the first photo attests, these are all design elements found in our carpet: the long tendrils of flowers and other vegetation languidly weaving their way across the carpet surface, a relatively simple design with plenty of open space, light colouring, no obvious axis of reflection in the design. So I pronounce our carpet to be a Ziegler-type carpet (not an original Ziegler carpet, our pockets are not deep enough for that). It seems that after a certain period of popularity Ziegler carpets went out of fashion, their non-Oriental looking designs being looked down on. Then, as usual, there was a resurgence of interest in, and use of, Ziegler designs in the 1980s. I put our carpet’s production down to that.
The carpet has an Arabic inscription woven into its border, something we discovered just recently.
I took this photo to our Iranian carpet shop owner, to see if he could read it. He informed me regretfully that he could not but that he had a man who could. He disappeared into the back of the shop and came back with one of the young fellows who had carried off our carpet to clean it. With me standing there agog, the fellow peered at the photo and pronounced that it was a name, Hamid Ali Bek Bek. Very excited by this nugget of information, I ran an internet search on the name linked to carpets. I came up with no carpet producers in Egypt but did come up with one Hamid Ali Bek, importer of fine carpets in Hamburg. Could it be that this Mr. Bek had had carpets made for him in Egypt (a little strange since he is Iranian, but you never know) to sell in Germany? I fired off an email to the company but have yet to hear back.
My wife tells me that it’s time for closure on this carpet business and for me to move on. So regretfully I have to leave my story there, with still much up in the air about the carpet’s history. Who knows, though? There might be some updates at a later time.