Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Collectible Reproductions?

I know that this is going to be provocative. Comments and clarifications from people with similar experience are most welcome.

A couple of years ago, I've read about a mafrash front of the Shahsavan confederation with a somewhat different and, well, appealing design. It had apparently been offered years ago at a German auction house specializing in antique, "collectible", textiles at an estimated 7,500 Euros. I am not (or better no longer) sure, however, whether it could achieve that price or even was sold at that time. The auctioneer suggested as origin "Northwestern Persia (sic!), Azerbaidjan (a combination which immediately discredits him as expert, of course), 1st half 19th c. Size: ca. 53x95cm." And further: "Very finely woven sumakh panel in pleasant colours originating from Qeydar, a small town south of Zandjan in the Khamseh district. – Minor re-weaves in the outer border; in good condition."

There was a reference for the origin, of course: "TANAVOLI, PARVIZ, Shahsavan. Flachgewebe aus dem Iran. Herford 1985, no 87." Parviz Tanavoli is a well-reputed Iranian professor of art and design, a sculptor and painter himself, a collector of arts and an (or the) expert in Iranian flatweaves.

I was very much surprised when stumbling, only a couple of months after I had seen this particular mafrash on the internet, over a very similar piece just offered by a German dealer of antique textiles. I bought it. I erroneously assumed at that time that it might even be the back face of very same which resembled Tanavoli's no 87. Although mine had a different dimension, 83 x 48 cm squared. And, Tanavoli's, did not have a "show" back face. The other four sides were just made of kilims, which I learned later after I had been lucky to get a copy of his gorgeous book.

Tanavoli's book on flatweaves of the Shahsavan appeared in the same year as Siawosch Azadi's (with Peter A. Andrews) on Shahsavan mafrashs. Azadi is a collector/dealer of antique textiles located in Hamburg. He has written highly recommended standard books on Shahsavan flatweaves (1985), rugs woven in the Baluchi tradition (1986), and Turkmen weavings (1975) just mentioning a few of his works. In his book entitled "Mafrash", page 157 displays Tanavoli's no. 87 (or a very similar piece, see below; Tanavoli's is in black and white only) while on page 155, on first sight, was a mafrash displayed which resembles mine with 95% or so concordance. Overall colors, composition, colors of Medean stars (at least those of the upper and lower main border; the stars of the left and right main border differ in color) were identical. I had to scrutinize each inch to find minor differences. For instance, the colors of small hooked diamonds on blue ground in the corners of the two main medallions were just exchanged: two white and one red in Azadi's, two red and one white in my piece (there were more colors involved in mine, though). Azadi describes the origin of the front side of his mafrash on page 155:

"Western Iran, mid-XIXth century. Dimensions: 95 x 53 cm (squared). The central field is devided into two rectangles with a red ground. Within this medallions of different shapes are arranged concentrically. The red hooked lozenges with truncated tips (gizil giyanakh?) dominate the composition; they contain striped rectangles. The empty spaces are filled with lozenges of various shapes and sizes, and small striped ornaments; at the same time these form components of the medallions. The main border with a red ground displays a row of stars (so-called "Med(i)ean star") alternating with twohalved counterset lozenges. The main border is flanked by two stripes with a white ground and a cranked, interrupted, interlaced vine meander (cheren), which are themselves accompanied by two gap-baja stripes."

I became concerned when the first of the above mentioned mafrashs (which actually draw my attention to the Qeydar mafrashs) was offered again at the same German auction house in last year's main Spring auction, this time at a much lower estimate. And it sold this time, for less than 2,200 Euros. The auctioneer has more information now:
"Finely woven in outstanding colours, this sumakh panel used to be the elaborate decorative face of a mafrash. The other three sides (sic! Note that mafrashs have, of course, four "other" sides) were woven in kilim technique, as shown by a comparable piece published by Tanavoli. It was made in the surroundings of Qeydar, a small town south of Zanjan in the Khamseh district. – Small restored areas along the sides, otherwise in good condition."
Azadi counted nine colors in his mafrash, which is pretty high. I found ten in mine. In the meantime, I had to conclude that Qeydar in the 19th century must have been a hub for similar looking (well, almost identical) mafrashs, since the German dealer who provided mine has sold more stuff of the kind.

To be clear at this point, I still like the pieces I've bought over the years. I rapidly noticed that age and provenance are more or less educated, or rather wild, guesses by savvy dealers (those in the West are by no means better than those in their home countries; the latter are more honest) who desperately try to hook customers and sell their, well, inferior pieces (the better ones are never for sale). The lay customer is usually told several flimsy arguments: As a rule of thumb, the more natural, of course not synthetic, colors the older the piece. No synthetic dyes would mean it must have been manufactured before synthetic dyes had been introduced. The more thoughtful and elegant the design, the older the piece.

Most of this is of course nonsense. In 1856, the first synthetic dye (fuchsin) was invented by William Perkin and quickly used in oriental weavings afterwards. At least for some time. Azadi tells us, however, that synthetic dyes only reached the Shahsavan after WWII! After Tanavoli's and Azadi's book, fakes became a serious matter of fact as John Wertime explains in his more recent excellent book on Sumak bags of Northwest Persia [sic!] and Transcaucasia of 1998.

I have not figured out yet why someone should collect these expensive pieces, but it's my strong opinion that what is collectible is just the original. Long published pieces. If later (25 years later!) very similar (almost identical) pieces emerge, there must be only one conclusion: these are reproductions. It's simple like that. First and foremost these are unique pieces. Pieces of art. There have not been manufactories for mafrashs in Qeydar or the rest of Shahsavan country in the 19th century. Qeydar was not even likely the place where Tanavoli's and Azadi's mafrashs have been woven. The Shahsavan were nomads. Their mafrashs were certainly utilitarian, other than, for instance, khorjin saddle bags or the other small beautiful weavings which might have been used as surrogate currency and exchanged for goods in the bazaar of, say, Zanjan and other towns, not really Qeydar (it was only Tanavoli who suggested the village).

And, reproductions are largely worthless, regardless how finely woven they are, how many colors were used and how nicely designed the front side is. Bad news for those who want to make a living from selling "collectibles" to their greedy but generally poorly informed clients. Dealers have to yield. But they almost never are able to present evidence, not for age and usually not for provenance. Customers have to be cautious.

A mafrash is, of course,  a large bag. Certain dealers use to tear the bag, which is certainly difficult to store in a collection, into front, back and side panels; trying to sell them one after the other. If these bags have a cultural value, this must be considered irresponsible, almost a criminal act. If not, there is no sense in collecting them.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012


Rug dealers are never scholars, and neither are collectors who, after some time, become inevitably dealers. Scholars are experts who do not need to own "collectibles" to study them. Having lived in the Middle East for a couple of years I had been infected with the carpet bug from the very beginning. Considering myself a "collector", even after some years of buying what interests me, would be an exaggeration. I have been, though, in contact with a variety of antique rug dealers over the years and have learned to be suspicious of, in particular, western self-declared pundits. What they desperately need is information regarding provenance and age. Otherwise it would be difficult to sell their inferior textiles (they keep, of course, their better pieces). Having said that, I can only thank a New York collector/dealer/expert who I have recently come across for his advice: not to buy but just enjoy and, well, study!

Of all Turkmen weavings I had always been fascinated of chuvals of the Chodor, a Turkmen tribe which had originally been living in an area in the northeastern shores of the Caspian Sea, in particular the Mangyshlak and Buzachi Peninsulas. The design was quite easy to identify, very different from other Turkmen designs, rather complex and, in a way, electrical. When living in Kuwait, they were totally missing in the supplies of local dealers. I had to wait until I had left the Middle East.

When I became more interested in a certain Chodor chuval being on offer by a dealer in Germany, I came across an article by Kurt Munkacsi, famous producer of popular “classical” music by composer Philip Glass, who is a renowned collector of Turkmen weavings. In this article which had appeared about 17 years ago, Munkacsi tries to explain provenance and, in particular, age of a great number of carefully analyzed Chodor chuvals of his collection (textural composition, autochtonous design, additions of Yomut designs) by speculating that both can be related to known historical movements of the Chodor and Yomut (originally living in the southeastern corner of the Caspian Sea) in the 18th and 19th centuries as described in Turkmen Ethnohistory by William Wood (in: Wood W, O'Bannon GW, Swinney HJ (ed) Vanishing Jewels: Central Asian Tribal Weavings, Rochester Museum & Science Center 1990). The movements were depicted in several maps indicating forceful, by Kalmuks, expulsions of the Chodor and Yomut to the Khorezm oasis south of the Aral Sea in the early 18th century (which is known for its cotton plantations and where he assumes a "Possible first Chodor interaction with the Yomut") and then further movements forced by Nadir Shah (in ca. 1740) and alliance of both tribes against the Uzbek army (a "second Chodor interaction with the Yomut") in ca. 1760. And so on. In 1873 Russians conquered Khiva (south of the Khorezm oasis and forced the Chodor to remain in this area around Porsu while the Yomut were "slaughtered and driven out of the city."

Munkacsi tries to sort out what he had found in his large collection of Chodor chuvals and describes four groups which is okay; descriptive, quite reasonable. Everything else is, of course, circular reasoning, just guessing. There is no evidence in his reasoning that known historical contacts of the Chodor and Yomut would relate to special designs and presence or absence of cotton. When he writes (in the description of plate 6, a wonderful example of great Chodor art), “A Yomut elem design and the absence of cotton in the foundation indicate this chuval was probably made after the Chodor and Yomut joined forces against the Uzbeks, and were driven from Khorezm back to Mangyshlak [i.e. after 1811]. It shows the final stage of lattice development [containing what he calls “box flowers”],” it has to be considered mere speculation. Both tribes move and, as nomads, migrate in a vast area of about 300 km times 300 km and certainly have had contacts or “interactions” for a very long time. Mangyshlak is at the crossroads of several cultures and religions, mainly Animist, Islam, and Jewish. These tribes, are not different human species. The Chodor and Yomut of the 18th, 19th centuries are not primitive “aborigines” but both pretty civilized (as their produces indicate) Turkmen, at times pastoral people living the life of nomads.        

The one I was interested in belonged to Munkacsi’s group I, where the blue guls contain a vertical bar. Interestingly the piece was composed of six blue guls (considered by Munkacsi as main guls) with only one complete white and one complete red gul in the center. The “electric” lattice contains small boxes. The dealer, notorious for his bragging about provenance, historical myths and uber-precise age estimates, assigned it to the first half of the 19th century (“1800-1849”). He unexpectedly introduced Munkacsi himself informing me about a recent chat he had with him when he confirmed age. Both seem to agree that (“bold, macho”) Yomut elements in elem and vertical borders (the dealer in Germany had apparently forgotten about who used to manufacture the bags: young women), cotton (“one ply in wefts”) and small “boxes” in the lattice were sufficient for pretty accurate age estimate, according to Munkacsi’s 1835 map:

“The Aday Kazakhs drive the Chodor from Mangyshlak [to which parts of them had returned in 1811], for the last time, forcing a return to Khorezm. Fourth Chodor interaction with the Yomut.“

Mackie and Thomson had cast doubt on surviving Chodor chuvals being older than 1800. They had used color to distinguish older from newer weavings (as quoted on TurkoTek’s webpage) and describe a “proto-Chodor” (of early 19th century) as having “a very deep purple field color, the red is clear and strong tending towards orange-tan or even apricot, [and] … often have a good green or light blue-green, and a clear yellow.”

Well, someone had suggested that Munkacsi himself, who is said to own one of the largest and finest collections of Chodor textiles and who had suddenly been asked to testify our German dealer’s claim, had commissioned the latter to sell this piece. It’s speculation and I won’t be able to trace it.

Overall, antique textile collection business seems to be shady. Truth is never known (the surviving pieces are too young to do radiocarbon dating), but that fact is usually concealed, and bold but mainly irrelevant clues by self-named pundits (who are dealers, never scholars) are mainly used to justify what is “collectible” and what is not.

By the way, I have so far not figured out why certain people with their limited knowledge about culture and history of Central Asian people want to collect.

How did I come to know the above-mentioned New York collector/dealer/expert? Well, I noticed that one of the very old Chodor chuvals in Mukacsi’s paper (plate 12) of 1994 (“ca.1760”) had been published before by the former in 1988, see also here. Munkacsi doesn’t quote him, so I asked him why not. In his description he doesn’t mention a precise age estimate but describes it as belonging to “the earliest period. It has the spacious and clear drawing, wonderful color palette and very rare border patterns that should be expected from examples of great age and even though it is missing part of its length, having been rejoined, thus disfiguring the first row of major guls, its beauty and importance remain little effected.”