When discussing rugs, the word Persian almost instantly comes to mind. The story of Aladdin is no coincidence because the carpet tradition, as we know and understand it today, originated in the Middle East. Some of the most valuable rug pieces ever sold or auctioned come from ancient Persia.
In order to better understand the importance of Persian rugs and a little bit about why they can be so expensive, we’re going to go through a bit of their history. Carpet weaving originated over 2,500 years ago in Persia (i.e. Iran), where they served to cover the floors of nomad tribes’ tents to protect from cold and damp. The weaving techniques were inherited by one generation after another, preserving this craftsmanship that’s been carried on for thousands of years.
And as the international trade developed, so did the artistry of rug weaving, leading to an enormous selection of new patterns and designs. Many historians believe that Cyrus the Great is responsible for introducing the art of carpet making into Persia when he conquered Babylon in 539 BC. He’s believed to be buried in a tomb covered in carpets of inestimable value. However, it is possible Persians mastered the techniques even before Cyrus, as their homes were in constant need of protection from the cold and their animal husbandry, sheep and goats, certainly would have provided them with enough high quality wool.
The oldest known knotted carpet date back to 5th century BC and showcase the fine craftsmanship that has been refined over the centuries. The Pazyryk carpet is the centerpiece of the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad and demonstrates an intricacy of designs suggesting they were produced for way more than practical purposes.
So that’s why some of these rugs reach unbelievable prices whereas others are of such important historical value that their price cannot even be estimated. Let’s continue with the most expensive rugs ever sold, most of which are of Persian origin, with a few honorable mentions from other parts of the world.
1. Clark Sickle-Leaf Carpet, 17th Century Antique Persian Carpet, $33 million
The anonymous buyer of the most expensive rug, not only on our list but in the whole of history, clearly has a keen eye for beauty. This 8’9″ x 6’5″ masterpiece has been estimated at around $10 million, but the owner clearly didn’t want to let it go and it ended up fetching a mind-blowing $33.7 million.
Its previous owner, industrialist and senator William A. Clark, donated the 360-year-old carpet along with more than 200 other art objects, carpets included, to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. in 1925, which put the rug up for auction at Sotheby’s in 2013.
The record-breaking sum of money was taken in a telephone bid by a seller who to this day remains anonymous but is believed to be of Middle-Eastern descent.
2. Kirman Vase Rug, 17th Century Persian Carpet, $9.6 million
This story is an interesting one. Estimated at only $900 in 2009, just four years before the most valuable carpet sale (see above), the rug was then auctioned for the same price at which it had initially been purchased: €20,000. But the seller was not happy and turned to Christie’s auction house, which estimated it between £200,000-£300,000.
Later, the Kirman Vase rug was recognized as the first known rug to feature the popular herati design, decorated with colorful flowers, leaves, and branches on a contrasting blue background and with a slightly wavy surface.
The following auction drew in an amazing number of bidders and started off at £150,000. In the end, it went for €7.5 million, returning to a Middle-Eastern buyer and becoming the most expensive rug in the world at the time.
An interesting dispute between owners, inheritors, auction galleries, and donors led this unique piece of Persian tradition and artistry making even more history, proving once again that some objects are difficult to put a price on.
3. The Pearl Carpet of Baroda, 19th Century, $5.5 million
Commissioned in 1865 for the tomb of Prophet Muhammad in Medina, Saudi Arabia, the Pearl Carpet of Baroda never actually reached its original destination, but it certainly found its way into modern history.
What’s remarkable about this particular piece is not only the base of silk and fine deer hide but also the astounding detail that makes this fantastic tapestry sparkle like a piece of jewelry, because in a way it is. The rug contains at least 1 million Basra pearls weaved together with English colored glass beads and other precious stones such as rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and even diamonds set in gold-topped silver.
It goes without saying that the Pearl Carpet of Baroda was Sotheby’s highlight at its 2009 auction, where it was sold for $5.5 million in Doha, going to a buyer who chose to remain anonymous. The carpet is now part of the permanent collection at the National Museum of Qatar, finally coming to rest after a 150-year-old history of owners and inheritance.
4. Mughal ‘Star Lattice’ Carpet, 18th Century, £4.7 million
It is no wonder that a carpet from the Far East has found itself among the most expensive rugs in the world. This 18th century North Indian rug sold for over £4.7 million, way above its estimated price, at a Christie’s auction in 2013.
Its first owner was the renowned socialite and businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and, just like almost every other item featured in this article, it has been possessed by a series of owners in its time. However, the final buyer, who fought it out in a very tight finale with another bidder, chooses to remain anonymous.
The Pashmina-wool carpet features an intense scarlet field detailed with a golden latticework design of stars enclosing symmetrical arrays of pink, yellow, white, and blue jasmine and lotus blossoms. It shows only light signs of wear and tear, which clearly did not affect the final selling price. Scholars and experts have called it “the most sublime of all decorative carpets”, and rightly so, being an astonishing example of one of only 12 Millefleur (French for “a thousand flowers”) rugs known of from the period.
5. Silk Isfahan Rug, 17th Century, $4.45 million
Dating back to the early 1600s, this rug was auctioned by Christie’s in 2008 for an amazing $4.45 million. It measures 7’5” x 5’7”, which means it’s worth $107,488.00 per square foot, which compares favorably with some of the most expensive rugs today which reach up to $80,000 per square foot.
It was woven in Isfahan, a Iranian city famous for the quality of its rugs and one of the most beautiful cities in the world during the reign of Shah Abbas the Great (1588-1629), who commissioned the building of splendid mosques, public baths, colleges and many other architectural gems which stand out to this day.
Another remarkable thing about the Isfahan rug was noted by Arthur Upham Pope, the curator of the 1931 exhibition “A Survey of Persian Art” held at the Royal Academy, London, which showcased the rug. He said “No more exquisite harmony was ever realized in any Persian rug”, in reference to its coloring.
6. Louis XV Savonnerie Carpet, 18th Century, $4.4 million
Taking a few steps away from the East for a moment, we find this 18th-century French masterpiece. Woven between 1740-1750, this beautiful carpet designed by Pierre-Josse Perrot is embellished with stunning detail. It is a piece that leaves you in awe of its complex design, almost three-dimensional, that illustrates in vivid color the 18th century royal arms of France, military trophies, flowers, and ornaments.
The Savonnerie factory was founded in the early 1600s to create French versions of carpets from the East using Turkish techniques, the import of which had created a drain on the French economy at the time.
7. Rothschild Tabriz Medallion Carpet, 17th Century, $2.4 million
We knew we couldn’t complete an article on expensive carpets without mentioning the legendary art theft orchestrated by the Nazis during World War II. They stole this 17th-century rug from the Rothschild family in Austria. It was finally returned to the family by the Austrian Government in 1999.
Along with other precious possessions, among which was an illuminated prayer book, an original Louis XVI commode, and various Franz Hals and Old Master portraits, the 2008 Rothschild family auction was expected to hit $40 million, in an event that had bidders hunting for treasures. The auction brought in $89.9 million, setting 10 auction-selling records: five for Old Masters and one each for an illuminated manuscript, an Italian manuscript, a piece of furniture, a clock and a carpet. The Rothschild Tabriz Medallion Carpet is currently displayed at the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar.
8. Ziegler Mahal Rug, $182,500 and Ziegler Mahal Rug, $98,500
Two entries at no. 7 on our list are carpets from central Persia, known as Ziegler Mahal, which sold for $182,000 and $98,500. Both items stand out with their wide range of vivid colors, including blue and terracotta, two of the colors often used in Oriental rugs.
Known to compliment interiors and other works of art displayed in the finest rooms, the Mahal Rug Style is in itself a work of art, creating some of the most beautiful 19th and 20th century antique rugs. Mahal rugs are a long term investment with unique aesthetic value, as priceless in the past as they will be in the future. You can recognize a typical Ziegler Mahal carpet by its design, which features central flower ornaments and corner medallions on a plain ground or a lightly-colored field, which is contrasted by the rest of the design, commonly vine-work or palmetto-like figures.
9. The Holy Carpet, 16th Century, $3,000
Referred to as the Holy Carpet, this 16th century Persian rug, also known as Ardabil, is currently displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and has a purchase price of $3,000. This item is yet another with an interesting history behind it. It was commissioned by Shah Tahmasp I around 1539 to decorate the shrine of his ancestors located in a mosque in Ardabil (from where the rug gets its name), where it was kept until its sale in 1890. English-Persian rug manufacturer Ziegler sent its finest negotiators on behalf of the London Museum, which acquired the carpet for $3,000, a sum considered unbelievable at the time.
The manufacturing process of this carpet is of particular note: the knots involved in this piece are extremely fine, typical for rugs from the area of Kashan. And measuring 61.5 square feet, it means the Holy Carpet has a density of 520,000 knots per square meter — a total of 26 million knots! Holy Carpet indeed!
Silk and pure wool make this a stunning piece, with designs that kept interpreters wondering for years. It would appear that it depicts the sky and the glass mosque lamps represent stars reflected on a water surface with lotus flowers floating on it. The Holy Carpet is as amazing as it is intriguing. The date of manufacture is incorporated into the rug — the Islamic year 947, approximately 1540-1541, making it the oldest dated carpet in the world.
Finally, we think you should know that the Holy Carpet also has a twin, the Secret Carpet, with the same manufacturing details but in a more precarious condition. Despite the need for restoration, the Secret Carpet also went through a series of wealthy hands, ending up being bought for $70,000 and donated to the Museum of Art in Los Angeles, where it can be seen today. The two rugs are the most important Persian rugs made in Iran and have been copied, reinterpreted, and commissioned by important personalities. Such a rug can be found in the British Prime Minister’s office.
10. The Bayeux Tapestry, 11th Century
The only item on the list that has no price because of its absolutely inestimable value is the Bayeux Tapestry, made in Normandy it is dated 1070 and measures a total of nearly 70 meters x 50 centimeters.
This tapestry tells the story of how William, Duke of Normandy, became King of England in a series of events spanning an entire year. The episodic depictions of battles and scenes are “translated” by a short explanatory text, but since not a lot of people could read in the Middle Ages, the drawings speak for themselves. Embroidered by nuns in colored thread, the motifs make this tapestry technically different from a carpet — rather than knots, the Bayeux Tapestry is woven on linen. It is estimated to have taken about 10 years to complete.
Almost 1,000 years have left their mark on this tapestry. The current 69 meters of intact linen would originally have been over 70 meters since the final scenes of the coronation are missing. Who commissioned it remains unclear, although it is believed Duke William’s half-brother, who is featured several times on the rug, commissioned it himself.
The two important things the most expensive rugs in the world have in common are their history and tradition, both of which can render some of these priceless. The region of Persia is the most famous, with its 2,000-year-old tradition of carpet design and production that has circled the world. We can compare this moment in history to the revolutionary age of the Renaissance, a major event in art history which changed the world as we know it today.
Many more changes are to be expected, but none of them would be possible without the traces and marks history has left on the way we make and understand art.