Indian and Irish carpets once owned by emperors and an English king go under the hammer

A very rare Mughal pashmina carpet and a Donegal carpet with the mark of King George V on offer in Christie’s October auction

With an eye-watering estimate of £2.5m to £3.5m (€2.85m-€3.99m) a carpet, which has been shortened from its original form, will be offered for sale by Christie’s in London on October 27th.

What makes the piece so special, according to the auction house, is that it was woven for the court of the Indian Emperor Shah Jahan circa 1650. The piece was originally 4.4 metres in length, but was shortened to 275cm x 274cm and is now almost square.

Of the three smaller fragments known to have survived, two are in museums, while the third is privately held.

As one of only four 17th century pashmina carpets remaining in private hands, it is of lattice and flower design, and made from pashmina goat hair woven into a fine silk foundation.


Due to the fragility of the silk and finely spun pashmina pile, it “makes a carpet of this size and condition an extremely rare survivor from the golden age of Imperial Mughal carpet production” according to catalogue notes.

Its floral style became a popular architectural decoration and in the decorative arts under the emperor Shah Jahan, and came to dominate carpet design as well as all aspects of Mughal art. The Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan’s monument to his late wife, the Red Fort Palace, Delhi and the Agra Fort all reflect this ornamentation within their architecture.

In most rug-weaving cultures, silk is the most valuable and sumptuous fibre used, but for the Mughal culture, the use of pashmina – the undercoat of the Himalayan mountain goat – was the most highly prized fibre for the pile. Each pashmina fibre measures almost one sixth the width of human hair, resulting in the finest carpets ever woven.

The fact that goat hair has the ability to yield deep saturated colours meant the Indian dyers became masters of colour, with the use of shading to give a sculptural quality and three-dimensional effects.

In terms of rarity, only eight 17th century carpets are known to exist, seven of which are in institutional collections, with one in private hands. Of the 13 fragmentary pieces, ten are in public collections, two are unknown and one remains in private hands.

The carpet is part of a “distinguished private European collection” for the past 30 years.

And, not to be outdone, the Art of Islamic and Indian Worlds Rugs and Carpets sale also features a Donegal carpet. Ironically, the design on this Donegal carpet is derived from a 17th century Mughal fragment.

In good condition, the piece is attributed to Scotsman Alexander Morton, who established Donegal Carpets in Killybegs in the late 19th century.

The auction house suggests the colossal piece, measuring 772 x 428cm, was possibly the property of King George V of England, as it bears his mark.

It ended up with the British High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa until 1973, where it was purchased by its current owners (£30,000-£40,000 (€35,000-€46,000)).

The two magic carpets may well achieve beyond their estimates, as the record for a rug from 1600-1650 stands at $33.7 million through Sotheby’s in 2013.

Elizabeth Birdthistle

Elizabeth Birdthistle

Elizabeth Birdthistle, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about property, fine arts, antiques and collectables