Eighty-five rare Kashmir shawls, formerly from the Sam Josefowitz collection of Switzerland were recently sold at Christies’ online auction.. Historically and as a group, it was perhaps the most important sale of such items to have ever been put on the market. From the high Mughal period of the 17thcentury on through the Afghan, Sikh and Dogra periods, each of these eras under which Kashmir was dominated, found significant representation at the sale. Without question, la piece de resistance was the white ground, Mughal boteh fragment, lot 19, selling for over $90,000 (rounded off). However, at the top of the best seller list was the kani mat, lot 17, which sold for an astounding $244,000. It was a small millefleurs-like weaving with a blue-ground central field, each of the corners with a quarter medallion, as in moon shawls though without the central medallion. Whether the bidders were aware of the extensive damage it had suffered and its lack of provenance, I don’t know, but there was certainly nothing in its aesthetics or history to justify such a price. Lot 55, an embroidered rumal with figures, was the next unexpected big winner, selling for $53,000. Despite its rather shabby condition (large areas of wear, faded colors and extensive loss of embroidery) its fine artistry, painterly vegetation and early date, flickered and twinkled enough here and there to cause serious interest. On Lot 1, a fine dorukha, its beauty and its excellent condition along with its solid wool foundation propelled its price to $39,000. Such numbers are not unheard of in India where appreciation of the dorukha has over the years driven their prices up, in some cases astronomically. The eye-dazzlingly black ground moon shawl (lot 4) with sunburst (shamsa) pattern was in my mind one of the most brilliant graphic designs ever to find its way into a kani rumal. It had been hanging in my living room for a few years before it found its way into the Josefowitz collection. What most are not aware of is that the black ground had been painted in. It took me the better part of a few hours working with various strength magnifying glasses to ascertain this fact. This just goes to prove how meticulous, of not ingenious, the weavers were. It was a bargain at $17,000. Setting price records again we turn to the Sikh period: two very nice, long shawls, quintessential specimens, one with imposing peafowls repeating across its pallu (lot 25, $27,500) the other squiggling with snakes and vines and complimented with an eight-leaf, white kani center of powerful proportions (lot 61, $32,500). The former, for sure a product of the 1830s: the peafowl motif had been copied off Indian shawls by the well-known French manufacturer, Hébert in 1839.
The late Sikh, zoomorphic long shawl in lot 10, was a masterpiece in weaving and deserved the hefty price paid for it ($28,500). Its design might have been the inspiration for the French shawl designer to initiate his famous jungle foliage patterns of 1848-1850. Featured in my book, Woven Masterpieces of Sikh Heritage, the rumal in lot 57, the pattern to which I liken it recalls the dizzying holographic effects of a spinning propeller, also set a record for a rumal ($32,500). As a work of art, it’s unsurpassed with nuanced tones and brilliant bull’s eye center. For the astute buyers, there were bargains to be had as well. Lot 62 ($12,000), a beautiful early 18thcentury jamawar, in great condition, replete with its original hashias and diapered pattern of excellently drawn buti flowers propped on a tiny mound. The red ground rumal in lot 84 ($3,000), in my estimate was at least as important as the ‘propeller’ one. There were three narrow stripped moon shawls -Sam loved moons shawls- all circa 1800 that went for strong prices, especially lot 83 which sold for $28,500. Lot 15, a complete dochalla from the 17thcentury, despite its fading, poor condition and weak design, hammered down at an surprising $53,000. However, buyers are aware these days that complete 17thcentury Mughal shawls have virtually dried up. Three other rumals (Lots 36, 43,45), aesthetically not much more than garden variety, drew paradoxically strong hammer prices: $9,000; $4,400; $4,400. Any collector worth his salt would have completely ignored them. Lot 73 was a finely wrought reversible (dorukha) rumal, c 1870, of which very few exist. It’s similar to a pair in the Cooper Hewitt Museum. This one went for quite a fair price of $20,000. Overall, the strong prices attained sets the bar quite high for future sales even if the majority of the buyers still remain anonymous. This sale is even more surprising given that Skinner’s Auction has, over the past decade, been the preferred place for dumping quantities of Kashmir shawls on a weak market where buyers have snapped them up unapologetically. Exception being a saffron ground, moon shawl selling 6 years ago for $65,000.
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