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Magic Carpet Ride: Corcoran Gallery’s “Sickle-Leaf” Persian Triples Previous Auction Record for Carpets

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Screenshot from Sotheby’s webcast of auctioneer Mary Jo Otsea, senior consultant for rugs & carpets, taking bids for the Corcoran Gallery’s “Sickle-Leaf” carpet (at left)

“$16,000…I mean, $16 million. Hell-o-o-o-o!!! Excuse me, I’m not used to this!” blurted Sotheby’s flustered auctioneer and senior consultant for rugs and carpets, Mary Jo Otsea, as bidding on Lot 12 soared today to more than three times the previous auction record for any carpet. (It also set a new auction record for any Islamic work of art.)

Sought by at least four bidders in a 10-minute bidding battle was the Corcoran Gallery’s prized (now discarded) “Sickle-Leaf” rug, bequeathed to it in 1925 by one of the D.C. museum’s key benefactors, Montana Senator William Clark. Today’s buyer was not identified.

Clark "Sickle-Leaf" carpet, probably Kirman, South Persia, 17th century, approximately 8' 9" by 6' 5" Presale estimate: $5-7 million     Est. $5/7 million

“Sickle-Leaf” carpet, probably Kirman, Southeast Persia, 17th century, 8′ 9″ by 6′ 5″

Bidding ultimately rose to $30 million ($33.77 million with buyer’s premium), trouncing a presale estimate of $5-7 million. That’s basically how the entire sale went: Lot after lot was knocked down at multiples of the auction house’s assessment of their worth.

The Corcoran’s 25-carpet spring cleaning brought a hammer total of $38.38 million ($43.76 with buyer’s premium), against a presale estimate of merely $6.78-9.63 million. (You can view the full results, here.)

The Corcoran has repeatedly stated (as its spokesperson reiterated to me today) that “proceeds for deaccessions are used only to purchase new artwork for the collection. We have not and will not sell works to finance operations or to fund capital projects.”

The question remains, though, why the financially hard-pressed Corcoran would jettison a treasure that belongs in a museum and should have remained in the public domain. Its museum-worthiness is evidenced by its exhibition history, at both the Corcoran and other major institutions (which I previously detailed, here).

This is one redefinition of “scope of collection” that shouldn’t have happened or, at the very least, should have been postponed until the Corcoran’s as yet unhired new permanent director was given the chance to make recommendations on the museum’s future plans and priorities. Interim director and president Peggy Loar commented after the sale that “the significant proceeds raised will enable us to make dynamic acquisition choices in line with our mission as we look to the future.” (The previous president, Fred Bollerer, retired this spring after assisting Loar with the transition.)

Mimi Carter, vice president for marketing & communications at the Corcoran, told me today that the new director’s search “will proceed following review and approval of plans for the [Corcoran's] partnership with the University of Maryland” [my link, not hers]. She added that “the Corcoran continues to make progress in fundraising and should have an update to share in the next few months.”

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