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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

Date Attribution: Criteria and Precision

by Steve Price

Attribution and criteria for attribution are recurring themes here. The issue is usually geographic or tribal origin: how we know where a piece was made, who made it, and how certain we can be of the answers. Date attribution is less often debated, but it comes up and is of considerable importance to collectors, partly because of the relationship between age and market value of a textile.

As with geographic attribution, specifying a range of dates for a weaving is a probability statement that frequently masquerades as an assertion of fact. I would like to raise some general questions about them:
1. What criteria are used to determine the probable time of creation of a weaving?
2. How likely is it that the attribution is correct?
3. What is the narrowest range of dates into which we can realistically place a textile's origin?

The most common date attributions put textiles into a particular quarter or third of a century. Some authors, more conservative, simply assign a piece to a particular century. Jon Thompson did this when he wrote the catalog descriptions for Sotheby's auction of part of his collection in 1996.

Most of us have been taught to date rugs by various criteria. The most common is by learning to recognize synthetic dyes. Since they didn't exist prior to 1858, a rug with a palette that includes a synthetic dye must have been woven later than that, probably after 1875 (the 1858 date is the first literature report of synthesis of a dye in a laboratory; commercialization didn't take long, but was not instantaneous). Various designs, motifs, textures, even overall shapes, are believed to correlate with age in certain weaving groups. But, I wonder, how much of this conventional wisdom is soundly based, how much is simply error accepted by repetition.

So, to put the topic into a succinct form: The literature is chock full of rugs with attributed dates, and every major auction catalog places such attributions on the listings. On how firm a foundation do age attributions rest?