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Author:John Taylor
email: johntaylor@web.de
Mon, Dec 29th, 2003 05:37:18 PM
Topic: A Tale of Two Saf

A Tale of Two Safs.

The first carpet to have been the subject of an entire book is a multi-niche prayer rug from East Turkestan,a so-called Saf . It formed the basis of an obscure monograph by the Viennese Orientalist Josef Karabacek,which was published in 1881(1).

The carpet was in the possession of Theodor Graf, a well-known carpet and antiques dealer with premises in Vienna. It is said to have been acquired in Cairo, and to have come originally from Mecca. Graf was at that time stationed in Egypt, trafficking heavily in Papyrus and other antiquities, many of which later passed through Karabaceks hands and into public collections in Austria(2).

In his book Karabacek claimed to have discovered the word “Ali” repeated cyptically 77 times in the carpet`s border and ascribed the piece to 14th century Persia. Alois Riegl, writing in 189(3) wrote a masterly critique of Karabacek`s work, at the same time placing the carpet accurately in 19th century East Turkestan.

Riegl`s assistant, Dr.Troll, had in the meantime made a journey to East Turkestan, where he purchased a woolen Saf with a cotton foundation. On a subsequent journey, he acquired a second silk and metal thread Saf, very similar in design to the Graf carpet.

In 1892, the catalogue to the great Vienna exhibition appeared(4)(with commentaries by Riegl) including a silk and metal thread saf. F.R Martin reproduced a photo of apparently the same piece in his classic work “A History of Oriental carpets before 1800” (5) as “formerly belonging to Mr.Graf in Vienna”.

The Saf was published once more in the Catalogue of Chinese and East Turkestan rugs from the collection of the Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna(MAK) in 1986, to coincide with a special exhibition for the 5th ICOC(6). This publication was also the subject of an extensive review in Hali(7).

However, after Karabacek, none of the subsequent reproductions are of the original Saf, from the collection of Theodor Graf.

The confusion of the two carpets must have begun in Vienna, at the turn of the century. Martin had presumably taken his reproduction from the Vienna catalogue, and indeed mentions Dr.Troll, without having checked Karabacek`s book-which he also mentions.

However, like Riegl, he clearly states there were two very similar Safs, that of Graf and that of Troll.

The author of the Vienna catalogue(presumably Riegl) plate 69, is unequivocal: he talks of a “Doppelganger” in the possession of Theodor Graf, in Vienna.

The authors of the 1986 MAK catalogue failed to notice that, stating their Saf (plate 41 and cover illustration) had entered the museum in 1906 from the K-und-K Handels-Museum,-formerly belonging to Joseph Karabacek.

Although very similar, careful examination of both pieces reveals obvious differences in the treatment of both field and spandrels.

The Graf carpet measured 367x118 cms; the MAK Saf measures 344x120cms. Where did the second piece - illustrated in the Vienna Exhibition catalogue, Martin, and the 1986 MAK catalogue - really come from?

The answer is, probably, from Siegfried Troll. Nr.43 in the1986 MAK catalogue, a six-panel woolen Khotan Saf, is also likely to have been purchased from Dr.Troll, reading between the lines in Riegl`s book(8).

In the notes to the 1986 MAK catalogue, authors Natschläger and Völker discuss entry Nr.40, a nine panel woolen Saf and refer to Riegel p.108 - which is exactly the point in the text where the author is describing a silk and metal saf discovered by...Siegfried Troll.

This piece was already at that time in the keeping of the K-und-K Handels Museum, as Riegel states. Troll had bought his first Saf, the woolen six-panel model, from a tea-house in the Ferghana Valley, although he believed it had originally been made in Khotan during the reign of the Andijan warlord Jacub Beg(1865-1877). Troll was definitely in Kashgar, as a photograph of him at the unveiling of a monument to the German explorer Adolf Schlagintweit, in 1889,clearly shows(9).

Troll also believed that most of the East Turkestan Safs dated from the mid-19th century. This may have been in part due to the religious enthusiasm of the day. We know that Jacub Beg sent ambassadors to the Ottoman Court (Robert Shaw, on his Journey to Kashgar in 1868, accompanied one such who was returning via Karachi(10)and the East Turkestan Court was duly recognized by the Sultan, perhaps during a mood of Pan-Turkism.

Possibly carpets were exchanged as gifts: a tour of Istanbul`s mosques with their numerous multiple prayer carpets may have been decisive. One large and very beautiful Khotan rug was seen in 1981 being used, incongruously, to decorate the set of a 19th century Turkish living room in the Turk ve Islam Museum.

The last witnesses to the Graf carpet were Neugebauer and Orendi, in their standard work“ Orientalische Teppichkunde „from 1909.(11) Interestingly, they state that both Safs were exhibited together at the 1891 Vienna exhibition, clearly identifying the MAK piece as that of Dr.Troll (in their text “Dr.Trell”).

The Graf rug was said, in 1909, to be in the possession of the Berlin “Kunstgewerbemuseum”. They also note that Karabacek, when writing his book, had no knowledge of Dr.Troll`s carpet, which certainly confirms Riegl`s story of its acquisition.

The Kunstgewerbe Museum was a logical place for an East Turkestan carpet, as it had in fact housed the Berlin Collection of East Asian art since the beginning of the 20th century. The versatile Theodor Graf had also had his dealings with Berlin, selling them his great Dragon carpet in 1905(13).

In 1945 the Museum took a direct hit and was burnt out completely. Whether the Graf carpet was still in the building is impossible to confirm.

Today there is no record of the Graf Saf at the Museum. It is remotely possible (but actually unlikely) that the carpet was amongst those in the Berlin Mint, also destroyed in 1945-as was the Graf Dragon carpet.

The Graf Saf is critical to the history of rug literature, having been the subject of the second important work on the subject. Since F.R Martin it has been continuously mis-attributed, down to our day.

Its present whereabouts are unknown.


1)Joseph Karabacek,Die Persische Nadelmalerei Susandschird,,1881.

2)Maute/Gastgeber,Die Direction der Hofbiblithek zur Jahrhundertwende,Biblos Schriften 175,1999.

3)Alois Riegl,Altorientalische Teppiche,reprint 1979 Mäander Kunstverlag,chapter 3.

4)Vienna Catalogue,K.K Österr.Handelsmuseum,“Oriental Carpets“,1892-1896,Plate LII,Nr.69.See also:Kendrick&Tattersall,Handwoven Carpets,Dover reprint,page64.

5)F.R Martin,A History of oriental carpets before 1800,1906,Plate 245.Reprinted Oriental Rug review,Vol 6,Nr.4.page 13/89.

6)Helga Natschläger and Angela Völker, Knüpfteppiche aus China and Ostturkestan,MAK catalogue,Residenz Verlag 1986.

7)Hali 31,p.53.

8)Riegl,Altorientalische Teppiche,pps.106-107.

9)Müller/Rauning,Der Weg zum Dach der Welt,Pinguin Verlag Innsbruck,1982,p.64.

10)Robert Shaw,Visits to High Tartary,Oxford University press reprinted 1984.

11)Neugebauer and Orendi,Orientalische Teppichkunde,1909.All references here are to the 1922 reprint.See pages 206-207.

12)Lothar Ledderose,Orchideen und Felsen,1998,Einleitung.

13)Kurt Erdmann,700 Years of Oriental Carpets,page 132.

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