Tribal textiles

Virtuoso design and lyrical history delight two woven-art enthusiasts, who have created an exquisite and culturally rich collection, says Katrina Burroughs. Portrait by David Ellis

Robert Bell (near left) with Aaron Nejad in front of a c. 1970 silk Holbein rug woven in Afghanistan
Robert Bell (near left) with Aaron Nejad in front of a c. 1970 silk Holbein rug woven in Afghanistan | Image: David Ellis

Bob Bell recalls being given his first rug aged three. “My grandfather, who was an antiques dealer in Sidon, gave me a bedside rug he said was made by the Baluch tribe,” says the chief executive of Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospitals. Born in Lebanon, Bell moved to Canada when he was 18. He began collecting rugs when he set up home with his Canadian wife, Patty, in 1979. Now based in London, he owns a couple of hundred carpets and weavings, including a unique collection of exquisite small-scale Persian silk rugs and Turkoman and Baluch weavings, intricately worked and densely detailed.

For the past eight years, London-based dealer Aaron Nejad has been Bell’s carpet-spotting sidekick. Rugs are in Nejad’s blood. His family comes from the Meshed region of northeast Persia, where his grandfathers were carpet dealers. “I was aware of Bob for a while before we actually met,” he says. “Ours is a small world. I’d sold pieces to him through other dealers, but we met formally at the Olympia Winter Fine Art Fair in 2005. He was incredibly knowledgeable. He understood and appreciated all types of Middle Eastern weaving.”

The meeting was timely. Changes in the trade, with many dealers shifting their activities to the internet, made forging a good relationship with a specialist invaluable. Bell explains: “The galleries had been my little club. I’d meet up with dealers and other collectors, we’d have a cup of tea or gin and tonic. All that completely disappeared. Before, until you’d kicked the tyres, you didn’t purchase. Now, you often buy on the strength of a picture. You buy because you trust the dealer.”

17th-century sickle-leaf rug from the William A Clark Collection, sold at Sotheby’s for over $30m
17th-century sickle-leaf rug from the William A Clark Collection, sold at Sotheby’s for over $30m | Image: Sotheby’s

When asked to account for their passion for the voluptuously coloured, sensually tactile textiles that bedeck Bell’s Pimlico apartment, the enthusiasts cite scholarly reasons. “Through the rugs you are keeping in touch with tribes or races that have disappeared from the face of the earth,” says Nejad. “The Turkoman people in central Asia, for example, have virtually no written history. Practically all we know about them is passed down to us through their material culture, so it’s of great historical significance to study what they used to weave.”

Bell delights in unpicking long-accepted but erroneous dealers’ definitions. “Take my Baluch rug. For 30 years of my life, I – and most of the rug merchants – thought there was a Baluch people. There’s no such thing. These rugs were woven by tribes that became part of a confederacy under the Baluch name. Some of them were Arabs, some Persians, some Kurds, some were a mix of Persian, Afghan and Turkoman, yet they are all traded as ‘Baluch rugs’.”

With his taste for research, Bell found himself drawn to the area of small-scale weavings of virtuoso skill. The more examples he acquired, the more convinced he became that these gems had been misinterpreted. “These mini rugs weren’t just woven to be pretty items. They were woven as samples for workshops that would then weave a bigger rug. In Persian there’s a word for it: wagireh. My theory is that this was done not just for city rugs and not just in Persia – tribal people also did wagirehs.” Nejad expands: “The pieces would show all the colours and designs the makers could weave. Ultimately, they were their catalogue.”

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Bell now owns around 30 wagireh-type works, in wool on wool, wool on cotton or silk on silk, mainly from Persia and Turkey, mostly from the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. He fetches one of his favourite finds, a silk rug made in Fereghan in central Persia, with an intricate floral pattern on a subtle green ground. “It’s museum quality,” says Nejad. “Made in about 1860, it’s pre-commercial production [before the expansion in carpet production of the late 19th century and the widespread use of synthetic dyes]. Easily 100 knots per square centimetre.” Despite its “best of its kind” status, the rug wasn’t costly. “A US collector would now probably offer me $5,000 to $7,000,” says Bell.

Nejad has no gallery. Instead he brings an edit of new stock to his clients and emails snapshots whenever he discovers a treasure on his travels. “I found a silk Kashan rug in a Boston saleroom this year. Kashan is an important weaving centre in central Persia, where they’ve made carpets since the Safavid period [16th to 17th century]. It was from around 1900 and had an uncommonly delicate colour combination. It was also in an unusual zaraquart format, a short strip, and in incredible condition. Everything about it was special.” Nejad sent an image to Bell; the Kashan got the green light and he snapped it up for under $3,000.

For the past five years, Nejad has been plotting to reinstate London as a global rug centre, gathering a world-class line-up of dealers for the London Antique Rug and Textile Art Fair each April. He says budget needn’t exclude newcomers. “You can still buy something beautiful for under £500.” Prices are rising, however. “Some of the things Bob collects are becoming ‘hot’ again after a period when the market was very quiet. City rugs, refined rugs of intricate design, are much more popular, driven by demand from the Middle East, where they prefer fine silk designs with a Persianate aesthetic. Most in demand are the classical pieces, made before 1800. The Qataris and Kuwaitis are putting together art collections, and they are buying voraciously.” At Sotheby’s this June, a 17th‑century Persian carpet from the William A Clark Collection (second picture) fetched over $30m, triple the previous auction record for a carpet.

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Bell shakes his head. He has never understood obsession with age. “I look for colour, harmony and design,” he says. “I have pieces made in the 1950s and 1960s that are as exceptional as anything I’ve seen from the 19th century or earlier. The final thing I look for is condition. I find it unconscionable for anyone who buys a piece not to take care of it. Clean it, for the love of God! Conserve it! For me it’s a turn-off when a dealer shows up with a rug and says, ‘I’ve just acquired it, but it’s dirty.’ I say, ‘Go clean it and bring it back to me’.” He turns to Nejad. “You know who I’m talking about, don’t you?” “Oh yes.” And they share an unscholarly giggle over the specialist whose standards of cleanliness don’t cut the mustard. “The rug world really is a very small one,” says Nejad.

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