Last week, we announced that we have formed new partnerships with two online decor sales giants, First Dibs and One Kings Lane, to provide access to select items from our inventory of antique oriental rugs and antique European tapestries to our clients who want to shop online, and can’t necessarily make the trek out to our mid-Manhattan showroom. Both sites are active, with many lovely vintage pillows currently posted on One Kings Lane, and much more on the way, and many fine old Persian carpets and period European tapestries posted on 1st Dibs.
This announcement was met with enthusiasm by many of our clients and colleagues, who had an especially tough time coming into NYC to visit us during the endless snow storms of this past winter season. We have had a particularly strong response to our offerings of period and antique European tapestries, of which we have perhaps the biggest and best collection anywhere in the world.
One of our tapestries that has received a significant amount of attention is the palatial Death of Achilles tapestry, woven by Jan Raes, after cartoons by Peter Paul Rubens. Wait a minute, did I just say a tapestry was made by Rubens? Wasn’t Rubens an Artist, with a capital A, as in he made important, famous, paintings? Why would a famous, important European painter be wasting his time making tapestries? Who cares about tapestries?!?
To put it simply, a lot of people care about tapestries, and especially in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance in Europe, a lot of wealthy, important people cared about tapestries. Tapestries were actually one of the main signifiers of wealth and power back in those days, much as luxury cars, yachts, and yes, paintings by Renaissance European masters are status symbols today. Tapestries served multiple purposes, in that they were wall coverings for castles, keeping out drafty cold air and insulating the heat in the room; they were decorative art with historical, religious, mythological, or verdant themes, and they often contained symbols of the coat of arms of whichever king, duke, count, or other royalty possessed them. They were woven of fine wool and silk, and often had silver, gold, and other metallic threads woven into them, as well, reflecting glints of light to help amplify the illumination in the room.
And because of their expensive, labor-intensive production, only the rich and powerful could afford them. If you think about it, any large tapestry that would be commissioned would cost tons of money, as you needed to hire not any random weaver, but a famous master weaver to make it (hey, the rich and powerful wanted name brands just as much then as they do now), would have to pay for all the materials he would need (fine wool, silk, and silver and gold threads ain’t cheap), and have them embark on a weaving project that could last several years, depending on the size of the tapestry. Not days, not weeks, not months, YEARS. Imagine hiring your favorite fashion designer and asking him to sit in a room and weave something only for you, the way you specifically want it, for multiple years. Not cheap! Very expensive!!! So only the rich and powerful could afford to have them. Of course, like any highly valuable form of art, knockoffs and cheaper versions came into play in later centuries, but they could never touch the grandeur, the majesty, the complexity, and the beauty of the originals.
So getting back to our friend, Peter Paul Rubens, we ask, what was this famous Artist with a capital A doing making cartoons for a tapestry? Making money, to be quite frank. These tapestries were produced by commission, and paid for by wealthy patrons and/or royalty, as detailed above. And to hire not only a master weaver like Jan Raes, but to have him work off of cartoons (a smaller drawing or “blueprint” which the weaver would work off of in making his tapestry) by a big name like Peter Paul Rubens, already deep into his career and his fame in early 17th century Brussels? And to have him design not just one piece, but a series of pieces, all to be woven in enormous, palatial sizes with the finest of materials? We’re talking some BIG BUCKS for good old Mr. Rubens and Mr. Raes. Rubens drew the cartoon for this piece as part of his series on the Life and Death of Achilles, with our tapestry being the culmination of the series, and perhaps its most important work.
This all begs the question, if Peter Paul Rubens and other famous European Artists with a capital A worked not only on the paintings for which we now know them, but also on tapestries and other popular art forms of their era, why is it that tapestries, which were way more labor-intensive and costly to produce than paintings, are currently valued at so much less than paintings from that era? If you look at Peter Paul Rubens’ Wikipedia profile, at the very end, it indicates that one of his paintings, the Massacre of the Innocents, sold at auction in 2002 for an astonishing $76.2 million. Now that’s an Artist with a capital A! Our masterful Death of Achilles tapestry is currently available for sale online, but at a teeny tiny fraction of that price.
If so much time and costly material went into the making of these fantastic antique tapestries, why don’t they currently enjoy the same cultural cache they once did, and why are they priced infinitessimally low compared to paintings by the same artists of the same era?
I would suggest that’s it’s a combination of factors. Period tapestries still have more cache in Europe than they do in the U.S., as people there have grown up with them, have seen them in their original historical settings, and generally are more familiar with tapestries than we are here in the States. Next, the more important tapestries from that era that are still extant (most were destroyed by water or fire) are mostly palatial in size, as they were literally used in palaces and castles. Most people here either don’t have wall space large enough for these tapestries, and don’t necessarily have knowledge or interest in their weavers or their subjects. For instance, we all know the name Peter Paul Rubens, mostly because of his paintings, but how many of us know Jan Raes, who actually wove the tapestry? Paintings tend to be sized in a way that is easier to handle, and throughout the centuries, they have become arguably the most prestigious form of art, eclipsing other traditional forms like sculpture and tapestry, and exploding in value to the point where the most valuable paintings can be sold for upwards of $140 million! Neither antique tapestries nor antique carpets can say the same, and while exceptional carpets and tapestries may fetch several million on a very good day, there’s still no comparison with what the top paintings will go for.
Proliferation, copies, and knock-offs have also been a help and hindrance, in that copies of paintings have become so ubiquitous that almost everybody can name at least a dozen of the most famous paintings, and probably has a copy or two in their homes. Tapestries? Not so much. There are many reproduction tapestries out there today, and there have been for the last couple of centuries, but they never gained the foothold in the common household that paintings have.
This is what makes it such a great time to buy an antique tapestry, as they are relatively undervalued and underappreciated, and are an interactive, tactile art that you can touch and feel, unlike paintings. Available for a fraction of the price of similar vintage paintings, antique tapestries can transport you to a world of many centuries ago, when they were woven for the elite, and when they lent a home warmth, beauty, and prestige. Contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org or shop at our website or our store at First Dibs, to find the perfect antique tapestry to bring warmth, beauty, history, and much more to your home!