The anniversary of the naming of the capital*, and a public holiday. The typical resident response of this city of public servants is to hightail it out of town up the Hume Freeway for a long weekend in Sydney or down to the coastal resorts on the South Coast: Batemans Bay, Jervis Bay, Merimbula, where beachfront shacks get their second last stay of the season before Easter.
But a handful remained in town to attend the Persian Rug auction conducted by Granger Auctions.
My wife and I have a solid history of buying carpets from these folk. It began when we moved into our cute 1927 Federal Capital Authority cottage – one of the first houses in Canberra, though this fails to impress friends from (say) London, where they go back a little further – and found that the beige 1970s carpets weren’t quite what we wanted, for one reason or another.
In the old days here, it would have been bare boards and Persian rugs. Once we sanded back the decades of varnish and wear – some of the old boards had actually been japanned – the original ash floorboards came up nicely. We just needed some coverings.
As it happened, there was a sale of rugs at the hired ballroom of the nearby hotel, and we went along to see what was on offer. Quite a lot, and we bought a few Persian carpets to give our house an appropriate period decor.
A passionate man
The auctioneer, Bruce Granger, didn’t seem to be too keen on selling his rugs. He wanted to talk about them. Their design, the wool or silk used, the peculiarities of weaving, the vegetable dies, the cultural history of the villages where they had been woven…
You know how with every person, there’s a passion? Just find the right button to push, and you can’t shut them up. With Bruce, it’s Persia and Persian carpets. We listened, delighted to hear tales of a faraway land, pretty much a forbidden kingdom since the revolution in 1979.
When we paid for our purchases, his assistant mentioned that he led tours to Iran – the modern name for Persia – and we were hooked. The prospect of being in the company of a man who knew his subject and had decades of experience was too good to pass up.
We travelled with him and a dozen others in 2016, spending a week in Northwestern Iran. Tehran, Tabriz, Zanjan, all cities on the Old Silk Road. A beautiful land, full of friendly people, opening up to tour groups. We loved it. Bruce told his tales of the land and people, led us through the Carpet Museum in Tehran, and set us loose in palaces and temples as old as time.
We’re going back again in a few weeks to see more: Shiraz, Persepolis, Isfahan and a dozen other ancient cities.
Can we squeeze in one more?
We spent our Canberra Day afternoon looking at rugs in Bruce’s latest auction. We’ve pretty well covered every available floor surface in our small house, but there are a few areas left. Besides, there’s always the prospect of hearing a new auctioneer’s joke.
We chatted with Bruce and his assistant Vicki, who will also be on our tour, picking up a few last-minute tips, reminiscing about the previous one. There was a generous display of carpets spread around the hall, and we looked at them wistfully. Any more and we’d be stacking them two or three deep. But, like strolling through a gallery, we looked and admired.
The auction began and with it, we were given the potted histories of each rug. There was one there from the 19th century, another from Samarkand, an elegant one in a chequerboard pattern; each square made from the natural colours of the wool and mohair of the Iranian herds. I cannot say that bidding was furious and I could feel the disappointment as a grand and glorious silk rug, easily worth as much as a family car, could find no bidders at a giveaway price. These are handmade works of art, some of them representing years of work by a handful of village women, chatting and working together in the afternoons.
We bought one small rug, a stylised “Tree of Life” design in maroon wool, paid for it along with the other lucky buyers, and nodded goodbye to Vicki.
“See you in Tehran!” I said to Bruce, who was chatting with a customer. Our trip is next month, and I’m counting the days.
The customer looked up, “See you in Tehran?” she exclaimed, injecting surprise and wonder into her voice.
And making my day.
* An Aboriginal word meaning “cleavage”, apparently referring to the two rounded mounds of Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie on either side of the central area. Often polited up as “meeting place”.