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Home | Articles | Oriental Rug Collecting Today: What to Look For; What to

oday’s budding oriental rug collector has a difficult task. Faced with a dwindling supply of top examples and rising prices, the new collector’s need for good education and guidance is greater than ever. Luckily, with the many scholarly books written in the last thirty years, an excellent bi-monthly publication from London (Hali magazine, which contains top-notch articles and illustrations pertaining to the scholarship of rugs and textiles, as well as good reporting on current events in the rug world), and a group of well-educated dealers and established collectors who are more than willing to share their knowledge, there is hope for the new buyer. What once had been a field cloaked in mystery and intentional withholding of knowledge by some, is now much less intimidating.

Shahsevan runner, mid 19th century. 4' x 11'4", Persia

In addition to the robust collectors’ market that exists internationally, there is a very strong demand for beautiful rugs that is coming from a category of consumer that buys rugs “decoratively” meaning, they purchase rugs not so much to collect them as a collector of a specific type of rug might, but simply to decorate their homes with the finest of what is available in many categories of objects. These decorative buyers are taking advantage of today’s standards of scholarship and connoirseurship, and are often purchasing rugs that were traditionally bought only by collectors. These are the buyers that are responsible for pushing the market to the new level it now enjoys. As a reader of this publication, you may fall into this category; you might collect furniture or paintings or silver or folk art, and as aesthetics are important to you, rugs may be intriguing as decorative objects and you’d like to have them in your home. However, you’d like to start collecting rugs with some assurance that you have purchased them with the same criteria you apply to your established field of collecting.

As in any field, you should keep in mind three main points when looking at a rug. First, is it beautiful? While you may be unsure of your knowledge of rugs, most likely you have trained your eye in another area of interest. Whether you are more comfortable recognizing the particular grace of a cabriole leg or the importance of the saturation of color in an early piece of needlework, you’ll find these same measures to be applicable to rugs. Aesthetically, is the rug pleasing? Secondly, how old is the rug? Was this rug pattern copied over and over again, or is this a unique design, executed in a manner that speaks of the talent of its individual weaver? Finally, what condition is the rug in? Does its age make its level of wear acceptable, or is this a rug that was abused and is tattered because of a hard life? Does it have restoration, and to what degree? These are questions to consider when making any rug purchase, and when you are comfortable with the answers to these questions, you will be acquiring rugs that will give you many years of use and enjoyment.

Heriz, circa 1920. 8’ x 11’ 10”, Persia
The most beautiful rugs have beautiful color; color is critical. Rugs that were woven before 1880, whether they be village, urban workshop, or nomadic rugs would have been dyed with colors derived mostly from indigenous plants and insects (with the exception of indigo, which was imported). From these natural dyes come the most extraordinary shades of blue, green, yellow, red, orange, coral, and aubergine; in some rugs you can find three to four shades of the same color, resulting in a rug with sixteen or more colors in total! Antique rugs also have beautiful shading within a particular color; this variation is called “abrash” and is not seen as a defect, but rather as an idiosyncrasy of the natural dying process which lends beauty and character to the rug.

In the late nineteenth century, synthetic aniline dyes were introduced to traditional weaving areas by European manufacturers, and these dyes produced very harsh colors, most notably an electric orange and red, as well as a purple dye, introduced around 1860, called fuchsine that faded to beige. These bright colors did not mellow over time and sometimes were not as colorfast as the natural dyes were, which resulted in color bleeding; when the rug was washed, the vibrant synthetic red would seep into the ivory next to it and the result would be a splotchy pink. At a certain point, after seeing many rugs firsthand, you will develop an immediate reaction to color and will be able to quickly identify synthetic dyes.

After you’ve decided whether the colors of the rug you are looking at are beautiful, you should consider the rug’s age and rarity. Again, as in other fields, the age and scarcity of a rug will be a factor in its importance and price, and there are some clues to help you determine when the rug was made. Most of the antique rugs being offered in today’s market were woven in the nineteenth century. Rugs made during the eighteenth century and earlier are quite rare and are hotly pursued by collectors and institutions. The task of dating rugs involves a study of structure and design as well as an evaluation of the rug’s color. The study of specific designs and types of weave can be a bit complicated at first, but will become easier as you see and compare rug examples that you may find in a dealer’s gallery or those you see illustrated in a good rug reference book. Dating a rug based on its color palette is a bit simpler; if you can recognize a synthetic orange, you’ll know the rug was made in the late nineteenth century or later; if the seller is touting the rug as a two hundred year old example, the deal might be a bit less enticing.

Generally, the most beautiful rugs will have a certain generosity of spacing in the design, whereas in later examples, the drawing of the rug may be crowded and the motifs may become more and more derivative. As an example, a very popular type of rug today is the Serapi, woven in the Heriz district of Northwest Persia. The production of these rugs started in the mid-nineteenth century, and these early rugs were woven with wide borders and large-scale stylized floral and geometric motifs throughout the rug. As these rugs gained in popularity toward the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, production increased, which led to the need for shortcuts in their making. You might not think that packing more design into a rug and reducing the scale of the design would represent a shortcut, but it takes much more talent to execute a simple design with beautiful restrained balance and color sense than it does to fill the field and make the motifs smaller and tighter. Later weavers were also often tempted to use synthetic colors, as these dyes saved hours of processing roots and plants and preparing vats of natural dye.

This same example of the evolution of the classic Serapi design can also be applied to Caucasian, Turkish, and Indian rugs, as well as other rugs produced in Persia, be they rugs produced as cottage industry in small villages where the weavers were designing the rugs freehand as they wove them, or the more formal and elaborate city production rugs, which were executed by following set patterns established as cartoons for the weavers to follow.

So now that you’ve determined that a rug’s color and drawing are beautiful and point toward a good nineteenth century rug woven with integrity, what about its condition? Unlike antique American furniture, where even the smallest repair to a piece can affect the object’s value significantly, there is an acceptable level of sensitive restoration of rugs that, when executed properly, is not alone a deterrent to its value. For example, a collector knows that to produce the color brown, iron filings were often added to the dye to deepen the color; over time, the iron would slowly corrode the wool, and consequently the brown area of a rug may be less plush than the wool in the colors that surround it. If the brown areas have corroded so far that the warp and weft threads are exposed, it would be in the best interest of the rug to carefully re-knot those areas so that the rug will not further deteriorate.

Because rugs have generally always been used on the floor (rugs were used on tables in earlier centuries, but more so in Europe than America), wear and tear is a natural occurrence. (Antique rugs often received heavy wear in this century because before about 1970, rugs were relatively inexpensive and many people didn’t think twice about putting them in very high traffic areas, and they often neglected to clean their rugs or occasionally mend them to insure their upkeep.) However, there is a level of restoration that is not acceptable and is comparable to an overly restored painting; would you buy a painting that had sixty percent in-painting? At that point, you would be buying the restorer’s creation, not the original artist’s. Unfortunately, in a strong market there occurs an influx of improperly or overly-restored rugs, and a reputable dealer should point out to you a rug’s restoration, if any, and discuss with you how it might affect the value of the piece. The earlier a rug is, the more possibility that it may have wear; today, many collectors prefer early rugs in less pristine condition as they appreciate the design elements of a late eighteenth century or early nineteenth century rug, and are willing to sacrifice, to a degree, the condition of the rug. In that case, the collector might prefer a rug found in its original condition with as little repair as possible.

Serapi, circa 1880. 9’ x 12’, Persia.

A practice which has unfortunately tempted many rug dealers today, particularly those who deal in large decorative carpets that need to be harmonious with the soft and neutral-colored fabrics that are popular for some of today’s interior decoration, is the practice of chemically stripping rugs to make their colors appear quieter and more neutral. Because pale rugs are bringing very strong prices and have been in much demand, some dealers have chosen to bleach strong colored rugs to make them lighater, and in this stripping process, the wool has been compromised and will never regain its natural luster and resilience. Chemically stripped rugs often have a shiny appearance, with an overall gold or pale brown tone, and the rug feels as if it has been treated with fabric softener. Buyers should be aware that not only the life but also the value of these rugs has beengreatly compromised by the chemical treatment.

Another questionable practice which has become prevalent in the rug market is the habit of some dealers of coloring in worn areas of rugs. If a rug has suffered enough wear to expose traces of the warp and weft threads of the rug, some dealers will color the areas with ink, rather than carefully re-knotting those areas or simply leaving them alone. The bare spots, then, will not be visible at first glance. In an attempt to make this practice more palatable, it is now referred to as “tinting” in auction catalogues and dealers’ condition reports. The risk with tinted pieces is that when the rug is eventually washed, those colors may run and bleed and ruin the rug. To test an area that you suspect may be tinted, simply rub a damp handkerchief over the area, and if your handkerchief picks up the dye, avoid purchasing the rug.

Antique rugs are a wonderful addition to any home, and they provide a rich history of culture, design, and artistry to discover for any collector. As with any field, a new buyer of rugs should educate his or her eye by seeing examples of rugs from many weaving areas by going to museums, visiting reputable dealers, and reading and studying examples in good reference books and periodicals. This is an enjoyable process for many collectors from other fields, and a person can gain quite a bit of knowledge about rugs in a fairly short time. Remember, the most important question you should ask yourself when you are considering a rug is: is it beautiful? Rugs elicit a deeply personal response, and the best rugs are the ones that make your heart skip a beat; after considering its aesthetics, age, rarity, and condition, if you see a rug you love, chances are that you will love it for years to come.

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