Art Underfoot

A Carefully Chosen Oriental Rug Can Give a Lifetime of Pleasure

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The Caucasus is a range of rugged mountains stretching 650 miles from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Its numerous valleys contain a variety of ethnic groups and several different nations and political entities, namely Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan, as well as such distinctive districts as Dagestan in southern Russia. Rug-producing areas include the Kuba, Dagestan, Shirvan, Karabagh and Talish.

Most Caucasian rugs, such as the Kazak, are created by cottage industries and are characterized by a wide range of vibrant, bold colors and geometric designs. Green, a difficult color to create with vegetable dyes because it is not as common as blue and red, is often found in the rugs of this region--a feature that differentiates them from most other Oriental carpets. One of the most famous Caucasian rugs is the Kazak, which sometimes has an "eagle" or "sunburst" design. Kazaks were woven in an area of Armenia to the northwest of Lake Sevan, and its rugs were produced by both Christian and Muslim groups, with strong but harmonious colors created with good-quality dyes.

Kuba, in northern Azerbaijan close to Dagestan, is another major rug-producing area. Here, blue cotton selvages are common, with high knot counts. Many of its nineteenth- and early twentieth-century rugs are in the form of runners--long and narrow.

Shirvan, on the southern side of the mountains, produces highly collectible rugs with typical Caucasian motifs such as the repeating eight-pointed star patterns. The knot counts are high, and wefts are of wool or cotton with ivory cotton selvages.

The group of central Asian states south of the Aral Sea--Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the Kara-Kalpak Republic--are home to various nomadic tribes collectively known as the Turkomen. The major tribes are the Tekke, Yomut, Ersari, Saryk, Chodor, Arabatchi and Salor. Starting in the late nineteenth century, the fierce independence of these tribes was broken by Russian, and later Soviet, imperialism; now most have settled in towns and villages. Their traditional nineteenth century weavings, created when the tribes were still nomads, are highly collectible items.

Whether old or new, most Turkomen rugs are usually very well made. They are sometimes called Bokhara rugs, after the Turkestan city that used to be an export center for these weavings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Each tribe originally had distinctive designs and weaves, but now, as most are made in cottage and urban factories for commercial sale, the traditional patterns have merged and are no longer tribe-specific.

Turkomen rugs usually have a strong, deep-red foundation upon which geometric patterning in black or indigo and white is laid. A distinctive repeat motif known as a gul, or tribal emblem, is commonly found in the field. The Yomut have a lozenge-, or diamond-shaped gul, while the Bashir incorporate many intricate geometric patterns between the lines of gul in the field.

Because of India's more comfortable climate, most Indians had little need for pile rugs, so there is no tribal rug-weaving heritage there. But when the Mughal emperors took over northern India in the sixteenth century, they introduced Persian rug weaving, and in time these fine rugs developed a distinctive Mughal style with a color palette that differed greatly from the classical Persian designs.

The seventeenth century carpet industry of Agra produced high-quality rugs with bright Indian colors that often had unusual designs; they are now much-desired collectibles. With the rise in rug weaving in the 1870s, the towns of Agra and Amritsar produced fine Persian-style rugs into this century. Today, these towns, in addition to the regions of Kashmir, the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, continue the tradition. The best of the modern Kashmiri rugs are rated as some of the top-quality rugs being produced today.

India's weaving style has always borrowed heavily from sixteenth century classical Persian designs, but the coloring--strong dark reds with light, pale contrasting patterning--usually gives it away. To our Western eyes, the designs sometimes have a William Morris look, as the legendary English designer borrowed heavily from this genre.

One of the biggest secrets in the Oriental rug world is that the origins of most old rugs are unknown. In the nineteenth century, some dealers lied about the origins of antique rugs in an effort to hide their sources from competitors. This was true of the fabulous Ardebil rug, an intricate 40-foot-by-30-foot carpet woven in the sixteenth century in Ardebil, an Iranian town that never sustained a court rug-making industry. Much, if not most, antique rug identification is (albeit educated) guesswork.

However, there are ways of discovering a rug's origins. One source is the foundation materials that make up the warp and weft, which are sets of interwoven threads that run at 90 degrees to each other upon which the pile is added. The warp and weft may be made of wool, cotton, silk or goat hair. Goat hair wefts are primarily found in tribal rugs, whereas silk is used in top-quality urban rugs. Wool was probably the most common material until the last century, when cotton became popular, for it keeps its shape well and is durable. These rugs are also distinguished by the type of weft threads used and the manner in which they are woven onto the warp.

Another important means of identifying a rug is by noting how the pile is knotted. Although the commonly used terms--Turkish knots and Persian knots--are misnomers, there is a general geographic divide that marks where these two types of knots are usually found--Turkish being symmetrical and Persian asymmetrical.

All Oriental rugs have a particular design structure within which a certain patterning vocabulary is expressed. Designs and colors also help to identify a rug's origins. First, all rugs have borders, which range from narrow to wide, depending on the tradition. Many borders consist of multiple bands in which very different, distinct patterns are woven. Some patterns are generally found only in the borders, including scrolling vines, meanders and cartouches. The inner section, or field, of the rug usually contains a set of different patterns. In urban rugs the field may consist of an intricate central medallion; in tribal and village rugs, it is often a series of repetitive motifs that bear local significance.

Volumes have been written about rug designs and motifs, but here are a few of the major patterns to look for and where they are primarily found. Curvilinear patterns, including scrolling vines and meanders, are signs of a fine-quality rug with a high knot count that was made for a wealthier, urban clientele. The finest of these rugs are created in silk, as the material allows for much smaller knots.

Boteh, called a paisley design in the West, is a pattern commonly found in urban and cottage industry rugs from Persia as well as in Persian-style rugs produced elsewhere. The origins of this distinctive motif are unknown. Herati, a repeating pattern with several floral or palmette shapes surrounding a diamond-shaped interior, is a northeastern Persian pattern often found in urban rugs as a design pattern covering the entire field of the rug. Palmettes are large floral, leaflike structures that have been likened to pineapples, pomegranates and buds, as well as the palm trees they are meant to represent. They are commonly found in urban Persian and Indian rugs. Medallions are large central ornaments generally found in urban rugs; they are related to the patterns created for the seventeenth century court rugs.

The range of tribal rugs is enormous and includes various star-shaped and sunburst-shaped patterns, medallions with hooks or animal-head details, and a wide range of improvisations that often dominate the field of the rug. Although these patterns were believed to have been tribal emblems or imbued with symbolic significance, the spiritual or political origins of these striking motifs are now lost. They are most common in Caucasian weavings and some Turkish village rugs. Here, too, gul is the name given to the repeating octagonal motif that adorns many tribal rugs, especially Turkomen weavings. They were thought to have originally been tribal emblems or markers, but with the destruction of Turkomen tribal life at the end of the nineteenth century, the meanings of many of the guls have been lost. Angular designs are associated with lower knot counts and rugs made in villages and by tribes. Geometric designs are commonly found in tribal and village weavings, and are part of the tribal/local design heritage.

An Oriental rug is a substantial investment. Even the cheapest designs run to hundreds of dollars, and a good-quality carpet for the living-room floor often costs more than a new car. "A room-sized nineteenth century carpet in good condition can cost between $10,000 and $15,000, while a similar twentieth century rug might go for a little less," says James Ffrench, vice president and director of Christie's carpet department in New York City. Rugs like these maintain their resale value, in the manner of vintage cars. "If you want a resellable rug, you have to be prepared to invest this kind of money," Ffrench continues. "Anything from a department store tends to be modern, so there'll be no resale value there."

Ffrench believes that even first-time buyers should look at old rugs first because of the resale possibilities. Admittedly, it's not something most of us think of when we begin shopping for a rug for the living-room floor. But if the buyer decides to radically change the decor, the carpet would essentially pay for itself.

There is certainly little fear that an older carpet will wear out in a few years. "A 120-year-old Bidjar is so well made and heavy that it will last for another 120 years," says Jo Kris, director of the Oriental rug department at Skinners, a Boston-based auction house. But if the thought of the kids and pets cavorting on a $15,000 carpet sounds too risky, auction house experts say that good-quality old rugs with some damage or repair work can, with luck, be found for as little as $1,500. Be aware, though, that damage, even if it has been repaired, can precipitously decrease an old decorative rug's market price, even though its history and origins may be of value to the owner.

Which brings us to collectible rugs. For the incipient rug collector, small tribal rugs, such as bag faces--which are rugs made into bags--can still be found at auction for as little as $300 to $600 and make an excellent launching point into the world of rug collecting. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar advises: "Start small, especially with the older pieces. Buy a little rug with a verifiable pedigree. Live with it for a while, get to see a lot of rugs. A visit to the [New York] Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, is advised. Then expand."

Abdul-Jabbar speaks from experience. When he began collecting, he was making millions, and therefore had a large budget. "It was dangerous," he recalls, admitting that he made the mistake many beginning collectors make--buying everything in sight and then, when one knows more, understanding that one could have done better.

In addition to the fine art museums, The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., specializes in rugs and is based on the turn-of-the-century collection of rug aficionado George Hewitt Myers. It also has regional chapters of members, most of whom are rug collectors. (Contact: The Textile Museum, 2320 S Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20008.)

Whatever price range you pick, choosing an Oriental rug or carpet is still a daunting task. "As with a car, you should do your homework," advises Ffrench. "Visit auctions, dealers, educate your eye so you get to understand what you like." Moreover, notes Portland, Oregon-based Oriental rug dealer James Opie, "you should shop for a [rug] dealer as assiduously as for the rug itself." Dealers who are communicative, willing to answer questions and are not on the "hard sell" are best, says Opie, who is the author of Tribal Rugs. Christie's Ffrench adds, "A well-established dealer who has been in business for years has a reputation to maintain, so he or she may be the best source for a first-time buyer." But there is no substitute for looking at, touching and ultimately owning one's own Oriental rug. As Opie observes, "You learn more from one rug that you own than from 25 you might read about."

A range of elements, from aesthetic to technical, determines the ultimate value of a rug. The quality of the weaving, the materials it is made of, the dyes--whether natural or synthetic--and, ultimately, the design and its execution are all important, as is a rug's physical condition. A high knot count is not necessarily a sign of good quality. The knot count in a poor-quality Tabriz, for example, would probably be considerably higher than that of a Heriz. "A rug has to be judged against its own type," notes Ffrench. "The grade of wool, for instance, in a Turkoman cannot be judged against that of a Tabriz."

Judging a rug's color partly reflects personal taste, as the colors that, say, Turkish villagers prefer would probably not appeal to many Westerners. In Turkey, a good, old rug with vegetable dyes that have developed a harmonious patina over time (through physical use and by oxidation from the air) is preferable. This is why the modern vegetable-dyed antique reproductions seem so garish compared with their older counterparts.

It is well known that the world of the designer is fashion-oriented, but so is the collector's world. So from a rug buyer's point of view, any type of Oriental rug that is out of fashion will be less expensive--even underpriced--compared with what's hot. On the following page is a list of what auction house specialists, dealers and collectors recommend.

KURDISH TRIBAL RUGS Despite the fact that the perennial urban rugs of Bidjar are Kurdish, these tribal rugs have been out of fashion for years. For some reason, dealers don't like them, which means you may be able to find a bargain.

BELOUCHI RUGS Although nineteenth century Belouchi rugs are now a popular collector's item, the cost of good early-twentieth century pieces have not reached dizzying heights. Their dark color schemes gives them a specialized appeal. Many of the tribes of this region still observe their traditional nomadic lifestyles today, and go so far as to record contemporary events--such as the Afghan war--in their modern weavings. For the ethnographically inclined, these rugs are a gold mine. A three-by-six-foot Baluchi rug from the 1920s can still be bought for between $800 and $2,000, notes author Joyce Ware.

HERIZ CARPETS The distinctive carpets of Heriz have been losing favor among designers in the past few years, so "they are not doing so well at auction," says Skinner's Kris. An 8-by-11-foot Heriz can now be picked up for between $2,000 and $4,000, she adds.

MODERN REPRODUCTIONS The experts are divided about modern reproductions. Some feel that as an investment, such rugs cannot be trusted because they haven't yet been tested by time. (Will they wear well and will the colors be good in 50 years?) Others are enthusiastic, saying they give the regular carpet buyer access to a rug that, if it were old, would be well out of their financial range. Top-quality handmade reproduction rugs using vegetable dyes are being produced by such firms as Woven Legends of Philadelphia and Black Mountain Looms, which distribute Turkish carpets; and Samad Brothers of Secaucus, New Jersey, and Robinsons of Atlanta, which wholesale Indian carpets; and Magerian Brothers of New York City, which produces Egyptian rugs. Because of the embargo against Iranian goods that the United States imposed following the hostage crisis in the early 1980s, the Iranian equivalents are not sold in the United States. These rugs are sold through dealers.

MIDDLE-LEVEL OLD RUGS The rise of the new repro-ductions has depressed the middle-level antique rug market. Nineteenth century rugs often can't compete with the high-quality new reproductions; consequently, some good-quality older rugs are now selling for inexpensive prices. A "good" Turkoman--the step down from the "best"--could be included in this bracket, says Christie's Ffrench.

Nineteenth century Turkish rugs are also seen as good buys by some experts because of the strong popularity of the neighboring Caucasian rugs. Turkish village rugs are similar in type, though the coloring and patterning are not quite so bold and bright. Early twentieth century Caucasian rugs are suffering a similar fate. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the rug market has been flooded with several types of Caucasian rugs of "dubious origins," says Ware. But, she continues, "you can do very very well" at an auction by purchasing a "good-looking" older rug that collectors would not touch because, say, it has some synthetic dyes in its mix.

It may seem extraordinary that we can owe so much to the nomads, and their ancestors, roaming the mountains and plains of Central Asia. Without them and their incredible invention--the pile rug--carpets as we know them today might never have existed. The Oriental rugs that we see today are the direct descendants of the first rugs ever made, and they connect us to a past we can only imagine. They show us that we live in a much smaller world than most of us have ever understood. *

Linda Lynton is editor in chief of International Business magazine and the author of The Sari, a book about traditional handwoven south Asian textiles. (Harry N. Abrams, 1995).

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