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Art Underfoot

A Carefully Chosen Oriental Rug Can Give a Lifetime of Pleasure
Linda Lynton
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

When former pro basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar converted to Islam, he became interested in Islamic culture and art. Such was the visual strength--the color and design--of Islamic art that "the pictures stuck," he says. Then, one day in Milwaukee, he passed a Persian rug store downtown "that had some good rugs in the window. I went in. Looked around." It was downhill from there. From that moment on, Abdul-Jabbar became an avid rug collector.

Collectors of Oriental rugs often cite a single incident as having jump-started their collecting habit. In the late 1970s, author Joyce Ware bought an Oriental rug for her bedroom. It turned out to be a "good" Turkoman rug, and from that small beginning she went on to write what is considered one of the best introductory books about rugs on the market, The Official Price Guide to Oriental Rugs.

We could certainly use a few guidelines when it comes to Oriental rugs, whether the object is to buy something to match the living-room furniture, to acquire an ethnographic work of art for the study wall or just to get acquainted with the field. Oriental rugs, in all of their glorious, colorful proliferation, are confusing in the sheer volume of their variety.

We know surprisingly little about the origins of these rugs. They are certainly indigenous to central Asia, but no one knows exactly where or when they first developed, because so few rugs have survived from even 500 years ago. The only truly ancient rug in existence, a six-foot-square, nearly-2,350-year-old finely woven pile carpet from a frozen Siberian tomb at Pazyryk, near Mongolia, has designs that are typical of ancient Persia and Nineveh, bearing little resemblance to the patterns we see on Oriental rugs today, except for the use of multiple borders and a repeating field pattern. The rug is a real bone of contention among scholars.

Nevertheless, we do know that rugs evolved among nomadic tribal peoples who roamed the central Asian steppes and, over the millennia, spread from central Asia to settle in Persia (as rug collectors still call what is now Iran), Turkey, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the numerous small nations in the Caucasus Mountains. These horse- and camel-packing nomads carried their tents, belongings, families and animals from one pasture to another in search of food, water and an amenable climate. Heavy-duty textiles--pile rugs--were the best and most efficient way to store and carry their possessions, and to protect and decorate their tents and yurts against the region's viciously cold winters.

The rug became one of the nomads' major artistic as well as functional objects. So when some of these peoples became empire builders, they took an appreciation of the rug with them. Some of the great Middle Eastern imperial dynasties of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries--the Ottomans of Turkey, the Safavids of Persia, the Mughals of India and the Mamelukes of Egypt--were all descendants of Chenghiz Khan and other nomads. Their royal patronage elevated the rug from the purely functional tribal tents made by the women of the family to the technically dizzying heights of the court rugs produced by the empires' top designers; these rugs were woven by teams of the best weavers, using the best products that money could buy.

Today, some 300 years later, the Oriental rugs that we see in stores, dealerships and bazaars are the descendants of a tradition that spans thousands of miles, thousands of years and all levels of society. Every handwoven Oriental rug, regardless of how crude or mass-produced it may seem, has a history. Unraveling that history is part of the pleasure of discovering Oriental rugs and carpets.

Oriental rugs can be divided into four main types: those that were woven by nomadic tribes for personal use, called tribal rugs; village rugs that were created in cottage industries; urban rugs--we should say carpets, as they are large--created in factories; and the antique carpets woven in the court ateliers.

Tribal rugs were--and still are--woven by the women of nomadic tribes for personal family use. The weaving was done on small portable looms, which resulted in small and often narrow textiles. The women rarely made large carpets. The rugs were woven for specific uses, such as covering the tent, doorways or floors; as saddle rugs; or as various types of storage bags. A woman's weaving virtuosity often influenced her status in marriage, and the quality of many of these rugs was extremely high. Invariably, specific tribal motifs and symbols were woven into the rug, and the weaving reflected the artistic ability of its creator. However, since many nomadic tribes have been forcibly resettled over the past century, the symbolism and many of the traditional motifs have been lost. This is why nineteenth century tribal rugs are valued collector's items--they are often the last to have been woven purely for personal use within the tribe, although some tribes continued to make weavings for weddings and home use well into the twentieth century.

Tribal rugs usually have fewer knots to the inch and are characterized by bold geometric designs, bright colors and the primal, often naive, aesthetic often seen in primitive and folk art. Birds, animals and even people may be depicted, along with abstracted animal forms such as rams' horns and birds' heads. Like most generalizations, however, there are some riveting exceptions to this rule, especially in terms of the fineness and technical virtuosity of the weave, as well as the complexity and detail of the design.

The largest and most prolific segment of the rug-weaving world is the cottage industry, found in thousands of villages throughout the Oriental rug-weaving region, where local women make rugs for sale. Although each region, and sometimes each village, has its own traditional styles and motifs, the designs the women often weave are dictated not by their own or their families' desires but by the impersonal demands of the market. As a result, the ethnographic purity of the tribal rug has become blurred and, in some cases, lost. In spite of this, the aesthetic quality and the historical interest of many village rugs can be superb.

Like the tribal variety, village rugs are usually no more than eight feet wide. Geometric designs in bright colors are customary, and the best ones have the liveliness that is found in all folk art and each is generally thought to be the expression of a single illiterate but highly skilled artist. Most rugs tend to be in smaller formats, with four feet by seven feet a common size. Runners of various lengths are also made in villages, as are a few prayer rugs and assorted flat-woven pieces of varying sizes. Village-based cottage industries have probably existed since people began living settled lives. The Turkish rugs that regularly appear in European Renaissance paintings were probably woven by women from such villages.

Urban rugs, which are created in large-scale production facilities, are typically large carpets or very fine wool and silk rugs. They look to the old court rugs for aesthetic inspiration. These rugs are designed by professionals, woven by teams of weavers who follow written or verbal instructions and create intricate, curvilinear patterns that are impossible to reproduce on simple village looms. At their best, these factories produce technically superb, tightlyknotted rugs with sophisticated color palettes.

The fine antique rugs of the court ateliers were made only during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for when the Middle Eastern empires declined, so did demand for these luxury goods. It was not until the emergence of Western demand in the late nineteenth century that the urban--and cottage--rug industry resurrected itself. The urban rug industry boomed from about 1875 until 1917, supplying a strong Western demand, and today the industry continues to thrive, though at a more sedate pace. Most of the fine antique carpets and rugs on the market today date from this period.

A new wave of high-quality rug making again is altering the face of the Oriental rug world. Starting with the DOBAG project in Turkey in 1981 (the name is an acronym for a government-sponsored project called Dogal Boya Arastirma ve Gelistirme Projesi), various entrepreneurs have begun creating replicas of traditional rugs using natural vegetable dyes (a material that decreased in use in the late nineteenth century). They incorporate antique and "authentic" patterns using top-quality materials and weaving skills. These rugs, inspired by original tribal, cottage or urban rugs, are now being produced by urban and village workshops in Turkey, Iran and India.

Another way of classifying Oriental rugs is to divide them aesthetically into collectible and decorative items. A decorative rug is one that we're more likely to walk or sit on and which will fit with the decor. It is generally large (room size) and was probably made within the past 100 years or so. This type of rug often has a subdued--some would argue bland--color scheme to ensure that it doesn't clash with the furniture. It is also more likely to be an urban carpet made for the Western market, which prefers square carpets to the thin rectangles favored in Persia. Modern tribal and village rugs are considered to be decorative because they have not yet withstood the test of time. Like automobiles, rugs become valuable once they've reached a certain age, but the resale price of a modern rug, regardless of its quality, devalues as quickly as that of a secondhand car.

Collectible rugs can be virtually any type of rug one chooses to collect, but most rug aficionados agree that they are invariably old, as they are either medieval fragments or court or tribal rugs. These specimens are rarely found on the floor and more likely to be displayed or stored in specially made containers.

What follows is an overview of each region's rug-making styles.

Just about every community in Turkey has a carpet-weaving tradition. Many of Turkey's people are descended from eleventh century nomadic central Asian tribes, but there are many other minority ethnic groups, such as the Kurds in the east, the Georgians near the Black Sea and the few remaining nomadic (Yuruk) groups, that have now largely settled in villages.

Turkish rugs are woven by village women who are affiliated with cottage industries. They usually have detailed geometric designs that are often typical of the women's village or region. Most of these rugs--with the exception of the Persian-style products of Hereke and a few other towns--are tied with the symmetrical, or "Turkish," knot. Colors are bright, with red predominating, and black, blue, yellow and white used for highlights.

Although fine Persian-style carpets were made for the Ottoman court, most of the Persian-style weaving produced today was introduced into Turkish towns during the revival that took place in the nineteenth century. At that time, Turkish prayer rugs were the thing to possess, and it is only in the past 50 years that collectors have begun to appreciate the other types of rugs that are made in this country.

Among the major rug and carpet weaving areas, the west Turkey town of Ushak is one of the most famous. Its sixteenth- and seventeenth-century "star medallion" carpets are highly coveted by collectors. Since the late nineteenth century, Ushak's urban workshops have produced large numbers of decorative, often pale, Persian- and Turkish-style rugs for European and American markets.

Extremely fine Persian-style rugs are made--usually in silk rather than wool--in Hereke. These rugs, often made to order, are small, finely detailed and generally have pale colors. Village rugs, with their typically highly detailed geometric designs, are produced in the Bergama area and in such surrounding towns as Melas, Kula and Megri. Central Turkey contains the district of Ladik, where many of the prayer rugs for which this country is famous originated.

Turkey's tribal rugs are found in eastern Anatolia. The remote villages and tribal communities of the region are culturally conservative, and their weavers are more likely to stick with traditional designs and colors. The rugs produced here often share the characteristics of those found in the Caucasus, with bright or earthy colors, bold geometric patterns and often a design that has a naive quality.

Some types of Kurdish rugs are known as Yuruk. Most Yuruk rugs are woven with medium fineness and a symmetrical knot and the pile is usually left long and shaggy, which provides extra protection from the region's bitterly cold winters. Other Kurdish rugs are similar, but the colors are often less vibrant and the patterns are more irregular. Many of the rugs traditionally have goat hair, which lacks the stability of wool and results in an irregular shape after use.

In the time of Persia's Safavid emperors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Persian towns developed the fine court rugs that are distinguished by their intricate curvilinear designs. But this large country is also home to many nomadic tribes with different histories. There are the northwestern tribes in the region adjoining Azerbaijan, the Kurdish communities spread over a wide area, and the Lurs and Bakhtiyaris to the south. Further to the south, near Shiraz, are the Qashqa'i tribes, Asshars, and the remains of the Khamseh Confederacy. In the east, the Belouchis border Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the Turkmen tribes inhabit the northeast.

Although the design and technical heritage of Iran's urban manufacturers are the fine court rugs of Safavid days, many local tribal and village designs have been incorporated into their creations. Rugs from Tabriz, Kãshãn, Bidjãr and Kermãn--to name a few of the major rug-weaving centers--have recognizable differences, but since most manufacturers also make rugs to order, and are adept at copying other styles, so the local aesthetic "rules" are often broken.

One of the most famous rug-weaving towns is Tabriz in the northwest, near Azerbaijan. Most older Tabriz carpets are recognized by their symmetrical knots and a color palette that consists of soft rust red, cream and indigo. Wide, meander borders are typical and the pile is usually cut low. Tabriz produced large room-sized carpets, as well as prayer rugs with monochrome fields and images of the kind of central hanging lamps that hung in mosque entryways. Today, its weavers produce a wide variety of carpets in virtually every major style.

North of Tabriz, the town of Heriz makes some of Persia's most easily recognized carpets. Because the knot count of these carpets is relatively low, the designs are characteristically angular versions of curvilinear patterns, with cruciform medallions and long, stick-like vines. Their characteristic color scheme includes clear orange-reds, ice blue, black and ivory. Similar to Serapi carpets, which are of a higher grade, Heriz rugs have been a perennial favorite among Western rug buyers for well over a century.

Farther south is the Kurdish town of Bidjãr, which produced quantities of large, sturdy Persian carpets for the nineteenth century European (especially British) and American markets. These heavy carpets are so densely woven and have such a high thread count that they are the most durable carpets ever made. Popular colors include strong madder red, deep indigo and bottle green set against brighter highlights.

Kãshãn, the Safavid center for silk rugs and carpets in central Persia, revitalized its industry in the nineteenth century to produce fine wool rugs with cotton foundations and asymmetrical knots, as well as fine silk prayer rugs. Famous for its high-quality, intricately detailed curvilinear patterns and classical Persian carpets, this town also produced rugs featuring the tree of life and gardens with cavorting birds and animals. Even today, its rugs are among the finest that are produced.

The eastern province of Kermãn is another renowned area of classic Persian carpet weaving, with the carpets of Ravar being the most illustrious. Although its weaving quality can vary, Kermãn is famous for its often innovative designs within the classical Persian style. Many patterns are similar to those found in Indian carpets, and it is their darker, less variegated color schemes that set them apart. Kermãn's garden and tree-of-life rugs are also well known.

Persia contains dozens of different tribal groups, some of which still have traditional nomadic lifestyles. Although fewer than 100,000 of the once politically important Bakhtiyari tribe of southern Iran still follow a seminomadic lifestyle, most Persian tribes have settled in towns and villages, and rug weaving is now largely part of a local cottage industry. Sizes and patterns vary, with their "garden carpets," which consist of repeating rectangles that contain stylized floral forms, among the most popular.

Eastern Persia, stretching from Turkmenistan in the north through western Afghanistan to southeast Pakistan, is home to a group of distinct nomadic tribes collectively known as the Belouch. They consist of such peoples as the Aimaq and Timuri of Afghanistan, the Kurds of northeastern Iran and the "true" Belouchis of southern Afghanistan and Pakistan. The rugs produced by these groups often have similar color schemes and designs, but the weave structures vary considerably. They are finely woven with lustrous wool and have dark somber colors, such as deep indigo blue and red, with white highlights, although some weavers use undyed camel hair, which produces the tan color that is so typical of these rugs. Goat hair is often used in the selvages--the edges of the rugs--and the ends of the rugs usually have several inches of intricately patterned kilims (flat weaves) to protect the pile from unraveling.

The dark colors of these rugs caused most early Western collectors to denigrate them, with the result that most of them remained very inexpensive until a decade or so ago. But as collectors began to understand the complex ethnographic mix of tribes under the Belouch label and increasingly recognized the different tribal styles, a market for these rugs sprang up.

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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