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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

(continued from page 5)

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."

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