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Arabella Turner had predicted my taste in Oriental carpets without asking me a single question. We were in the high-ceiling showroom at Mansour, Los Angeles' largest Oriental carpet dealership. "In my experience almost invariably people like the rugs they grew up with," said Turner, a former Christie's London rug expert and recent transplant to the United States.
As I poked around the shop, I found that I was particularly drawn to the vivid colors and fine, curvilinear designs of Iranian Kashans, "city" rugs made in organized workshops rather than by traditional village, nomadic, or tribal weavers. Afterward I called my mother, to ask what those carpets were that I had grown up with. She said they had indeed been a pair of rare matched Kashans. "Your father loved Oriental rugs," she told me.
I never understood the value of those carpets until they were stolen in the late 1970s, at the peak of an Iranian rug market boom. Nothing else of value was taken from the house, although my parents had antique firearms, ivory pieces, cameras, and art. The thieves didn't even bother to look in drawers; they knew exactly what they wanted.
Back then, everyone coveted hand-loomed, finely knotted carpets like my father's. Today these pieces are often called Pahlavi rugs, as they were produced from 1925 to 1979, during the reigns of Reza Shah Pahlavi and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whom we knew as the Shah. It was during their reigns that woven carpets achieved an unprecedented technical perfection: Knot counts sometimes approached 1,000 per square inch (250 and above is considered high). "If you look at detail, workmanship, and materials, Pahlavi rugs are among the finest," says Leon Mayeri, an Oriental rug dealer based in Berkeley, California. Elisabeth Poole, head of the rugs and carpets department at Christie's New York, concurs: "In terms of fineness and quality, they're some of the best Oriental rugs ever made. The designs are absolutely perfect, and not a knot is misplaced."
According to Mary Jo Otsea, head of the carpet department at Sotheby's New York, there's been a resurgence of interest in technically sophisticated Pahlavi rugs in the last four years. Posy Benedict, a carpet consultant, agrees. "There's a growing appetite for refinement. I have a series of young investment bankers who have fallen in love with these rugs and are buying them with great interest."
While these carpets are not thought to be good investments (they may increase in value over the long term, but their short-term upside is considered chancy at best), they are now abundant and very often astonishingly inexpensive relative to other types of Oriental carpets. It's common to hear of a masterful nine- by 12-foot Kashan that sold for $20,000 in 1980 fetching only $5,000 today—if a buyer can be found.
Many dealers draw a sharp distinction between the Pahlavi rugs of the 1920s, referred to as "semi-antiques," and carpets produced thereafter. They say the later ones, with their more intricate designs, longer pile, and bolder colors, possess a more formal aesthetic that can be less appealing. "They are fussy, full of arabesques, highly designed, and very dense," says Daniel Shaffer, editor of the London-based Hali—an international bi-monthly magazine that's devoted to textile arts. "Of course, that's almost how one would define Persian style."
FROM BOOM TO BUST
From the 16th to the early 18th centuries, Persian carpets were fashioned in royal workshops for members of the court. These rugs featured intricate, often floral designs that were based on covers and illuminated manuscripts of Islamic texts. Weaving the hand-knotted pile of Persian carpets was a painstaking process that took years to complete.
When commercial carpet design studios and small factories began springing up in the second half of the 19th century, they took their inspiration—and their weaving techniques—from the royal workshops. They also emphasized technical quality as no workshop had before.
About three dozen of the best were dubbed masterworkshops, and the name of the master weaver was frequently woven into rugs. The most famous of them were Serafian, in Esfahan; Hadji Jalil, in Tabriz; and Mohtashem, in Kashan.
The inflation of the 1970s drove currency to hard goods that were perceived as inflation hedges and investment vehicles. An international carpet mania erupted, and Pahlavi carpets began to fill luxury homes, executive suites, and diplomatic settings all over the world. "For the only time in modern history there was a rug boom," Mayeri explains. "The industry exploded, and prices skyrocketed to historically high levels. In the United States alone Persian rugs accounted for well over fifty percent of the total hand-loomed rug market."
The Islamic revolution in 1978 and 1979, as well as worldwide recession, turned the carpet boom to bust. Rug merchants and weavers fled Iran, and carpet innovation and production rapidly deteriorated. The exodus from the country included many people carrying rugs to sell for living expenses, flooding the market. "The bottom completely fell out," Mayeri says. In 1987 the United States placed an embargo on goods and services of Iranian origin—including Persian rugs. As Poole says, "We attempted to get a fragment of a thirteenth-century Persian carpet into the country and couldn't."
If that weren't enough, Persian rugs, with their intricate designs, fell out of favor. The rug world turned its attention toward simpler floor coverings and more primitive, coarsely woven rugs—village, tribal, and nomadic—made throughout the Middle East. "It's sometimes too great a challenge for an interior designer to harmonize a classic Persian carpet with fabrics, curtains, and wall coverings," says James Opie, rug dealer and author from Portland, Oregon. "There's too much color in them." Otsea agrees. "To the Western eye, these can be more difficult to look at than a lot of other carpets. The finest designs read very well from six inches away, but from four feet they are so busy it's hard to appreciate them."
The pendulum of taste, however, is moving back toward Persian carpets. Poole says there's a trend again toward darker, more traditional Persian colors—indigo blue and red.
Mark Warwick, president of Beverly Hills-based The Systems Design, a high-end architectural, interior design, and contracting firm, thinks Persian rugs fit in well with the modern aesthetic. He advocates using them throughout the house—especially in kitchens, bathrooms, and home gyms. "A high-tech environment is perfect for these rugs," he says. "They ground a modern room in an eclectic way."
Narrowing Down the Selection
Today there are what one rug dealer describes as "warehouses full of Pahlavi carpets." Because of the supply and the limited number of aficionados, it's a field day for buyers in the know—particularly those shopping at auctions where list prices range from one-third to one-half of retail cost and carpets are carefully authenticated. (Both Sotheby's and Christie's hold major rug auctions in April, September, and December.)
According to Poole, last year Christie's New York had a "Pahlavi Esfahan, probably 1940s, extremely finely woven" on sale with an estimated price of $7,000 to $10,000. "It failed to find a buyer," she says in astonishment. Christie's also sold a 1950s Tabriz in excellent condition for only $5,000—a rug that, Poole says, "probably had never been used."
Otsea recalls a fine Tabriz that sold at Sotheby's in the late 1970s for $20,000 and resold at auction last year for just $9,000. You can also buy from a dealer, although you'll pay considerably more; hiring an interior decorator helps, since they pay 15 to 20 percent less than retail.
The main risk, as with all carpet buying, is purchasing an item that isn't genuine. The best way to avoid this is by enlisting the advice of a carpet appraiser (see "Sources" for addresses of top dealers and appraisers), though their expertise will cost you $200 to $350 an hour plus travel expenses. Avoid appraisers who suggest a percentage of the carpet's appraised value as a fee. An honest appraiser can look at a photograph of a rug and tell you if it's worth your while to hire him. "If someone sends me a photo of a $2,500 rug, I'm not going to allow them to spend $1,000 to get me to appraise it," states James Ffrench, an appraiser who was head of the carpet department at Christie's New York until November of last year.
But the best way to make sure you're getting your money's worth is to become as much of an expert as you can. That way, you can ask the right questions when you find a rug that interests you. Look at hundreds of rugs to get a sense of good, better, and best in your own eyes. According to the pros with whom we spoke, here are some of the top things an educated buyer should do.
• Count the knots. A higher knot count renders a finer texture and a more detailed design—which is preferred by some. It does not, however, necessarily increase the dollar value. Knot count is classified as "fine" (250 to 400 knots per square inch, or kpsi), "very fine" (400 to 600 kpsi), and "superfine" (more than 600 kpsi).
• Look for a harmonious design. Elements should be proportional and symmetrical. The border and field should relate nicely, both in size and design. But more important is what Mayeri calls fluidity and Ffrench calls "finesse of design." Learn to recognize a busy, overdone rug, or one whose execution is mechanical. "The more you look at the good ones, the more interesting they become," says Ffrench.
• Examine the colors and ask about dyes. Overall color balance is more important than individual colors, but a bad color or two can ruin the look—and the value—of a rug. "If the rug has one bad color, forget it," Mayeri advises. But don't confuse bad colors with those that have mellowed and blended over time; they are a hallmark of the most desirable rugs.
Colors are largely connected to the dyes used. Synthetic chrome dyes often yield brighter, more vibrant colors. Natural dyes (also called vegetable or vegetal dyes) tend to be muted, creating a softer look. They are also often considered superior, both aesthetically and in terms of aging potential.But, says Otsea, "The really important thing is whether the colors are fast or not." One way to tell: Moisten a white handkerchief and discreetly rub the carpet to see if color comes off.
• Look for a signature. "If you can pick up a good Pahlavi-era workshop carpet that you can reliably attribute to one of the named workshops, it certainly adds value," says Daniel Shaffer. This is especially true when the signature is in English.
• Ask what the carpet's made of. The Federal Trade Commission requires that every carpet have a label identifying the materials used. In terms of pile, silk and wool—or a combination thereof—are best. Wool should be pleasant to touch, not rough or scratchy. Silk should be real, not rayon or mercerized cotton (sometimes called art silk). For foundations, silk and cotton are best, though wool is also acceptable.
• Inspect the finish. The pile should be glossy and neither too soft nor too rough. Watch out for overwashed rugs or those that have been clumsily aged with either chemicals or heat. Look for carpets that haven't been altered at all. "When you see an unwashed Tabriz or Kerman, they're splendid," says Benedict.
• Check the handle and the structural integrity. Rugs should be firm but supple with a pleasing handle, or feel. The back of the rug should be smooth and well made with no visible flaws, such as tiny white bumps: They frequently indicate places where the warp has broken. The rug shouldn't be too crooked or bowed, and there mustn't be more than one inch of difference in the length from one side to the other when it's folded in half.
• Avoid "ballroom" and "75 percent off" sales. They're where most Persian rug ripoffs occur.
Even if you find a rug that fulfills all these criteria, you still must ask yourself the most important question of all: Do you like it? Says Steve Price, a carpet expert from Virginia, "If carpets don't grab you, don't grab them. Buy pieces that reach out to you as works of art, ones you want to live with. Perhaps they will increase in value a lot, but perhaps a little or not at all. That isn't important—because you're unlikely to part with them at any price if they really affect you."
Barry O'Connell, a Maryland carpet aficionado, relates the story of the founder of the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., to illustrate the value of such contrarian rug investing: "Fifty to eighty years ago George Hewitt Meyers bought a lot of rugs that were not in fashion, Kurdish main carpets and the like, for a song. Only now is the rest of the collector world catching up to him. He had the foresight to ignore what everyone else was saying. He said: 'This rug is beautiful in my own personal aesthetic . . . I will buy it.'"
Why It's Worth the Money
Serafian Esfahan, ca. 1945.
SIZE: 3.5 by 5.5 feet.
MARKET VALUE: At least $25,000.
HALLMARKS: Signed in English; no apparent wear.
MATERIALS: Superb wool pile over a luxurious silk foundation; has a supple, glove-leather handle.
DESIGN: Classic, dense, curvilinear floral design with central medallion; exceptional color balance.
WORKMANSHIP: Masterworkshop quality: about 900 knots per square inch.
Tabriz, ca. 1930s.
SIZE: 4 by 5 feet.
MARKET VALUE: $15,000.
HALLMARKS: Unsigned but attributed to the Hadji Jalil masterworkshop.
MATERIALS: Top-quality wool on a cotton foundation.
DESIGN: A pale, mature-color rug with an elegant, simple design—a highly prized look in today's decorator market.
WORKMANSHIP: Fine: 300 knots per square inch.
ABRASH: Unplanned variations in major color created when weavers change yarn lots. Can increase the carpet's value. Antique reproductions often have intentional abrash.
ANTIQUE: At least 100 years old.
ANTIQUE REPRODUCTIONS: Recently produced copies of classical carpets, handwoven in India, Turkey, Nepal, Pakistan, China, Egypt, or Romania.
CARPET: Larger than six by nine feet. "Rug," though often used interchangeably, technically refers to anything smaller.
CITY CARPET: Also called town or urban carpet. Woven by hired labor in or near major weaving center. High degree of workmanship: often high knot count; intricate, central floral medallion; and curvilinear designs.
CLASSICAL: Made in the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries.
COURT CARPET: Also called palace carpet. Usually antique and woven under royal commission; larger than 20 by 30 feet.
FIELD: The area of the carpet that lies between its borders.
HANDLE: The feel of the carpet.
KNOT COUNT: Number of knots per square inch, abbreviated kpsi.
MATURE COLORS: Colors that have softened and harmonized over time.
NATURAL DYES: Made from traditional botanical, mineral, or insect sources. Also called vegetable or vegetal dyes.
NEW: A carpet less than 20 years old. Sometimes called modern
SEMI-ANTIQUE: 50 to 100 years old.
WARP AND WEFT: Perpendicular silk, cotton, or wool foundation strands, into which knots of pile are twisted. Warp runs lengthwise; weft runs side to side.
WASHING: Treatment, usually chemical, given after a rug has been woven. Softens colors, replicates age, and improves look and feel of pile.
WORKSHOP CARPETS: City carpets woven by hired labor under close supervision of an experienced weaver and probably from a design sketched by him. Masterworkshops like Serafian, Hadji Jalil, and Mohtashem produced the finest examples.
Iran's Great Weaving Cities
City weaving started in Tabriz, Kashan, and Esfahan, then expanded in the 1920s and 1930s. Those three cities, along with Nain, Qom, Kerman, and Mashhad, produced the most prized Pahlavi masterworkshop carpets. Here's a guide to the colors and designs that typify their signature styles.
COLORS: Wide range and intensity of hues, dark and monochromatic, including dark blue.
DESIGN: Angular, classic central medallion; sometimes hunting motifs; often mixture of weaving styles.
COLORS: Vibrant tones, including deep, saturated burgundy-claret and indigo blue.
DESIGN: Field often plain, with overall and radiating medallion.
COLORS: Simple palettes, usually with no more than three colors. Often light blue, beige, indigo, ivory, and camel.
DESIGN: Overall and medallion designs, often featuring animals and birds. Floral and very densely packed.
COLORS: Rose, red, blue, and ivory in earlier rugs; pastel celadon, pink, light blue in later examples.
DESIGN: Dense floral overall pattern or medallions on an open field.
COLORS: Striking dark brown, gold, and blue with deep salmon-pink and green highlights.
DESIGN: Often plain field around a central medallion. Sharp angular floral, garden, or hunting designs. All-silk pile.
COLORS: Vivid red and blue with rose-pink details in earlier examples; cream fields and an overall pattern, often with blue and beige in later ones.
DESIGN: Classic, dense, curvilinear floral with central medallion.
COLORS: Rich red, indigo blue, beige, and ivory.
DESIGN: Intricate classic floral pattern with central medallion, arabesques, or tendrils.
Naturally dyed, hand-loomed "antique reproduction" rugs from India, Turkey, Nepal, Pakistan, Egypt, China, and Romania are, according to many experts, often just as well executed as the original Persian rugs upon which they are based. They also cost a fifth of the price. For example, the carpet on the left is a classic Ziegler made in the Mahal region of northwest Persia ca. 1870. The modern reproduction Ziegler on the right was woven in Egypt around 1996. Both are the same size (10 by 13 feet) and have a cotton foundation, wool pile, similar number of knots per square inch (112 on the original, 140 on the reproduction), and highly desirable colors. The original has a retail value of $100,000; the reproduction sells for $9,000. If you're looking to buy a reproduction, some of the best labels include Aryana, Azeri, Black Mountain Looms, Little River, Noble House, and Yayla.
Sizing It Up
Prices on Pahlavi masterworkshop carpets depend on date and place of origin, as well as size. Many experts claim that quality dropped off after the 1920s; others draw the line at the 1950s. Here are some price ranges to give you a sense of average dealer retail. Generally speaking, a "room size" carpet starts at six by nine feet; "oversize" at 12 by 18 feet; and the most exceptional, the "palace" or "court" carpets, at 20 by 30 feet.
1920s-1950 ROOM SIZE: $5,000-$80,000
1950s-1987 ROOM SIZE: $3,500-$30,000
1920s-1950 ROOM SIZE: $5,000-$40,000
1950s-1987 ROOM SIZE: $3,500-$15,000
1920s-1950 ROOM SIZE: $4,500-$20,000
1950s-1987 ROOM SIZE: $2,500-$10,000
1920s-1950 ROOM SIZE: $3,500-$15,000
1950s-1987 ROOM SIZE: $2,500-$6,000
1920s-1950 ROOM SIZE: $4,000-$15,000
1950s-1987 ROOM SIZE: $2,500-$7,500
1920s-1950 ROOM SIZE: $4,000-$25,000
1950s-1987 ROOM SIZE: $2,500-$10,000
1920s-1950 ROOM SIZE: $5,000-$75,000
1950s-1987 ROOM SIZE: $3,500-$15,000
AMERICAN SOCIETY OF APPRAISERS 800-272-8258
POSY BENEDICT 860-868-7211 (CASH ONLY)
JAMES FFRENCH 212-717-2502 (CASH ONLY)
THE ORIENTAL RUG RETAILERS ASSOCIATION 540-832-3353
CHRISTIE'S NEW YORK, 212-546-1187
SOTHEBY'S NEW YORK, 212-606-7996 (CASH ONLY)
ABC CARPET & HOME NEW YORK, 212-674-1144
ABC CARPET & HOME DELRAY BEACH, FL., 561-279-7777
F.J. HAKIMIAN, INC. NEW YORK, 212-371-6900 (CASH ONLY)
JACQUELINE VANCE RUGS NEW ORLEANS, 504-891-3304
JAMES OPIE ORIENTAL RUGS PORTLAND, OR, 503-226-0116
MANSOUR LOS ANGELES, 310-652-9999
MARK KESHISHIAN & SONS, INC. CHEVY CHASE, MD, 301-654-4044
MINASIAN ORIENTAL RUGS EVANSTON, IL, 847-864-1010
PERSIAN MERCANTILE CO. BERKELEY, CA, 888-747-7847
SANTA FE ORIENTAL RUGS SANTA FE 505-982-5152
THE RUG WAREHOUSE NEW YORK, 212-787-6665
EAST-WEST ROOM BOOKSELLER 215-657-0178
HALI MAGAZINE LONDON, 44-171-970-4600
ORIENTAL RUG REVIEW www.rugreview.com
RUG NEWS www.rugnews.com
TURKOTEK JOURNAL www.turkotek.com
The Textile Museum is open year-round Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday 1-5 p.m. 2320 S Street, N.W.; 202-667-0441.
Richard John Pietschmann is Departures' contributing editor for the West Coast and Mexico.