Persian Versions

The color, intricacy, variety and utility of Oriental rugs would be enough to explain their universal appeal. The smart shopper may also find that he’s made a good investment.

For at least 2,500 years, Oriental rugs have been treasured by both Western and Eastern worlds, mainly for aesthetic reasons. Now, however, the art form is being judged according to Philistine criteria: Prices are soaring, and rugs are being touted as investment vehicles. But some rugs are neither good investments nor beautiful; to avoid a double disappointment, be sure you know what and why you are buying.

An authentic Oriental rug is a painstakingly crafted (and expensive) work of art. Oriental rugs are made by hand – in factories and homes and the tents of nomadic tribes – in Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, and other countries in Asia and southeastern Europe. In many of these countries, unemployment is high and foreign exchange is needed, so the rug industry is subsidized by the government. Government-subsidized rugs are relatively inexpensive, compared to those from countries with healthier economies, such as Iran, where government policies are drawing labor out of rug making and into high-technology industries. In Iran, where some of the best rugs originate, wages have quintupled in the past two years because of industrialization, the phaseout of child labor, and the high level of government spending. As a result, Iranian rugs are now extremely costly.

The first step in making an Oriental rug is to string a row of cords (the warp) on a framework. Pieces of dyed yarn are tied around pairs of adjacent warp cords and pulled up – these will form the pile. When a row of pile knots has been completed, it’s tamped tight and a horizontal cord (the weft) is woven through the warp to keep the knots in place. When the knotting and weaving is finished, the pile yarn is trimmed to a uniform height. The warp and weft are usually cotton (sometimes wool or silk), and the pile is wool (sometimes silk or camel hair). The general measure of workmanship is the number of knots per square inch. Fine rugs (often worked with silk) can have as many as 600 knots per square inch, and it may take months to complete a small rug. A rug woven by nomads may have only 80 knots per square inch; it may be beautiful and durable, but it will be less expensive because it was made more quickly.

An unfortunate recent trend in the rug industry is radical deterioration in quality. Particularly in Iran, where many former rug workers have taken industrial jobs, many traditional weaving centers are producing rugs far below the standards of a few years ago. Workers will reduce the number of knots per square inch to increase output. Less care is taken with the wool and the dyeing process. So it’s important to examine a rug carefully and not depend on a familiar name as a guarantee of quality.

See that the edges do not curl up and that the rug lies flat. Be sure, too, that the overall shape is not distorted: the rug should be very nearly a perfect rectangle. Feel the rug: The best wool is soft, silky, and rich in texture. It will allow a rug to withstand a generation or so of hard use. The poorer grades of wool are dry and brittle, and they will wear thin very quickly. The colors should not change drastically from one area to another, although small variations are to be expected. See that the pile is clipped uniformly: One side should not be deeper than another, and there should be no ridges or valleys. Make sure that the edges of the rug are properly secured and are not unraveling.

If you’re concerned about durability, remember that silk is not as durable as wool. Silk will serve well if it’s used only to outline elements of a rug’s design, but rugs with large silk areas are intended as wall hangings, not as floor coverings.

Be careful about buying a rug described as an antique. It might be a rare example of an old design, but it might be just a worn-out rug – it takes an expert to tell the difference.

Many stores sell “Oriental-design” rugs. These machine-made copies vary widely in quality, but they are not particularly valuable and do not wear as well as hand-made Orientals.

Hand-made copies are another matter. Many copies of classic rug designs are made in Rumania, India, and Pakistan. Sometimes copied from pictures in books, these rugs usually lack the detail of the originals, but they are substantially lower in price. Often the copies are superior to the originals in workmanship and materials. Furthermore, even in Iran and Turkey, an “original” is likely to be a copy of a design no longer made by the tribe or town where it originated. Often, the original is not available at any price. You must decide if the design is pleasing, if the materials are of good quality, and if holding out for an original is worthwhile.

Rugs are named for the area where they are made or where the design originated. The vogue is for tribal rugs with names like Yalemeh, Afshar, and Herez. Because of their coarse weave (80-100 knots per square inch), they tend to be less expensive than other types, even though they are of fine wool, well made and long wearing. Their bright colors and bold designs complement modern interiors.

The best values are the Indian and Pakistani rugs such as Bokhara and Kirman. These rugs are available in all sizes, in luxurious grades of wool, and in all colors – for roughly half the cost of a Persian original. For example, a top-quality Pakistani Bokhara design in an eight-by-ten-foot rug currently costs $1,500 to $1,700.

The Iranian towns of Nain and Is-phahan turn out the most finely woven rugs produced anywhere, with knot counts between 400 and 600 per square inch. They are frightfully expensive: A four-by-six-foot rug can cost from $6,000 to $12,000. Good examples of these rugs are awe inspiring for their creamy colors and graceful designs. But not all rugs from these towns are first-class in either workmanship or quality, so you must use your taste and judgment.

Investment buyers favor Nain and 1s-phahan rugs because, over the last five years, the prices of these rugs have risen faster than any others. These rugs are knotted so finely that only children can tie them; as child labor is displaced by compulsory education in Iran, they will become extremely scarce (at least at their present quality) and will command a good price.

If you’re buying rugs for investment, you should be aware of some pitfalls. First, although rising wages in the rug producing countries are responsible for much of the inflation in rug prices, the decline of the dollar has also had a dramatic effect. If you are speculating on the continued increase in value of Oriental rugs, part of your speculation is based on a continuing decline of the dollar. A turnaround by the dollar would stabilize rug prices, at least for a while.

Second, it’s a long and difficult process to turn a profit on a rug you’re selling for $5,000 or more. You have to resell to a dealer (at wholesale) or advertise it yourself.

The smart money invested in rugs ten years ago. Syndicates bought tens of millions of dollars worth of rugs, which are now in storage awaiting liquidation. When the liquidation comes, it could exert downward pressure on rug prices.

Still, it’s a fair guess that your rug, even with use, will appreciate to some extent. Feel free to put a substantial sum into your rugs. Shop for the qualities you want in home furnishings: beauty and utility. Buy what you like and what meets your needs. And don’t buy rugs as an investment unless you can admit to yourself that you are speculating.

The best basic guide is Oriental Rugs in Color, by Preben Liebetrau (Macmillan, 1963). A very recent overview of the market is Oriental Rugs: An Updated Guide, by Charles Jacobsen (1977), available from the author for six dollars at 401 South Salina Street, Syracuse, NY 13201. The best book on the history of Oriental rugs is The Persian Carpet, by A. Cecil Edwards (Duckworth Press, 1953).

The larger Dallas-area dealers, such as Behgooy and the Rejebian rug department at Titche’s NorthPark, will sell on approval and will guarantee to exchange your rug at full price or more. The smaller dealers, where a bargain is more likely, might not be willing to make these guarantees.

It’s wise to call a dealer before you visit, because their collections are sometimes sent elsewhere for special shows. Some of the smaller shops tend to move around, too.

Never buy rugs at an auction staged by an itinerant dealer. Prices at these auctions tend to be at least double the going market price; quality and country of origin are often misstated; and you have no recourse once the dealer has left town.

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