In this blog entry I want to get back to my core.  That is rugs, rugs, rugs!  In the following I have excerpted and adapted an excellent article from the November 2010 issue of “Arts and Antiques” magazine.  The author, Sarah E. Fensom, expertly analyzes the market for antique Persian rugs

The current market for oriental rugs can be broken down neatly into two parts: decorative and collectible. The decorative segment is far larger and caters to those who buy rugs, essentially, to decorate their homes. “For those using rugs simply to decorate there are certain trends that go in and out of style—like fashion. Often color has a big part in this,” says Sumru Belger Krody, head curator of the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. In this category, aesthetics are the main draw, and though buyers might spring for a very fine carpet, it is look, color and size that drive them to choose one piece over another.

The collectible market is smaller but is much greater in its enthusiasm. It is sustained by those who collect rugs for different reasons.  Perhaps they collect on the basis of region, time period, tribe or the like but with the intent to acquire and display their rugs as pieces of art. Hadji Rahimipour, vice president of carpets and rugs at Bonham’s’ Auctions, explains that he judges fine-art quality carpets according to four features: origin, age, quality of workmanship and condition. “Carpets are not like paintings, which you can’t touch or get too close to,” he says. “Carpets go on the floor—that’s the beauty of the old rugs.”

But, Peter Poullada, a San Francisco-based independent collector and rug scholar, adds that the analogy between carpets and artworks breaks down somewhat because “we can’t celebrate the artist.”  However, for hard-core collectors, the anonymity of Middle Eastern weavers is no drawback but actually a large part of the interest. What makes each rug and artwork is the cultural context in which it was created and this context has a large bearing on style, colors and, consequently, collectability.

Kazak tribal rug, late 19th century

Within collectibles there are two distinct groups; “village rugs” are products of a cottage industry whose manufacture was an event for an entire village. The men raised and herded sheep, while the women hand-dyed the wool using all-natural dyes and weaved the carpets on giant looms. Elisabeth Parker, the head of Christie’s rugs and carpets department, describes the production of these textiles as a “women’s industry.” She explains, “The men of the villages would sit around watching the sheep and smoking their pipes, while the women would be spinning wool and weaving rugs. These rugs were rarely standardized and always contain motifs reflective of the village and the times for the tribes creating them.  They were most often used to trade for other goods with other tribes that did not weave rugs.

Many “village rug” collectors focus on specific tribes or regions as a matter of personal taste, but certain types of carpets have maintained their popularity over the years.  Rugs from the 85 distinct tribes of the Caucasus, the crossroads between the Black and Caspian seas, are prized among collectors for their variety, bold geometric patterns and bright colors. Peter Poullada recalls a collector who embarked on a still-unfulfilled quest to acquire a rug from each of the 85 regions.  As of June 2010 he’d paid nearly $250,000 for rugs made by 84 of the 85 tribes.

Lavar Kirman from 17th century

The other group, “court or city rugs”, were made in workshops in the great cities of Persia and the Ottoman Empire and are the antithesis of their tribal counterparts.  Usually they exhibit perfect symmetry and a rigid standardization of their weave. They were manufactured in workshops according to patterns made by professional designers on commission to patrons or even royalty. The oldest surviving city rugs date back to the 15th or 16th centuries, but examples that old are extremely scarce, and very valuable.

The “court or city rugs” of Laver Kirman in southwest Iran are known for their languid lines, rich colors and large proportion.  It was a 17th century Laver Kirman that set the record at Christie’s New York last spring for the top-selling rug at auction, attaining a whopping $9.6 million, (shown at left).  Elizabeth Parker acknowledges the desirability of such a piece, saying, “We’d all like to own 17th-century Persian carpets, but only a museum in Qatar could afford it!”  And, that is exactly where this prize resides today.

Each and every Oriental rug is a balanced mix of aesthetic beauty, functionality and material culture. Sumru Belger Krody notes, “We appreciate art for beauty, but when we hear the history of the piece we learn how it has affected lives. The dyes, the materials of rugs—a pretty red isn’t just a pretty red, it really means something to people.”  This is the mystical allure of rugs.

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