ARTS & COLLECTIBLES
NINE-POINT METHODOLOGY FOR EVALUATING
ANTIQUE ORIENTAL CARPETS
JAN DAVID WINITZ PRESIDENT & FOUNDER
CLAREMONT RUG COMPANY
1. LEVEL OF ARTISTRY
In scholarly discussions of antique Oriental rugs, their artistry has generally been the least examined, centering instead on the cultural and technical differences among the myriad styles. Yet, at Claremont Rug Company, we are highly sensitive to the seminal topic of artistry and have articulated over the years the elements that help to distinguish highly accomplished works from mediocre ones, a study that dramatically impacts their desirability and intrinsic value.
A rug’s aesthetic level is the most elusive criterion because it is partially a subjective valuation. Artistry stems from the weaver’s masterful command of all the elements, most importantly uniqueness, the totality of which has a profound, non-verbal impact on the viewer. In weaving, as in all art forms, the best pieces strike what is sometimes called “a universal chord.” Does the composition slow you down you? Does the rug have staying power, i.e., the more one looks at it, the more one sees and is intrigued by it?
Penthouse of a rug collector is elevated by a highly nuanced 19th century Ferahan Sarouk floral carpet.
2. LEVEL OF BEAUTY
The balance and harmony that the weavers experienced through their intimate relationship with nature informed the Oriental carpet aesthetic and was fundamental to their expression of beauty. These carpets’ stirring imagery and captivating colors are considered successful when all the elements are in accord. An alluring sense of fluidity or movement adds interest and impact to a carpet, which is achieved by modulating the spaciousness between field designs and their hierarchy by size. Are the scales of the largest and smallest motifs engaging or too similar?
The syncopation of colors is another indicator of artistic level. The ability to balance some 8-25 tonalities within a color palette, and knowledgeable command of color-combining, are major determinants of a rug’s aesthetic appeal. Adding evocative visual dimension through creating delicate striations within one hue, the technique of abrash was practiced until the turn of the 20th century. Color shifts should seem naturally occurring rather than unbalanced.
Persian Mohtashan Kashan,
4’ 6” x 6’ 5”, 3rd quarter, 19th century
Persian Bakshaish, 12’ x 13’ 11”, circa 1850 explores constant spontaneous use of color and design.
3. THE CARPET’S AGE
Traditional rugs woven before 1900 are generally most desirable because of their much greater originality, purer, more beautiful, naturally dyed colors—including exotic hues not found in later rugs—and expressive designs. Extant pieces, up to 200 years old and available through specialty galleries, attract connoisseurs worldwide for home decoration and collection.
The weaving of Oriental rugs is an unbroken tradition embraced by ancient peoples and powerful dynasties between the Mediterranean and the Far East for over three millennia. It penetrated every societal stratum between tribal to urban, supported by a creative milieu that honored the time-intensive methods needed for unparalleled artistry and craftsmanship. The Commercial Period, spurred by foreign venture capital starting around 1900, transformed the traditional Oriental Rug market. Instead of each rug being one-of-a-kind, workshops repeated patterns and offered it in different sizes; the use of harsh chemical dyes that more expediently colored the rug yarns further compromised the artistic longevity of Oriental carpets.
This Persian Hadji Jallili Tabriz, “Garden of Paradise” carpet, 8’ 3” x 11’ 2”, 3rd quarter, 19th century, offers an exquisite tableau.
At 175-years-old the archaic symbols of this Caucasian Bidjov Shirvan tribal rug, 3’ 11” x 5’ 6”, circa 1850 epitomizes the allure of rare, investment-grade rugs.
4. THE CARPET’S CONDITION RELATIVE TO AGE
In evaluating antique carpets, the subject of their condition also factors in. The earlier the rug was woven; the more wear and restoration are allowable. The rule of thumb, “the older the piece, the greater the value,” holds true, provided the artistry and craftsmanship are superb. Additionally, the condition must exceed expectations or, at the very least, be commensurate with age. How much and how well repair has been executed greatly impacts value. Flawless color matching and skillfully integrated reconstruction can provide many further decades of aesthetic enjoyment and pride of ownership. It is sometimes still possible to find 150-year-old rugs in very good condition or with minimal restoration. Chemical washing, extreme sun-fading and staining, and reducing the size of rugs have a strong negative impact on the rug’s value. Antique Oriental rugs are renowned for their durability and are often passed down in a family for two generations or more. Today, art collectors add antique carpets one-and-one-half centuries-old or greater to their walls alongside their paintings.
For thousands of years, Persian tilework and court-inspired carpet weaving were designed to express awe-inspiring beauty.
“The Saffron Gatherer,” Minoan fresco, 1700-1450 BC, illustrates the age-old use of rare dyestuffs in art that included the emergent Oriental rug.
5. QUALITY OF COLOR
For over 3,000 years, Oriental rug colors were created from natural dyestuffs until the advent of chemical dyes as early as the mid-1860s. Only an entirely naturally-derived color palette augments a weaving’s value beyond the decorative level. Vegetable dyes develop a prized patina over time, while chemical dyes often remain harsh or fade over decades. Some dye-masters created “secret recipes” for never-before-seen shades — prized intellectual property which brought them stature in the community and marketplace. Effecting a radiance and nuance within each hue, the finer levels of Oriental carpets’ legendary Karakul “mountain oily wool”, with its high lanolin content, illuminates the quality of each color.
Supremely prized are those carpets that are entirely singular works of art. The amount of originality in a rug’s designs and colors significantly impacts its desirability to connoisseurs as long as the elements of beauty discussed in #2 are present. Stepping outside the traditional design pool, ingenious use of age-old patterning or individual motifs and inspired colorways indicate the vision of an exceptional artist. Rugs that are exemplary, highly nuanced representatives of the weaver’s regional style are also widely sought-after.
Master weavers throughout history understood the impact of various colors and color combinations on our psyche and brought this intuitive knowledge to bear on their creations. They sometimes created exclusive, exotic tonalities to capture a particular effect. With some exceptions, the rugs produced circa 1875 and earlier demonstrate the most inspired creativity.
Galleries that offer the earliest, most artistically inspired antique Oriental carpets still in floor condition serve a passionate niche of connoisseurs internationally.
Glistening tonalities of a 145-year-old Persian Bakshaish carpet augment the sophisticated interior design of this family room.
While every Oriental rug genre has created superlative specimens, certain 19th century substyles are incredibly distinctive, with their best examples renowned for their unparalled artistry. Among Persian floral city carpets, these include superb-quality, consummately crafted Mohtasham Kashans, Hadji Jallili Tabrizs, Tehrans, and Laver Kirmans; and from town weaving centers — the finest Ferahans, Ferahan Sarouks, Bijars, and Ziegler Sultanabads. From the village tradition — many folkloric Bakshaishs, the best Serapis and Camelhair rugs are enthusiastically sought out, as are specimens from tribal styles, notably the finest Caucasian, Afshar, Qashqai, and Persian Northwest rugs.
It is important to emphasize that all the 19th-century rug types mentioned above offer multiple times more 20th century examples. But, while often offering excellent wool and noteworthy craftsmanship, these younger works are no longer imbued with their predecessors’ aesthetic brilliance.
The naivete of this nomadic Caucasian “Butterfly” Kuba, 3’ 5” x 5’ 8”, circa 1850, is captured through its constantly-changing design.
Historically master weavers, such as this South Persian tribal weaver, were esteemed for their ingenious vision and consummate skill.
8. FINENESS OF WEAVE
The Oriental rugs from each weaving region offer a distinct construction that includes a knot density particular to that tradition. A carpet’s weave can evoke a refined formality in city rugs or a casual folkloric charm in nomadic rugs. A carpet’s knot count contributes to discerning which pieces from one weaving tradition are superior, but should not be used to determine quality between different traditions. Demonstrating extraordinarily fine knotting are the finest Persian City rugs and many Persian Town and Qashqai tribal rugs, along with Caucasian lowland styles from the 3rd quarter 19th century and before. These rugs present an incredible crispness of their botanical motifs, vinery, and details, enhanced by a low-cut, glass-like pile surface.
In contrast, many top-quality highland Caucasian and Kurdish tribal rugs use much looser knotting and a plush surface, contributing to their deeply appealing rugged aesthetic.
During the 20th century, some city rugs were woven with knot counts exceeding 500 knots per square inch, but their artistry and originality suffered greatly as designs became repetitive and color palettes were limited to a few hues.
Exotic colors, abrash, use of proportion, rare age, and ancient symbology characterize this Caucasian Shirvan, 3’ 10” x 6’ 10”, mid-19th century.
A well-preserved antique Persian corridor-style rug aptly completes the gracious ambiance of this room.
This floral 160-year-old Ferahan Sarouk carpet, 10’ 3” x 14’ 8”, captures the spirit of each blossom through its superb craftsmanship.
9. QUALITY OF WOOL
The wool of Oriental carpets has many different grades. The best contains a high-fat content in its fiber, making it highly lustrous and imbuing a radiance to the colors in a rug as it ages. Elastic and lanolin-rich to the touch, top grades of wool increase a carpet’s beauty and value. Wool cultivated by nomadic tribespeople who grazed their flocks of Karakul sheep in high mountain pastures during the summer and in the lower meadows during the winter was renowned for its durability and glow. The major weaving villages, such as those in North Persia, and major cities like Kirman and Ferahan bought nomadic wool directly from the tribal groups for centuries.
Kerke fleece from the first shearing of lambs is highly prized for its unequaled softness. Camelhair, the rarest animal fabric, attracts connoisseurs for the elegance of its range of golden neutral tones and distinctive effects in elite interior design.
NINE-POINT METHODOLOGY FOR EVALUATING ORIENTAL ANTIQUE CARPETS
These nine points for evaluating the quality of antique carpets are not in any particular hierarchy, as there is a fluid exchange between them. Wool illumines color; color quiets or advances design elements; uniqueness, artistry, and beauty are three closely aligned angles to utilize when appreciating a carpet’s magnitude. The interplay between age and condition can help you to set your priorities when choosing the rugs you live with.