By Jan David Winitz, President & founder
Claremont Rug Company
Collecting antique Oriental carpets is a fascinating and, for many, lifelong endeavor, providing an intensely personal opportunity to develop and to continually retest one’s own sense of beauty and virtuoso technique. For that reason and many others, collecting 19th century to turn-of-the-20th-century Persian and tribal rugs has always been an attractive venture.
Collectors are drawn from all manner of society, including well-known historic figures such as William Randolph Hearst and John Rockefeller. In the 16th century, King Henry VIII was reportedly in competition with Cardinal Woolsey for the best rugs coming from the Ottoman Empire of Turkey, and from Persia.
Today, because the classical skills of production and the culture that supported the weaving have all but disappeared, only a minuscule number of the handmade Oriental carpets that remain are considered art-level and collectible. The 20th century rug industry was largely driven by commercial interests and, while some rugs are admirable in their own right, they pale when placed next to a 120-200+ years-old exemplary piece, even to an untrained viewer. It is not casually that scholars have dubbed the 19th century as the “Second Golden Age of Persian Rug Weaving.” The finest pieces produced during this period in Persia are remarkable and much coveted by art collectors and museums.
There is substantial evidence that Oriental rugs are a precursor to modern Western art. Many artists we revere today understood the art value of great Persian rugs. The Cubists, notably Klee and Kandinsky, studied the abstract forms of tribal rugs. Paul Gauguin, enthralled by the inventive use of color in Oriental rugs, said, “O, you painters who seek to know color, study carpets and therein you will find all knowledge.” Henri Matisse was surrounded by carpets and textiles throughout his life and their influence is seen abundantly throughout his work.
While there are many factors involved in the decision to embark on an adventure in rug collecting, the two primary concerns most likely involve what to collect and what level of investment to make. This article will provide guidelines in both areas.
There are several echelons of antique carpets that qualify as collectible, which allows you to enjoy the process of collecting and rise to your level of comfort.
For the Art-Collector / Rug-Collector
For those who have had experience building collections of other types, the learning curve in building a rug collection is drastically reduced. Seasoned art collectors already trust their eye and, to a great extent, can more easily recognize the genuinely artistic. The challenge for this type of collector is to identify carpets that both appeal to their personal aesthetic and resonate with the rest of the art on display. Happily, the breadth of styles and colors in antique rugs—from primitive to ornate and subdued to sumptuous—give the connoisseur a great choice of options. Collectible antique carpets make stunning companions to the full range of art collections from modern to Renaissance paintings, photographs to pre-Columbian pottery, etc.
Some of the most stunning homes are those whose impeccable art collections sit atop first-rate antique Oriental rugs. This is because homes dedicated to art collections often need a unifier. Large antique carpets in such a distinctive home help to group pieces of art, adding a palpable beauty that supports the entire space. Smaller area rugs can emphasize and direct attention to certain specimens as well as adding an exciting counterpoint on the horizontal plane. Some collectors hang antique rugs as wall art either alongside their canvases or in place of paintings.
While many a collector is driven to assemble a group of rugs to fill a residence, many connoisseurs buy solely what piques their personal aesthetic sense. Every city workshop, village and tribal group had its own signature design vocabulary and color palette. Because Oriental carpets come from an artistic tradition more than 4000 years in the making, each “style” has been developed into a mature understanding of art. One collector may fall in love with the very finely woven city and town rugs from the regions of Kirman, Ferahan Sarouk, Tabriz, Kashan and elsewhere, while another may seek the folkloric qualities of carpets from the village of Bakshaish in Northwest Persia or the tribes that wove in the Caucasus Mountains. A third group of collectors explore across the gamut of the art form, finding the diversity itself is what fascinates and satisfies their interest.
As with any form of collecting, moving from novice to veteran involves an investment of time and resources. The process can be endless, and is thoroughly engaging all along the way. As one moves from the carpets that one was attracted to at the start of their journey into more and more rarified strata, the excitement and personal rewards of further honing one’s eye with each new acquisition continue to be one of the driving motivations for collecting rugs. At some point, whether one invests $100,000 or $20 million into their collection, it becomes clear that what started as a passion has become the most exhilarating of addictions. There are those who have their own rug cellars or keep much of their collections in our art storage unit.
For the Novice
Although choosing from among the many styles of antique rugs may initially seem daunting to the newcomer, with some exposure, most naturally gravitate to specific subgroups, which makes finding a focus an exciting endeavor.
Certain weaving traditions are particularly beloved and widely acknowledged, such as the tribal rugs of the Caucasus Mountains and Southern Persia (notably Qashqai, Afshar and Khamseh), the idiosyncratic village rugs of Persian Azerbaijan (Bakshaish, Serapi and Camelhair) and the finely woven Persian city and town rugs from Mohtasham Kashan to Ferahan Sarouk to Bijar.
For Furnishing a Fine Home—the Homeowner/Collector
Many people who do not possess a “collector mentality” still enjoy building an antique rug collection because Connoisseur-Caliber and High-Collectible carpets, along with the best of High-Decorative rugs (see our Oriental Rug Market Pyramid) have such a profound impact on the home environment. Putting together a suite of carpets that enhances the décor and are also chosen for their high level of artistry is how many people ultimately become the proud owners of a rug collection.
Numerous connoisseurs I have met joke that they knew they had become collectors when they had no more floors (or walls) in their homes to display rugs, but they still kept buying them.
The art-level room-size and oversize Oriental carpets needed to furnish one’s major rooms were woven in different settings than small collectible rugs. In the second half of the 19th century, the Near Eastern and European gentry often commissioned large pieces from the most talented city workshops and town cooperatives in areas such as Kirman, Sultanabad, Ferahan, and Tabriz in Persia. These pieces naturally exhibited the mature innovation, rich artistic spirit, and outstanding craftsmanship that a homeowner-collector responds to.
Smaller rugs were typically the personal artistic expression of individual weavers, either by a city, town, village, or even tribal artisan. In these 3′ x 4′ to 5′ x 8′ area-size rugs, one finds a much more extensive array of designs and color combinations, and often an even greater level of artistic expression and innovation. For this reason, many serious rug collectors concentrate on area-size rugs. And for the homeowner-collector, strategically placing antique rugs in the smaller spaces such as a vestibule or beside a bed can be a delightful adventure as well.
Furnishing a home with art-level 19th century and turn-of-the-20th century rugs usually involves two to ten room-size to palace-size carpets, along with sundry runners and scatter rugs. The size of the carpets your home requires, of course, affects the budget. A homeowner-collector building a whole home collection can expect to invest $80,000 to $500,000, while for those who wish to assemble a cache of High-Collectible carpets, the bottom-line amount can be substantially more. However, truth be told, for art collectors who spend from $300,000 to millions of dollars for an important canvas, art-level rugs are relatively modestly priced.
A highly effective way for a novice rug collector to start is to study Oriental rugs online. Rug books can give general exposure to rug types and offer pictures of collectible-level rugs as illustrations. However, many of the rug books were written 20-40 years ago, and the availability of the collectible rugs they present has significantly diminished. Shopping online can help the novice identify the many styles of antique carpets, compare them with 20th century Decorative-level rugs, and decipher between the profound, the good, and the commonplace pieces.
In our more than four decades of working with clients worldwide, we have developed a series of guidelines that collectors who are new to antique rugs find quite helpful as they begin to evolve their personal sensibilities and understanding of the antique rugs that are still available. To embark on assembling a collection of art-level antique carpets to memorably furnish a fine home or for their aesthetic merit as rare tangible assets, I recommend you refer to my articles on “The Nine Point Methodology for Evaluating Antique Oriental Carpets” here and my “Oriental Rug Market Pyramid” here.