Collecting & Connoisseurship

Building a Collection of Antique Art Rugs




By Jan David Winitz, President & founder 
Claremont Rug Company

Carpet collectors vary in terms of living with vis a vis storing their rugs and most do some of both. Here an exemplary 130-year-old Persian Tabriz enriches a casual area.

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.

Well-known rug collectors include (left), Sigmund Freud, who draped a Qashqai rug over his famous psychoanalytic couch with a Serapi on the floor, and David and Peggy Rockefeller (right) whose rug cache included this 19th century Bakshaish.

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.

The sitting room of a passionate art collector who enjoys combining singular pieces from different mediums, including a 160-year-old Bakshaish on the floor and a circa 1850 Caucasian Khila on the wall. 
Left: Detail from High-Collectible Fachralo Kazak, circa 1850. Right: La Orana Maria, Paul Gauguin, 1888 evokes the color palette used in 19th century rugs.

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.     

High-Collectible Persian Bakshaish, 10′ 5″ x 13′ 9″ (318cm x 419cm) — 3rd quarter, 19th century.
Left: Many art collectors find artworks as well as their connection with their ever-deepening interest in aesthetics. Right: Juxtaposing pieces from different creative traditions, such as this circa 1900 Manchester Kashan with a Lichtenstein, effectively highlight both masterworks.

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.

High-Collectible Northwest Persian Azerbaijan, 4′ 8″ x 5′ 5″ (142cm X 165cm) — 2nd quarter 19th century.

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.

Left: For the smitten rug collector, small rugs are a delight as they represent the singular vision and command of the medium of a single weaver. Upper right: Detail of oversize Persian Garrus Bijar, 3rd quarter, 19th century. Lower right: Another small rug display features antique tribal rugs from the Caucasus Mountains.

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.

Left: Connoisseur-Caliber Persian Tehran “Garden of Paradise Rug”, 4′ 8″ x 6′ 5″ (142cm x 196cm) — late 19th century. Right: Converting a small room or storage area, paneled with cedar planks, allows the antique rug collector a way to keep his or her pieces close by for easy viewing.

Antique Persian geometric rugs such as this Bakshaish circa 1875 allows connoisseurs to daily enjoy the unique features of a rare collectible piece and its distinctive decorative effect on their environment. 

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.

Perusing many online examples of antique Oriental carpets is paramount when seeking to determine your individual taste. Upper left: Causasian Shirvan tribal rug, late 19th century; Lower left: Geometric Persian Bakshaish village carpet, circa 1860; Upper right: Ferahan Sarouk town carpet, late 19th century; Lower right: Persian Mohtasham Kashan city rug, circa 1860.

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. 

The addition of an early 20th century Persian Mahajiran Sarouk oversize carpet provides incomparable luxury to this gracious living space as well as creating a dynamic synergy between the different artforms.
Many choose a Persian area size antique for their first collectible rug, such as this unique 19th century Sultanabad, as the artistry is often quite original and small dimensions affords numerous options for placement.
This nearly 150-year-old Serapi carpet exemplifies the compelling visual themes offered by the styles from the Persian Azerbaijan region renowned for its geometric traditions.

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.

Collectors lovingly display their rugs as wall art, such as this Qashqai (left) and in conjunction with paintings, such as this Serab Camelhair runner (right.)

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.

Persian Ferahan Sarouk carpets offer refinement punctuated with expressive, spontaneous floral drawing, this 140-year-old piece presenting the classical medallion and corner piece format.

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.

Left: Collector’s home where collection pieces are displayed throughout. Featured in the foreground is an 150-year-old ivory ground Persian Ferahan Sarouk area rug and in large space at the back, a nearly 200-year-old Mohtasham Kashan masterpiece. Right: Mid-19th century Caucasian Fachralo Kazak tour de force.

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.

Palace size antique Persian Sultanabad, a favorite style when furnishing a large home with collectible level carpets because their casually refined aesthetic is applicable to many interior designs. 
The elegance of this Asian-themed, oceanfront room is gently augmented by the use of a late 19th century Mohtasham Kashan, the revered Persian city rug type, on the floor.

Jan David Winitz, President and Founder of Claremont Rug Company in Oakland, CA, has built a global reputation among carpet collectors and connoisseurs since he founded the company at age 25 in 1980.