Collecting & Connoisseurship

Building a Collection of Antique Art Rugs

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 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.

A Kermanshah Persian Rug, Circa 1850

LAVER KIRMAN, Western Persian
11ft 10in x 14ft 5in
Circa 1850

Today, because the classic 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, these rugs, when placed next to a 100-200 year-old exemplary piece, pale to even an untrained viewer. It is not casually that scholars have dubbed the 19th century as the “Second Golden Age of Persian Rug Weaving.” The 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 in the rug’s inventive use of color 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

Caucasian Antique Rugs interact with art in this collector's home

An Uniquely Eclectic Art Collection is Intertwined With Expressive Caucasian Antique Rugs– Both On the Wall and On The Floor

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 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, from primitive to ornate and subdued to sumptuous, give the connoisseur a lot 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. 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 exciting counterpoint on the horizontal plane.

For the Seasoned Rug Collector

While many a collector is driven to assemble a group of rugs to fill a residence, collectors 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 primitive qualities of carpets from the village of Bakshaish in Northwest Persia or the tribes weaving 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.

QASHQAI, Southwest Persian, 5ft 2in x 6ft 10in, 3rd Quarter, 19th Century

QASHQAI, Southwest Persian
5ft 2in x 6ft 10in
3rd Quarter, 19th Century

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 started with into more and more rarified strata, the excitement and personal rewards from each new acquisition continue to be one of the driving motivations for collecting rugs. At some point, whether one invests $100,000 or $15 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 museum, rug vaults and cellars.

For the Novice

Although choices of styles are vast for the novice, most people naturally gravitate to certain subgroups, so finding a focus is not such a daunting task.

There are certain weaving traditions that are more popular and better known, such as the tribal rugs of the Caucasus Mountains, the idiosyncratic village rugs of Persian Azerbaijan (Bakshaish, Serapi and Camelhair) or the finely woven Persian city and town rugs from Laver Kirman or Mohtasham Kashan. If a collector is also interested in the best investment in antique rugs, these styles have tended to appreciate more quickly.

One of the three types will be the most appealing, and then a further exploration of collectible rugs of that category can ensue. Spending as little as $10,000 for a first purchase can in many cases yield for the novice collector an exciting art piece which serves as the foundation for a substantial, ultimate collection.

For Furnishing a Fine Home—the Homeowner/Collector

Many people who do not have the “collector mentality” can still enjoy the majesty of an antique rug collection, because collectible carpets also have a profound impact on furnishing a fine home. Putting together a suite of carpets that enhance the décor, but also are chosen for their high level of artistry, is the way many people become the proud owners of a rug collection.

Laver Kirman Rugs are in all rooms of he collector's home

This collector’s entire home is decorated with a full suite of Laver Kirman Rugs

A joke among connoisseurs is that you’ll know when you have become a collector because you keep buying rugs after there are no more floors (or walls) in your home to display them.

Art-level room-size and oversize carpets needed to furnish the major rooms of a home were woven in a different setting than collectible small rugs. In the 19th century, the Persian and European upper class often commissioned large pieces of the most talented city workshops and village cooperatives in areas such as Kermanshah, Sultanabad, and Tabriz. Naturally, these pieces exhibited the mature innovation, artistic spirit, and fine craftsmanship that a homeowner-collector responds to.

The smaller rugs needed for a home were always made by individual weavers, either by a city, village or even tribal artisan. In the smaller rugs, one finds a much wider array of designs and color combinations, as well as an even greater level of artistic expression and innovation. For this reason, most serious rug collectors concentrate on area rugs. But for the homeowner-collector, furnishing the smaller spaces in the home can be a delightful adventure as well.

Furnishing a home with art-level 19th century and early 20th century rugs usually involves 3-8 large pieces plus sundry runners and scatter rugs. Size of carpets will, of course, affect the size of the budget, but a homeowner-collector working with established galleries can expect to invest $100,000 to $500,000. Of course for those who wish to start collecting at the highest levels, the bottom-line amount can be substantially more.

There are two reasons for shopping at a respected long-established gallery rather than a local store. The established gallery is more likely to offer a Full Exchange Guarantee that will allow the budding collector to upgrade in the future as his taste matures. Secondly, collectible rugs represent a rare category among all the hand woven rugs available and only a large gallery will have a selection at this level.

Another way a novice rug collector can get started is to study the rugs available online. Rug books can give general exposure to rug types and will sometimes offer pictures of collectible-level rugs as illustrations. However, many of the rug books were written 10-20 years ago and the availability of collectible rugs has diminished.  Shopping online will give the novice a sense of actual choice.

GUBPA SHIRVAN, Southeast Caucasian 3ft 8in x 6ft 8in Circa 1850

GUBPA SHIRVAN, Southeast Caucasian 3ft 8in x 6ft 8in Circa 1850

Knowing the important influence and the rarity of great rugs, it is important that potential collectors inquire about the cost of building a private trove. As with any art form, prices will often be somewhat shocking, but not in the way that most of them have projected.  For, truth be told, for art collectors who spend from $500,000 to millions of dollars for an important canvas, art-level rugs are relatively modestly priced.

In our more than three decades of working with global clients, we have developed some guidelines that collectors new to rugs often find quite helpful as they begin to evolve their personal sensibilities and understanding of the rare rugs that are still available.

To start to get a sense of how to put together a collection of art-level carpets, either for their aesthetic and cultural worth alone or to furnish a fine home with carpets that will appreciate in value, we offer a few guidelines:

1)  With little exception, the rugs should be woven at the start of the 20th century or earlier with colors derived entirely from natural dyes.

2) They should be exemplary artistically. To determine this, one needs the guidance of a widely experienced gallery until one gains their own artistic eye.

3)  They should demonstrate uniqueness and a definite creative spark in their use of design and color, or they should be exemplary examples of traditional styles.

4) They should possess a discernible level of balance and harmony in their motifs and colors. Every aspect of the rug should fit together into a unified whole.

5) Since one is motivated to collect antique rugs as much for one’s personal enjoyment as for investment, they should appeal to you personally, both intellectually and emotionally.

6) The rugs must be of sound foundation and wear should be even and moderate. In 19th century rugs, in particular, some restoration should be expected as long as the work is expertly done and does not affect either the rugs durability or aesthetic appeal.

7) Since undoubtedly your taste will grow and may change as you become evermore familiar with rugs and learn to “see into them,” it is vital only to buy in venues that offer a long-term exchange policy and also offer rugs of a quality you can upgrade into.

For more information consult the many other articles in the Educational Section of our website or contact us at 800-441-1332.

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.