Nine-Point Methodology for Evaluating Antique Oriental Carpets
By Jan David Winitz, President & Founder
Over his career as a gallery owner, international investor and carpet connoisseur, Claremont founder and president Jan David Winitz has developed this concise system. He presented it as part of the PBS documentary series, “American Architectural Review,” with John Stossel.
(The attributes listed below are not shown in order of importance. All nine points combine together to determine the rug’s value and level of collectability.)
1. Level of Artistry
Generally, in scholarly discussions of antique Oriental rugs, the aspect of artistry has been the least developed while the visual and technical differences among the myriad styles has received tremendous study, an area of concentration that has greatly assisted our appreciation of this art form. However, since the founding of Claremont Rug Company, we have been sensitive to this missing, and for us seminal, topic of artistry. The vast variation in artistic dexterity and sensibility of various antique carpets inspired us to articulate over the years the elements that help to distinguish highly accomplished from mediocre works and their intrinsic value.
The most difficult criterion to grasp, a rug’s artistry stems from its overall level of unity among the elements in the composition and the visual impact it has on the viewer. In weaving, as in all art forms, the best pieces have what is sometimes referred to as “a universal impact.” Does it have staying power, i.e. the more one looks at it, the more one sees and is intrigued by it? Does the composition slow you down, even literally encompass you, giving you the sense you could be at its presence forever?
2. Level of Beauty
Does a rug possess an overall balance and harmony between its various motifs, and a symbiotic relationship between its colors and designs? The choice of a rug’s palette, the ability to balance 8-25 or more tonalities within a rug, and knowledgeable command of color-combining are major determinants of a rug’s aesthetic appeal. Are the individual colors intriguing and do they work together harmoniously? Also affecting the level of beauty in Oriental carpets is the sense of visual depth (or lack thereof), principally accomplished through the art of abrash, striations within one hue intentionally wrought during the dyeing process. Are these color shifts naturally occurring or do they seem abrupt and out of place?
Equally impactful is effective use of proportion between design elements. If the scales of the largest and the smallest motifs are too similar, they will not be sufficiently visible and, therefore not compelling enough in relationship to the entire spectrum of designs. An alluring sense of fluidity or movement adds interest and impact to a carpet, achieved by the spaciousness between field designs, the syncopation of the rug’s colors, the intentional abrash technique mentioned above and the choice of pattern in the main border.
3. The Carpet’s Age
Rugs woven before the Commercial Period took hold (roughly 1920) are the 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. The Commercial Period transformed the Oriental Rug market with its repetition of rug designs, instead of each rug being one-of-a-kind and the eventual turning to the use of harsh chemical dyes.
4. The Carpet’s Condition Relative to Age
The earlier the rug was woven; the more wear and restoration is allowable. The impact on value is determined by how much restoration there is and how well it is executed. Chemical washing, extreme sun-fading and staining, and reducing the size of rugs have a deep negative impact on the rug’s value. The earlier the piece, the greater the value, if its artistry and craftsmanship are elevated and its condition is commensurate with age.
5. Quality of Color
All Oriental rug colors were made from natural dyestuffs before the appearance of chemical dyes, in some cases as early as the mid-1860s. An all-naturally dyed palette of color is paramount for a carpet to have more than just decorative value, as vegetable dyes develop a prized patina over time, while chemical dyes are often garish or fade with the passage of the decades. Beyond that, dyers had varying levels of skill and invested dramatically different amounts of time in dyeing the yarns. The “quality of color”–its radiance and level of nuance within each hue – is centrally important. Certain rare colors such as Tyrian purple, saffron yellow, cochineal rose and greens add to the carpet’s value.
The amount of originality in a rug’s colors and design significantly impacts its desirability to connoisseurs, as long as the elements of beauty previously discussed are present. Carpets that are entirely singular works of art, that may even step outside the regional designs to present never-before-seen motifs and colorways in an aesthetically successful manner, are supremely prized. Rugs that are exemplary, nuanced representatives of a traditional style are also widely sought after.
With some exceptions, the rugs produced circa 1875 and earlier demonstrate the greatest creativity, especially pieces woven in the first half of the 19th century most often reveal a particularly refreshing free-form aesthetic. Along with the use of rare dyestuffs such as Tyrian purple, saffron, cochineal and pistachio, some master weavers on the tribal and village level and designers for the larger town and city rugs also created singular, exotic tonalities that are exciting to see and greatly enhance their weavings’ value.
Certain 19th century substyles are especially sought after, with their best examples renowned for their unequaled artistry. Among Persian city carpets, these include superb-quality, consummately crafted Mohtasham Kashans, Hadji Jallili Tabrizs and Tehrans and from town weaving centers — the finest Ferahans, Ferahan Sarouks, Bijars and Ziegler Sultanabads. From the village tradition — many Bakshaishs, the best Serapis and Camelhair rugs and from the tribal styles, the finest Caucasian, Afshar, Qashqai and Persian Northwest rugs are rarely found. It is important to emphasize that all of these rug types contain much more plentiful 20th century Commercial Era examples that, while often offering excellent wool and noteworthy craftsmanship, are no longer imbued with their predecessors’ aesthetic brilliance.
8. Fineness of Weave
The rugs from each region offer a distinct construction that includes a knot density particular to that tradition. The most exquisite 19th century Persian city rugs usually demonstrate a premier level of craftsmanship that manifests in a tremendous sharpness of their motifs and a level of detail work akin to a line drawing. This precision is enhanced by very even, low-cut pile that gives the rug’s surface a glass-like quality. In contrast, many top-quality Caucasian and Kurdish tribal rugs use much looser knotting and a plush surface, which centrally contributes to their prized rugged aesthetic.
During the 20th century, some city rugs were woven with knot counts exceeding 500 knots per square inch, but typically their level of artistry and originality suffered greatly. Their designs became repetitive rather than nuanced, and their color palettes were limited to a few hues. The fineness of weave is a contributing factor to discern which pieces from one weaving tradition are superior, but should not be used to determine quality between different traditions.
9. Quality of Wool
Rug wool has many different grades. The best contains a high fat content in its fiber, making it extremely lustrous and giving a radiance to the colors in a rug that ages over time. It is elastic and lanolin-rich to the touch. For these reasons, top grades of wool increase a carpet’s 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 delivered the finest grades. The villages of Northwest Persian Azerbaijan and the city of Kirman that bought their wool directly from the tribal groups invariably offer a tremendously lustrous surface and resiliency to the touch.
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 involve a non-verbal language that can profoundly speak to us. The interplay between age and condition helps us to set our priorities in terms of living with an antique rug; a carpet’s weave can evoke a refined formality in city rugs or a casual folkloric charm in nomadic rugs. It is my wish that utilizing this methodology will make your search for the ideal Oriental carpet even more exhilarating.
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Jan David Winitz