Bill English
April 26, 2000

Art can sometimes be off the wall. You might even find it on the floor.

With a tradition dating back 4,000 years, the Oriental rug long has been seen as an elegant way to enhance the beauty of an interior space. For centuries these woven masterpieces have been created by simple peasants in six great carpet producing areas: Iran, Turkey, the Caucasus, Turkestan, India and China. Within these regions an amazing assortment of designs has emerged from hundreds of villages. Names like Kirman, Tabriz, Kazak and Mir have become well known to rug collectors throughout the world.

But are these treasured textiles a true art form or simply a well evolved craft? What elements of a 100-year-old carpet allow it to transcend mere weaving and enter the realm of mystical inspiration? And is it possible for this transcendental aspect to be reproduced today?

Those were among the topics debated as hundreds of rug collectors and more than 70 dealers from all over the world gathered earlier this month at the Embassy Suites in Burlingame for the Fifth American Conference on Oriental Rugs, or ACOR-5. There they bought and sold rare carpets, gave lectures and exchanged international rug gossip.

The issue of art or craft isn’t cut and dried, says Mark Hopkins, 68, from Lincoln, Mass., who is president of the New England Rug Society and one of the organizers of ACOR-5.

“The pieces the weavers created on their looms for pleasure or to use can be considered art,” Hopkins says. “However, many urban rugs made for the commercial marketplace are woven from a cartoon — a drawing by a designer which the weaver is given to copy. In this instance, the art of the design is not with the women who wove it but with the designer. The weaver ends up being the carpenter who builds the house.”

When we think in terms of art, we usually think of the tribal pieces, says Elisabeth Poole, head of the carpet department at Christie’s Auction House in New York. She also attended ACOR-5.

“These rugs are most commonly woven by two people,” Poole says. “On some workshop rugs there can be as many weavers as can sit side by side across the width of the rug. If I had to pinpoint these workshop rugs, I think they would have to be classified as craft. But I don’t feel this in any way degrades their beauty or fine quality.”

Many Eastern cultures do not draw the same distinction between art and craft as Westerners do, says Diane Mott, associate curator of textiles for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, who oversees the oriental rug collections for the De Young Museum.

“If the creation of these rugs were simply a craft, you wouldn’t find the wide variance of talent that these weavers display,” Mott says. “Some of the women weaving these carpets are clearly more artistically gifted than others. While some weavers may simply copy old designs, others put more of themselves into their rugs. A young woman weaving a rug for her dowry might put all of her aspirations for her future into her design. This will have a profound effect on her aesthetic decisions.”

The creation of the natural dyes used in these rugs is itself an art form, Mott adds.

“There is definitely something magical about the creation of the various natural dyes,” she says. “It’s fascinating that people with such a basic technology were able to determine the different steps required to achieve these vibrant colors. An indigo leaf does not produce blue in its natural state. It must be mixed with other substances. That is definitely an art.”

Alan Marcuson, a London rug dealer who attended ACOR-5, says consumers should never become overly confident when selecting what they feel is an art-level carpet. “There are no easy rules,” Marcuson says. “It’s wishful thinking for the average layman to enter the marketplace and think they can easily determine what makes a great rug. It takes years of study to tell the difference between an art-level carpet and the morass of ugly rugs out there.”

After two decades in the business, Jan David Winitz, president of Claremont Rug Co. in Oakland, says antique rugs still surprise him every day. The soul of the weaver often reveals itself slowly to the eye. Fresh and exciting motifs along with the subtle variations of hues continue to emerge as one comes to know a rug.

Winitz, who has been dealing in semi-antique and antique oriental rugs for the past 20 years, is certain that what he sells can be called art.

As he stands at the center of a 150-year-old Persian Serapi carpet, he gazes at the majestically spacious design with wonder, as if seeing it for the first time. The rug features an open field of the same color with stripes of differing shades known as abrash. These distinctive stripes are the mark of a vegetable-dyed carpet.

“A truly fine rug is an individual artistic expression,” Winitz says. “It’s a unified work where a moment of inspiration is frozen in time. A great rug can have an almost impressionistic feeling. It captures an element of rapture.”

But is it fair to compare the weaver’s art with that of a painter or a sculptor? In truth, aren’t these simple peasants following a well trod path of tradition and working within the strict boundaries that their tribes dictate? Isn’t their inspiration derived from the villages in which they were born?

“There is no room in craft for the inspired quality that these fine old pieces display,” Winitz says. “These carpets have a presence that can affect us deeply. When these pieces are being created, most often by women, the weavers often chant. Their inspiration comes from a very deep source.”

It is this sense of mystery and harmony with nature that first attracts many collectors to oriental rugs. A spectacular rug puts us in touch with the cosmological elements of another culture. We can sense the weaver’s connection to nature in the flowers and animals they have chosen to portray.

Collectors who have graced their homes with these rare old carpets quickly realize that a dazzling 19th century Bakshaish can easily hold its own against the most dramatic Picasso. An antique carpet powerfully anchors a room with whimsical design and sublime color.

Your floor becomes a focal point.

Something to be seen and appreciated.

But should we walk on these precious textiles? Might normal family traffic through a living room end up destroying a rare piece of Middle Eastern cultural tradition? Winitz assures visitors to his gallery that walking on these old carpets only enhances their beauty.

“These rugs are, of course, perishable but extremely durable,” Winitz says. “In truth, walking on an antique rug gives the wool a lustrous patina that is highly desirable.”

True, but wise collectors must consider their lifestyles before spending $100,000 on 200-year-old rug for the dining room floor. One must be careful not to place an antique rug where it might receive uneven or heavy wear. After all, these rugs have proven to be investments worth protecting. Many old and rare carpets have increased in value by as much as 20 percent a year over the last few decades.

Currently, high-quality rugs from the 19th century or earlier are expensive enough to warrant careful consideration. At Claremont Rug Co., room-size carpets start at $25,000, and palace-size pieces easily run into six figures. An oversize carpet with more than 300 knots per square inch might take a group of weavers 10 years to create.

For many people these rugs are simply out of reach. Winitz is the first to admit his clientele is very select. Not everyone looking for an Oriental carpet has the means or the eye to appreciate or afford what he sells.

It takes many years of research and study to even begin to know rugs. Winitz deals exclusively in pre-1930 rugs at his main gallery. Most feature vegetable dyes from such natural sources as madder root (red), wild saffron (reddish yellow), indigo (blue) and various herbs, insects and minerals, all of which result in warm and luminous colors.

“There are basically three different designations of rugs in regards to age,” Winitz says. “For a rug to be called antique it is generally agreed that it must be at least 100 years old. Semi-antique rugs are from 50 to 100 years old. Anything newer than 50 years old is considered modern or contemporary.”

The source of these older rugs is limited, and the demand is high. Since these carpets began to be created mainly for export to Europe and America in the 1920s, the quality has gone down significantly.


In the last decade, an alternative has emerged: new rugs that appear old.

Using the traditional patterns and natural dyes from the classic design regions, weavers from Pakistan, Nepal, India and China have been turning out reproduction antique carpets that would fool most eyes.

Brothers Ali and Mohammad Banie, owners of Mohammad’s Rug Gallery in Mill Valley, have been in the rug business in the Bay Area for the past 30 years. Both men were born in Iran and have a strong sense of their heritage as expressed in the rugs they sell. The Banie brothers offer antique, semi-antique and high-quality reproduction rugs for sale.

“No reproduction rug can ever match the soulful beauty of a true antique,” Ali Banie says. “There is always a certain client that will not respond to a new rug no matter how high the quality. Their eye tells them one thing — that the rug is old — but there isn’t the emotional response. You can feel the heat of a great old rug all through your body.”

But Ali and Mohammad still feel there is a place for fine vegetable- dye reproductions. For one thing, the cost is usually about 10 percent of what a true antique will cost. You might pay $40,000 dollars for a fine 100-year-old Heriz, while the cost of a copy will be only $4,000.

Some companies producing these reproduction antiques even artificially age them. It is not uncommon to find a new rug that appears to have been walked on for 100 years. Even the patina of an old rug has been artfully re-created.

“Before I started dealing in these copies coming out of Pakistan, I had no real knowledge of them,” Mohammad Banie says. “The first time I saw one, I immediately offered to pay $5,000 dollars for a rug that I was certain was worth $20,000. Even with all my years of experience at looking at rugs, I was fooled.”

The wise buyer will look at many rugs and study books about them before making a substantial purchase. An oriental carpet can become a wonderful addition to any household — but it must be chosen with the care and respect it deserves. Only then can it be appreciated as a true art form.


Many antique rugs show evidence of restoration and repair. Carpets more than 100 years old may have repairs that are themselves more than 50 years old, or they may have restoration work completed in the last few years.

Repair quality varies greatly from rug to rug. High-quality restoration is barely visible to the naked eye.

Always check a rug both front and back for evidence of repair work. Ill-advised or shoddy repair work is less desirable than a rug that needs repair and has nothing done to it.

Almost all rugs can be repaired if their completed value warrants the cost. One rule of thumb to follow: The older and rarer the rug, the more repairs and restoration are acceptable. Extensive work on an 18th century carpet with an inspired design will do little to diminish its value. However, even modest repair on a rug from the 20th century can greatly effect its worth.

A reputable dealer will always point out where repair work has been done before you make a purchase.

Buying a rug in need of repair can be costly. It is not uncommon for a room-size rug in need of work to cost thousands of dollars to restore.

Remember, condition is a key element in a rug’s value. Pristine carpets always bring a premium.


— Consider your means and needs. Nothing can replace the soulful beauty and investment value of a semi-antique or antique rug. However, if the cost is prohibitive, or the carpet will receive heavy wear, a vegetable dye reproduction might be considered the next-best choice.

— Check for wear. In rugs up to 80 years old, there should be very little wear or evidence of repair. Rugs more than 100 years old are allowed some repairs and wear depending on their rarity and desirability.

— Learn. Always seek out a knowledgeable dealer who is willing to give you the gift of his or her time. Get to know rugs before making a substantial purchase. Discover as much as you can about the various villages and the people who create these carpets.

— Accept changing taste. Be aware that knowing rugs is a process. As your knowledge increases, your taste may change. Most high-quality dealers will allow you to trade in your previously owned carpets as your passion evolves.

Reposted for educational purposes only. San Francisco Chronicle retains sole ownership of this article.