2000 years of oriental rug trade by Thomas Cole

Category: General

The trade in oriental rugs has been going on for a long time, perhaps more than 2000 years! After all, the oldest documented carpet, housed in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, was excavated in the Altai Mtns of Siberia, but was probably woven in Persia. How did it get to Siberia? It is unknown but likely was offered as a gift to Scythian royalty or was made to order and shipped to the far reaches of ancient Inner Asia. But the movement of this weaving over such long distances so long ago suggests that there was some type of market at that time.

Afshar Shiraz 1900

The market evolved, with the presence of western imperial powers in rug producing regions, including the invasion of Turkmenistan by the Czarist armies, finally subduing the Turkmen tribesmen in a landmark battle in 1881. The British too played a role in the evolution of the carpet trade in Asia, making their presence felt in Tibet at the end of the 19th century. By opening the “Forbidden Land” to trade, the importation of synthetic dyestuffs and other materials enriched the urban aristocracy, provoking an indigenous workshop craft industry, which inevitably altered the traditional design pool (consisting of simple geometric patterns), with the introduction of pictorial and religious iconography. The Persian state always took rug weaving very seriously and even banned the use of certain imported synthetic dyestuffs to protect their long legacy of artistic endeavours. Rug weaving throughout Anatolia has been going on for centuries, and the design pool only began to lose integrity in the 19th century as foreign influences as well as market demands altered both the design pool and palette. Inevitably the smaller the world became through trade and travel, the indigenous art forms evolved, some faster than others, and became more attractive to ‘western’ taste and fashion.

Aydin kilim fragment

To some degree the same marketplace forces exist today, though the hardened collectors of antique rugs and textiles would be loathe to concede their interests are, in the big picture, influenced by current trends called ‘fashion’ or, worse yet, ‘fad’. At one point in the recent past, Anatolian kilims, exhibiting and truly enigmatic and historically important design pool, were extremely popular. In 1990, the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco exhibited a collection of more than 100 pieces collected over the previous 20 years, and the market disappeared, as both collectors and dealers figured they would never be able to buy other equally beautiful and ‘important’ examples. The market for these beautiful weavings literally died. Only now, are there the murmurings of renewed interest in these lovely weavings.

While there will always be a market for “decorative” floor rugs, the trade in ‘tribal’ rugs, too, has gone through significant changes over the years. Some may be unfamiliar with the word ‘tribal’ when used to describe a rug market. Even many collectors confuse this word with ‘nomadic’, assuming all tribes in the rug weaving areas of Asia were wandering with their flocks in search of seasonal grazing grounds. Nothing could be further from the truth as the vast majority of these tribal peoples were, at best, semi-nomadic and firmly ensconced in small villages while some of the male members of a family spent time herding their sheep.

Balouch Taimuri

Baluch rugs (along with Kurdish weavings) were once considered the doormat of the rug world, literally. Dealers used to give their clients a small Baluch rug gratis when purchases were made of more expensive and beautiful weavings! Now the Baluch rug weaving world has been dissected, explained, categorized and, finally, marketed. This past spring, David Sorgato, an Italian dealer, mounted an exhibition of more than 100 Baluch weavings and successfully sold a large percentage of the collection to the chic Italian market, one that has not been traditionally associated with the ‘tribal’ rug market.

The ‘real market’ in tribal weavings is probably the strongest in Germany, where there appears to be an intrinsic understanding of the art. The penchant to identify and dissect every aspect of tribal weavings is readily apparent in the Turkmen rug market in Germany. Turkmen rugs are probably the most ‘classical’ tribal weavings, with origins dating to the 13th-14th centuries when specific tribes were named in historical texts, tribes which still exist to this day. With the demise of traditional Turkmen textile art in the late 19th century, the antique rugs represent an uninterrupted legacy of aesthetics, with some people believing it can be directly related to Central Asian cultures from the Bronze Age (ie. approx. 1500 BCE). The actual difference between, for example, a 17th century Turkmen may be indistinguishable from that of a rug woven circa 1800.

Tekke 19th century

How does one gain the confidence necessary to participate in the oriental rug market which is not an inexpensive venture these days? Obviously one must educate oneself, read books, study the auction house offerings and results, as well as befriend local dealers. A real rug dealer will inevitably be pleased to spend time with a potential client, often imparting their enthusiasm for the subject as well as revealing their own personal tastes and favorites. One often hears of clients buying rugs as a ‘good investment’. This is the last reason anyone should ever buy a rug. No matter what someone says regarding potential value in the future, etc., if you do not LIKE the rug, why would you bother to buy it. This is why it is so important to study rugs in book, and see rugs in person in order to form an educated opinion of what you actually like, as opposed to what a dealer tells you may be a “good buy”. I was once told there are three important aspects of rugs to keep in mind considering the quality of a rug. First is color, second is color, and last, but not least, don’t forget COLOR! This may seem like an exaggeration, but ultimately it comes down to this.

Of course we all want to make a “good buy” which is why one must befriend a dealer rather than merely participate in the auction marketplace where so many feel comfortable, given the affirmation of an underbidder. We often think if someone else is willing to buy that rug for this price, why shouldn’t I be happy to pay just a bit more? The psychological crutch offered by the auction format is comforting to those who really have no confidence in their own taste. Therefore, doing one’s ‘homework’ and discovering who are the dealers with whom one can establish a relationship for the long term is important. This is not to say that one should avoid all auction house offerings, but one should enter into that market armed with both knowledge and confidence.

Uzbek flatweave

The myriad of oriental rugs on offer can be mind boggling. The initial entry into this maze of color, terminology, and geography should be dictated by experiencing the world of rugs through the available literature. There are many books on the subject, as well as trade journals (ie. HALI) that focus on all aspects of weaving from all over the world. Understanding one’s own taste, be it the formality of Persian city weaving to the rustic aesthetics seen in rugs from Uzbekistan or the refinement of Chinese rugs, can be developed by studying books and magazines, as well as the internet. It may seem anomalous to study art through such a cold hearted medium as the internet, but one should take advantage of the information highway as much as possible.

Chinese ca. 1900

In the end, the world of oriental rugs is a pleasant one, replete with a long history and contemporary endeavour, a world of color and design that can inspire both intellectual curiosity and exhilarating visual delights, a world of warmth and comfort in the increasingly very cold and impersonal 21st century. It is a world that has been an integral part of the lives of the artisans for generations, as traditions have been passed down from mother to daughter. It is this continuum of tradition that I find so comforting during these ever changing modern era in which we live.

Thomas Cole
, 21 August 2007

Find antique rugs in Vendors gallery

More articles about: ,

« | »