Collecting Antique Oriental Carpets

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Collecting Antique Oriental Carpets
Detail from High-Collectible Fachralo Kazak, ca. 1850 (left); "La Orana Maria, Paul Gauguin, 1888 evokes the color palette used in 19th century rugs (right)

By Jan David Winitz
Claremont Rug Company

OAKLAND, CA.- Throughout the ages, art collectors, including well-known historic figures such as William Randolph Hearst and John D. Rockefeller, have been drawn to the wonders of antique Oriental carpets. As early as 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. Other notable collectors in the late 19th and early 20th century ranged from Sigmund Freud to Mark Twain to heiress Doris Duke.

For all of these major world figures, assembling caches of antique Oriental carpets was a fascinating and lifelong endeavor, providing an intensely personal opportunity to develop and to continually retest their own sense of beauty and appreciation of virtuoso technique.

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. 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+ year-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 today’s art aficionados and museums.

There is substantial evidence that Oriental rugs are a precursor to modern Western art. Many artists that 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.

In this article, I address many of the factors involved in the decision to embark on an adventure in rug collecting. For most art lovers, the two primary concerns are most likely what to acquire and what level of investment to make.

There are several echelons of antique carpets that allow one to enjoy the process as one rises to a level of personal comfort and knowledge. One of the tools that I have created for clients of my gallery, Claremont Rug Company, is the Oriental Rug Pyramid © that divides carpets into six distinct tiers, with Level 1 primarily consisting of pieces held in museums and by royal families, to Level 6, which are manufactured reproductions whose value will not appreciate. The Pyramid also notes that Levels 1 thru 3 attract the interest of art patrons and those seeking precious tangible assets.

The Compatibility Factor

For those who have had experience in building collections of other types, the learning curve in the rug milieu is drastically reduced. Seasoned as they are, they already trust their eye and, to a great extent, can more easily recognize genuinely artistic achievement. The challenge is to identify carpets that both appeal to one’s 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. Second Golden Age antique carpets make stunning companions to the full range of art from modern to Renaissance paintings and from photographs to pre-Columbian pottery, and much in between.

Some of the most stunning homes are those with impeccably curated art collections that sit atop elite-level antique Oriental rugs. Our clients discover that Second Golden Age pieces are tremendously compatible with their art and furnishings. Large antique carpets in 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. Increasingly, my clients hang their rugs as wall art either alongside canvases or in place of paintings. And a new trend has emerged over the past few years, “rug cellars,” spaces that are entirely devoted to one’s own trove of rugs, with temperature control and suitable lighting.

For the Seasoned Rug Aficionado

While many an aficionado 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 developed into a mature understanding of art.

One individual 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 might explore across the gamut of the art form, finding the diversity itself is what fascinates and satisfies their interest.

As with any form of a dedicated endeavor, moving from novice to veteran involves an investment of time and resources. The process can be virtually endless while being thoroughly engaging. As one moves from the carpets that were initially attractive at the start of a 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 a driving motivation for acquiring rugs.

At some point, whether one invests $100,000 or $20 million into a collection, it becomes clear that what started as a passion can become the most exhilarating of addictions. Whether rugs are displayed as “furnishing” enhancements or as wall art or displayed in a “cellar,” they become part of one’s personal esthetic, richly rewarding acquisitions that enhance a residence and provide a constant entry point into a fascinating area of the art world.

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