Art-Level Antique Oriental Rugs and How to Recognize Them (Part 1)

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Art-Level Antique Oriental Rugs and How to Recognize Them (Part 1)
Claremont Rug Company's proprietary Antique Rug Pyramid (tm) divides antique Oriental rugs into six tiers to help collectors make their selections.

By Jan David Winitz
President and Founder, Claremont Rug Company

OAKLAND, CA.- Whether you are a long-time collector or a neophyte developing an interest, the world of antique Oriental carpets woven during the Second Golden Age of Persian Weaving (ca. 1800 to ca. 1910) is both stimulating and rewarding.

There is a wide range of Oriental carpets that can bring us pleasure and pride of ownership as they grace our homes. Yet only very few are also strong long-term investments worthy of collecting. With little exception, these are true antiques dating from the early 19th century to the turn of the 20th century. I term these pieces “art-level rugs.”

Determining what to acquire requires education and exposure with the reward being the emotional and spiritual impact that great rugs have in your home as you live with them every day.

More than a decade ago, I developed the “Oriental Rug Pyramid” © to provide my clients with a set of guidelines about evaluating rugs and elevating the experience of acquisition.

The Pyramid separates rugs into six tiers, with Level 1 being designated for pieces that are almost exclusively held by museums and royal families. Levels 2 and 3 represent High Collectible and Connoisseur quality rugs, worthy of acquisition for private collections as well as in residence display. Levels 4 and 5 include desirable pieces that range from collectible to decorative and serve well as complements to home décor, from antiques to contemporary. Level 6 rugs are almost entirely machine-made and employ chemical dyes. They have no intrinsic art or investment value.

That being said, it is important to understand how to view a rug and how to place it in context as you evaluate it. Among the first considerations is tied to the Second Golden age designation. During this period, many of the best rugs were inspired by artistic expressions of pastoral nomads living in isolated encampments of Persia, the Caucasus, and Turkey. Using elemental portable looms, they continually reinterpreted ancestral designs passed down from mothers to their daughters for many generations. Art-level rugs were also woven on the family looms of the cottage industry in the many villages of the Near East. In larger cities, patrons commissioned workshops to create their finest carpets, devoting as much as 15 years to a single project.

Throughout the Near East, brides and grooms wove rugs to express to each other the deep affection for life that they could not formulate in words. In many cases, they would present them to one another on their wedding day. Parents wove rugs to pass on the rich symbolic heritage of their cultural group to their children. Spiritual teachers wove to communicate the deepest aspects of their teaching to their students.

The myriad activities involved…made carpet weaving one of the most labor-intensive of art forms.

Using techniques virtually unchanged since Biblical times, the finest weavers strove to complete every step as perfectly as possible. The myriad activities involved—raising the sheep, spinning, and carding the wool, brewing the dyes from purely natural sources, hand-tying hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of knots—made carpet weaving one of the most labor-intensive of art forms.

But the weaving process that had existed in a virtually unaltered form since time immemorial was swiftly transformed as rugs began to be produced for export to Europe. By the 1920s and ’30s, the pressure to satisfy the decorative requirements of the Western market prompted the creation of large workshops throughout the Near East. Timesaving measures were employed. The time-consuming natural dyes with their vast array of nuanced hues were replaced by easy-to-brew but harsh chemical dyes. This irrevocably compromised the level of craftsmanship, diluted the ancestral design pool, and thwarted the artistic inspiration of the weavers.

In little more than a generation, rug-making became an industry whose highest motivation was to produce decoratively pleasing floor coverings. Weaving was transformed from art into craft. So how do I recognize an art-level Oriental rug? Regardless of the region in which it was woven, it is a one-in-the-world artistic expression with an enrapturing visual impact and consummate craftsmanship.

For those wishing to discover art-level rugs, it is certainly helpful to peruse some of the literature available on Oriental rugs. Yet, what is most enriching is to educate one’s eye. This can only be achieved by looking at as many rugs of varying levels of quality as possible.

At my gallery, Claremont Rug Company, we have 2500 rugs from the Second Golden Age in our trove with more than 1000 viewable online. Several museums in the U.S. have extensive collections of rugs that are viewable online. They include the deYoung Museum in San Francisco (highlighted by the Caroline and H. McCoy Jones Collection), Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (300 rugs online display), or The Textile Museum in Washington, DC. (currently over 1000 rugs viewable online).

As you begin to immerse yourself in the world of antique Oriental rugs, you may discover how some warm your heart and enliven your mind in a profound, deeply penetrating manner. Ultimately, it is by this moving inner effect that you can recognize those antique carpets that are truly “art-level.”

In our next installment, we will explore more deeply weaving and dying techniques and how to use your knowledge of the processes to evaluate rugs that you might wish to acquire.

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