BUYING AN ORIENTAL CARPET

CARPET DEALERS AND BUYERS

Different travelers have different impressions of carpet dealers in Turkey The travel writer Alam Smith wrote, “Turkish carpet merchants are a pretty reasonable bunch. Certainly they’re after the best price possible—that is their job—but no-one we dealt with was clearly out to rip us off. It just wouldn’t be good business. Enjoy the process—if you’re not enjoying, simply remove yourself politely. The whole experience should be pleasant, positive and meaningful. [Source: Michael Specter, The New Yorker, March 16, 2000]

Reporting from Antalya in southern Turkey, Michael Specter wrote in the New Yorker: “The street near the Old Town’s twelfth century minaret was filled with carpet salesmen. They advertised themselves by shouting in German, English, Russian, and Turkish—any language they thought might work. They hissed at me when I ignored them, and even grabbed at my sleeve.”

The Antalya carpet dealer Mehmet Saggun told The New Yorker, “Tourist expect to be cheated. Everything follows from that.”

Many rug experts claim that unless you really know what you are doing you are more likely to get a great carpet at a great price in New York, London or Hamburg than in the Middle East or Central Asia. There are probably more good antique rugs in Europe and North America than in the country of their origin. Many rugs made in the 19th century were exported in mass around the turn of the century.

Purchases of high quality new rugs made in India, China, Romania and other places are better made from large discounters in the United States than from rug dealers on the traveler’s trail because discounters can buy in bulk and save on economies of scale. Buying at home also spares the buyer worries about shipping, customs and other hassles.

If you decide to buy a carpet in Turkey, it is a good idea to begin your quest at museums that exhibit both old and new carpets. Among these are the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum and the Vakiflar Carpet Museum, both in Istanbul. The patterns of many of the carpets are registered at the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum. Reputable dealers will provide a certificate of authenticity provided by the museum with a rug purchase.

Carpet Rip Offs

Travelers that think they are getting a bargain are inevitably the ones who get ripped off. Rip off schemes include passing off machine-made cotton rugs as silk carpets: using man-made dyes as vegetable dyes; artificially-aging rugs; and touting mass-produced rugs as one-of-a-kind originals. [Source: Michael Specter, The New Yorker, March 16, 2000]

Machine made rugs are pretty obvious. The designs look machine made and too perfect. The colors have a metallic sheen. Hand made rugs look hand made and are full of irregularities and “mistakes” that give it character.

Many carpets are washed in bleach or other chemicals to make them look old. To determine if a rug has been bleached to give it an antique appearance, check the roots of the carpet. In carpets that have aged naturally the roots will be the same color, but they have been treated, the roots will be darker.

Some buyers count the knots per square inch. Lots of knots is often an indication of quality. You can determine the quality of the wool by roughly raking your fingers across the carpet. If clumps of wool fall away it is not very good quality.

To check if a silk carpet is indeed silk, pluck a knot from the center of the carpet, not the fringe, and set it on fire with a lighter. If it is real silk it beads up and sputters, but of it is cotton, it will simply burn and smoke. Also be on the alert for “art silk,” or artificial silk.

Carpet Buying Ritual

Getting a good deal on a carpet takes knowledge, perseverance, negotiating skill and patience. Most visits to a carpet shop begin with an offer of tea, apple tea, pomegranate tea or thick, sweet coffee, often delivered by a boy. To reject the offer once inside the shop is considered an insult. Before the shopping begins there is an exchange of small talk and chatter about carpets. Generally, no prices are listed. [Source: Michael Specter, The New Yorker, March 16, 2000]

Generally customers start out by telling the rug sellers what they want to see, old or new carpets, large or small, pile or kilims, and a preference for designs from a particular country, region, city or tribe. Some describe the exchange as a subtle, indirect process in which the dealer doesn’t ask the customers what they wants and the customers don’t say what they want.

Then carpets are brought in by a boy or assistant and set at your feet one at a time. You are expected to sit there as the pile grows. Generally, smaller, relatively poor quality carpets are brought out first. Next come camel bags full of carpets of a particularly style, design or region, with the premier top-quality pieces arriving last.

When all the carpets have been shown, the dealer then begins going through the pile backwards. Carpets that you like are set aside. The others are taken away. Afterwards you can ask to see more rugs or you can begin negotiating for the ones you like. If you don’t see anything you like excuse yourself politely and leave.

Buyers should not let on what rugs they like. They should ask the price of each rug and offer about a third of the asked price. Slowly the dealer will come down and the dealer will go up and arrive at a price about 65 percent of the asking price. If you are not satisfied in anyway shy away from a deal. If the negotiations has reached an impasse get up and leave. Sometimes you can get additional discounts by offering to pay in dollars or negotiating the method of payment.

Try to carry the carpet home with you. If not ask how the dealer ships and when it will arrive. If you are nervous about getting ripped off negotiate to withhold part of the payment until the rug arrives or if you are really worried contact a shipping agent and have the money placed in escrow account. Duty charges are usually minimal.

Carpet Prices

There is a great deal of variation in prices. New runners from Iran cost around $250. Turkish prayer rugs, measuring 4-x-6 feet and aged less than 50 years, go for between $400 and $1,000. One-hundred-year-old Caucasian Kazaks of similar size cost between $1200 and $2,500 depending on the age. New room-size pile rugs made in Turkey start at about $800. [Source: Michael Specter, The New Yorker, March 16, 2000]

Explaining how prices are set in the carpet business, Saggun told The New Yorker, “Rugs are worth what people will pay. It is not a rational business. Art never is. It’s emotion. There are many dealers who charge a lot because they think it will make them important. And, much too often it works...People would rather be lied to and pay ten times as much. It’s an aspect of human psychology. I sometimes think that if I charge five times more for a rug, people would be more eager to buy it

It is unreasonable to think that you will be able to get some great valuable carpet and your carpet will pay dividends as an investment. The people that sell carpets generally known much more about them than you do and they are likely to sell you something for less than its value.

Buying an Oriental Carpet

Andrew Lee Butters wrote in Time magazine, “First lesson: The seller is going to win, because he invented the game. Friends in the industry tell me that they way to start collecting rugs is to do your homework, by examining catalogs and prices at big auction houses and dealers, then approach smaller shops and look at a lot of rugs. In other words, develop your own expertise. But who has the time? With a job and a social life, no matter how hard I've worked at trying to distinguish between an Iranian Kurdish sumac and an Azeri kilim, there's little chance that I'm going to outfox a merchant with years of experience and generations of rug traders in his blood. One way or another, I'm going to have to pay the pink-face tax. So play your own game: If the rug works for you, it's a good rug. [Source: Andrew Lee Butters, Time magazine, April 18, 2008 +++]

“Conversely, even if you got a great price on a rug that doesn't fit in your apartment, you're still a sucker. Early on, I decided that I much prefer simple, single-knot tribal rugs that have a homespun quality to them, as opposed to the grand, Persian, double-knot silk carpets that go well in a living room full of ivory elephant tusks. This may mean my tastes aren't very elevated, but it has saved me a lot of money. +++

“Another rule of thumb: Life is unfair, and everything comes a lot easier when you don't really need it. I did my best-ever bit of bargaining killing time on a layover in Istanbul, last January. A rug trader lured me into his shop and showed me a beautiful Anatolian kilim. "I'm on my way to Iraq, I don't want to buy a rug," I kept telling the guy, as the price kept plummeting. To avoid the embarrassment of an expensive purchase on the one hand, or from paying too much for a rug you wanted too badly, think about the big picture. And the big picture is grim. +++

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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