An oriental carpet (more properly a rug) is a heavy textile made for a wide variety of purposes produced in "Oriental countries", which are often Islamic. They can be pile woven or flat woven without pile, using various materials such as silk, wool, and cotton. Examples range in size from pillow to large, room-sized carpets, and include carrier bags, floor coverings, decorations for animals and Islamic prayer rugs ("sajjadah"). Geographically, oriental rugs are made in an area referred to as the "Rug Belt", which stretches from Morocco across North Africa, the Middle East, and into Central Asia and northern India. It includes places such as western China, Tibet, Turkey, Iran, the Maghreb, the Caucasus and India and Pakistan in the south. Since many of these places lie in the Islamic world, oriental rugs are often also called "Islamic Carpets",and the term "oriental rug" is used mainly for convenience.[Source: Wikipedia +]

Describing what makes a really beautiful rug, the carpet dealer Mehmet Saggun told the New Yorker, “People like music because its just sounds put together in a way that has power to move us. The same is true with carpets. There is a harmony, when it works, that is really beautiful. The rest is really silly.” He dismissed people who worried too much about technical details as “knot counters.” “They dive into a carpet and start counting. They never even step back, take a breath, and try to decide if they love it.” [Source: Michael Specter, The New Yorker, March 16, 2000]

The so-called Ardabil carpet at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London has been called “the world’s oldest dated carpet. Measuring 12 by 5 meters and compred of 30 million hand-tied knots, it was made about 1539-40 for the Arbadyl mosque in what is now northwest Iran. As a carpet made for a religion place it has elaborate non-figurative designs in 10 colors, By contrast, the museum’s Chelsea carpet, also from 16th century Persia, is full of flowers, fruits and animals as it was made for non- religious use.

Marika Sardar of New York University wrote: “Many carpets now have no record of date or place of origin. Early scholars devised one dating system based on carpets that appeared in Italian and Flemish paintings, and some rugs are now known by the name of the artist in whose paintings they appear, such as Lotto and Holbein. More recent studies focus on the technical aspects of carpet production, such as material, dyes, and weaving structure, finding these to be important clues in determining where a particular carpet was made. While patterns were popular over wide geographical areas or were sent from court workshops to provincial production centers, each region had a characteristic style of weaving that remained the same over time. In Persia, for instance, an asymmetrical knot was most often used, and in Turkey a symmetrical one. Egyptian carpets are always fully wool, and Indian ones are recognized by their distinctive red hue.[Source: Marika Sardar Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art\^/]

Book: “The Hali Rug Guide” by Laurence King (Hali Publications Ltd, 1997); “Oriental Rugs Antique and Modern” by Walter A. Hawley (1913). “Timbuktu to Tibet: Exotic Rugs & Textiles from New York Collectors” by Jon Thompson, New York: Hajji Baba Club, 2008. “Oriental Rug Review” based in North Hampton, New Hampshire was a magazine that was published in the 1980s and 90s.

Websites: www.rugnotes.com ; Textile Museum in Washington D.C.” www.textilemuseum.org; for information on patterns: www.mathforum.org/geometry/patterns ; online rug magazines: www.rugreview.com , www.joazan.com/english.htm and www.cloudband.com

Types of Carpets

The term “rug” and “carpet” are often used interchangeably although technically a rug sits loosely on a floor while a carpet is fastened down. Pile rugs feature yarns that stand erected from the carpet backing. Knotted pile rugs feature piles that are knotted through the warps and wefts. Flat woven rugs do not have erect piles. The yarns are woven vertically. Antiques is a term fixed to rugs made before the year 1900, or sometimes World War I.

Carpets come in various forms: 1) “nomadic” or “tribal” rugs (knotted pile); 2) kilims (flat-woven rugs), 3) sumaks (kilims that have been hand embroidered to enhance their patterns using a special technique in which threads are wrapped around the warp), 4) prayer rugs (often with an arched niche called the “mihrab”, which is pointed towards Mecca when its use prays) and 5) cushion covers. Kilims can be placed on walls or on the floor. They are associated with Turkey but are produced in Pakistan, India and other places. Sumaks are often used as covers or blankets.

Most carpets bought by travelers are 4-x-6 feet, 9-x-12 feet, room-size rugs, small prayer rugs or runners. Kilims are softer than carpets. They are often used as furniture and cushion covers. Kilim motifs includw represent women (an hourglass shape with a vertical line in the middle), rams (with curling horns at the top) represent strength. Small rugs are used to claim a private place for prayer.

Early History of Carpets

Ancient Egypt, Syria, Persia and the Caucasus all had carpet-weaving centers. Rugs were listed as valued chattels in literature from Persia in the 6th century. Most of these carpets are believed to have been flat woven like other textiles but it is hard to say for sure because no carpets from that era survive. Motifs found on carpets several centuries old have also been found in the art of 7000-year-old Catal Hoyuk, the world’s oldest town. Some people have offered this as evidence of Anatolia’s ancient carpet weaving.

According to Doris Leslie Blau, an antique rug dealer in New York: The origin of antique rug weaving is often disputed. The most common belief is rug weaving was believed to be first created by Cyrus the Great during his reign of the Persian Empire in 529 B.C. These carpets were made in very small villages for residential use with designs and weavings identifiable of the specific community or tribe they were created. [Source: Doris Leslie Blau, a gallery with hundreds of antique and modern carpets, located at 306 East 61st Street, in Manhattan. ~]

The world's oldest carpet was found in a Pazyryk tomb found in 1949 in southern Siberia. Dated to the 5th century B.C., the carpet has over 1,125,000 knots and deer and horse motifs of Persian origin. The tomb that yielded the carpet contained two tattooed mummies: one a man thought to be a chief. The Pazyryks were a horseman group that lived at the same time as the Scythians and were similar ethnically to them and had a similar lifestyle. They lived in the Altai region of southern Siberia near where Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan all come together.

Early History of Carpets in Central Asia and Turkey

Carpet weaving traditions found in Turkey and much of the Middle East—including the weaving of hand knotted rugs—originated among the nomadic tribes of Central Asia, who liked carpets because they could carry them on the backs of their horses and other animals. Carpets are used in the homes of farmers and city dwellers and in nomad tents. The Koran states that paradise is filled with "rich carpets of beauty."

When Turkic tribes arrived in Anatolia from Central Asia in the 1071, they brought their traditional methods of weaving woolen carpets with them. Some of the world’s oldest carpets, from the 13th and 14th centuries, were found in Alaadin mosque in Konya in 1905. They were made by the Seljuk Turks who made Konya their capital in the 11th century.

The Turkic knotted pile carpets made by the Seljuks were very sophisticated and featured an immense variety of techniques, designs, symbols and functions. When Marco Polo visited Anatolia in 1271, he wrote that the carpets made in Turkey were the best in the world.

Peak of Oriental Rugs in Persia

The art of oriental carpet making is said to have reached it peak in the 15th and 16th centuries. One of the best examples of this period, the Arabail carpet in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, was made in the 1530s. It contains 30 million knots made by one man over 34 years.

According to Doris Leslie Blau: “The artistic weave, quality, and deign of antique rugs reached its pinnacle during the Safavid Dynasty (1499-1722). This was most likely because Shah Tahmasp and Shah Abbas of the dynasty created a weaving industry that focused on large commercial production including highly skilled and organized weaving workshops. Royal workshops were established specifically for designers and workers to create the best carpets with intricate designs. Silk with silver or gold thread are examples of the high quality fibers used. Highly skilled artists would sketch the carpet designs, and the most intricate designs would be used by the most talented weavers in the empire. The Shah’s full support made sure the quality of the product was unparalleled during these times. Trade was then established with Europe with Persia. [Source: Doris Leslie Blau ~]

Oriental rugs began appearing in Europe in the 14th century. Many of the earliest ones were brought by Crusaders and Muslims in Spain. By the 15th century they began appearing in paintings by Han Holbein, Lorenzo Lotto, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Giovanni Bellini. Today some patterns are still named after these painters.

Carpets Designs

The origins and significance of many rug designs are not known. Many of the names used by carpet dealers are nicknames attached to the designs long after the were created to make discussion of them possible. The meaning attached to a particular motif often varies from place to place and have changed over time.

Many designs are linked with Islam, which forbids the representation of human or animal form. Carpets from the more liberal Shiite sect in Iran feature flowers, fruits, leaves, birds and animals. Rugs from areas such as Turkey where the conservative Sunni sect predominate feature geometric designs. Some of the most famous Muslim designs on Turkish rugs have their origins among Jews living in Spain.

Carpet designs on Persian and Indian court carpets have often been carefully planned and painstakingly executed while the designs on tribal rugs and Turkish and Caucasian kilims often seem coarser but are abstract, spontaneous and inspired. They often feature traditional patterns with improvisations of color, designs and spacial relationships. Common motifs include the tree of life, birds, various kinds of flowers, stars, camel hooves and crabs.

Classic Carpets Designs

Some designs are considered classical if they have continued to appear over decades, even centuries. Waltar Denny, an art history professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst told the New York Times, “A large portion of later carpets, from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, trace their common origins to a few small and easily defined groups of early carpets...the so called painters carpets, carpets from the city of Ushak, carpets inspired by silk and embroidered textiles; and Ottoman court style carpets.”

Painter carpets are named after the European painters who featured carpets of these designs in their paintings. The designs are generally geometric. Hoblein carpets, for example, have neat rows of medallions and are named after the 16th century German artist.

Ushak designs are curvilinear. They were inspired by drawings, illuminations, bookbindings and colorful tile decorations and often feature small lotus blossoms,, eight-petaled star medallions, split-leaf forms and vines made with a red-and-blue color scheme.

The silk-inspired designs came from layouts and motifs found on velvet and brocaded silks such as leaf forms, lotus flower, peacock feathers, and feather medallions. Original Ottoman court carpets are some of the most valuable carpets known. They were made in royal workshops and many now hang in museums.

Making Hand-Made Carpets

Hand-made carpets made in Asia are usually woven from wool on upright looms using weaving methods that have not changed for centuries. The warp threads are stretched lengthwise from top to a bottom pole. The weaver sits on a bench beside the loom and loops bits of yarns in knots around the warp threads following a pattern hanging on the warp. After a row of knots is tied, the weft yarn is shuttled across the rug, then combed and pressed against the knots to hold them firmly. The knot ends are clipped and stand erect as pile.

The most commonly used knots are the Ghiordes (double knot), in which two ends of yarn are drawn between a pair of warp threads, and the Sehna (single knot), in which only one end is drawn between each of warps. The Senna knot is used in tight weave carpets and is associated mostly with dense weave carpets. The Ghiordes knot is associated mostly with Turkish carpets.

Hand-made carpets were traditionally made by women for the their families, for a dowry or to sell and make money for their families. Realizing that the beauty of their carpets was often a reflection on themselves, women made the carpets with great, skill and creativity. Today, carpets are often made at the home by female weavers although they can made in factories by men as well. Children are sometimes employed because their small fingers can loop the yarn knots quickly. Designs are often decided by the marketplace rather than local traditions.

Carpets and Wool

Sheep breed more than climate is the primary factor in determining wool quality. The finest quality carpets are made from the wool of fat-tailed sheep. Traditionally coarser, more resilient wool has been used for rugs while finer wool was used for clothes. Wools from different regions have special characteristics such as strength, luster and resiliency.

Traditionally processing wool involved eight steps: 1) sorting, 2) washing, 3) fulling, 4) cropping, 5) carding, 6) weaving, 7) teasing the nap, and 8) pressing. The common English last names Fuller and Weaver have their origins in the medieval wool processing trades. Freshly sheared wool is sorted at a mill according to fineness, length and strength. In many parts of the world much of this work is still done by hand. Each type of wool product demands a different kind of wool. Tweeds, for example, need short thick fibers. Soft lamb's wool is used for the best sweaters.

Raw wool is often dirty and full of impurities. In a process called scouring, the wool is cleaned in an alkali solution to remove the grease, which is often processed into lanolin. Soap and water baths get rid of perspiration. Wool is "carded" in large machines consisting for revolving cylinders that straighten the fibers and comb them into filmy sheets. The carded wool is drawn out into a filmy strand in a processing called roving. The wool is then wound in a bobbin and spun into woolen yarn.

Woolen fabric is made from wool spun after the roving processes. Both woolen and worsted wools are spun by electric spinning machines that draw out the fibers and twist them into yarns made of two, three or four strands. Worsted wools go through more processing that lengthens the fibers by making them thinner and thinner. After the yarns are woven into fabrics they saturated with hot water and put through rollers to shrink them. This process is called fulling. Strands are cut and evened out with a machine that operates like a lawn mover. The fabric is then dry-steamed and pressed between hot plates and ready for market.

Wool made into carpets generally go through many processes: scouring, drying, blending, carding, spinning and twisting. It may be dyed before spinning and after spinning. About once a year carpet shop owners close their shops to fumigate against weevils.

Quality Hand-Made Carpets

The best quality carpets are made by hand with natural dyes and hand-spun wool. The best carpets have great color, quality wool that feels like cashmere, and designs that are rich, bold, well-drawn, and well-spaced and display personality and originality. Quality may also be evaluated based on the clarity of the pattern. Tighter knitted patterns will have a higher level of clarity. [Source: Michael Specter, The New Yorker, March 16, 2000]

Most agree that more knots per square inch correlates to higher quality. Knot counts are often regarded as a sign of quality because they determine the fineness of the weave and the wearing quality of the rug. Even so, neither design nor knot count has a direct bearing on value—rather they reflect the region or tradition that produced the rug.

Poor-quality carpets are mass-produced and have thick piles and poor quality wool with garish colors made by chemical dyes. The proliferation of these carpets has increased exponentially with the boom in tourism in places where carpets are made. Explaining why old pieces are generally good, one dealer told The New Yorker, “They were made before tourism. There are no wrong pieces from before tourism.”

Old rugs generally command higher prices than new rugs. Even so a quality rug made by skilled craftspeople with quality materials can command prices equal to those of old carpets. Older rugs should have some signs of restoration, which are usually easier to see on the back. These signs are usually found on the fringes and edges which are the first parts of the rug to deteriorate, and then the pile.

Carpet Colors and Natural Dyes

The best carpets have colors produced by natural dyes. Quality carpet have deep blues, soft browns and muted reds. Mottling, or abrasion, within a color area is good sign. It indicates handspun wool and natural dyes. The worst carpets have colors produced by chemical dyes. These dyes were introduced around 1860s and produces sizzling, artificial-looking colors that tend to bled. The bright pink or orange colors produced by chemical dyes are particularly atrocious.

In the old days, producing natural color dyes was art akin to alchemy. Many villages had people that did nothing else but refine their recipes for colors and collect the minerals, roots, nuts, berries, fruits and insects necessary to make them. It can take 150 kilograms of insects or dried herbs to make the simplest of colors.

Blues are often made with indigo. Reds came from the roots of madder and yellows from saffron but to get the colors right is very difficult. Describing how a simple blue is made, Walter A. Hawley wrote in “Oriental Rugs Antique and Modern”: “Take cinnabar, indigo and alum, grind and sift lighter than the light dust of the high hills; soak for ten hours; keep stirring it; put in the wool and soak for many hours. Boil for three hours; wash in kurds, water in which kurds and whey have been well beaten up; leave for three hours, and then wash and beat again in water.” Making other colors is considerably more complicated and difficult to get right. Green is regarded as the most difficult to make with organic dyes.

Dr. Harold Böhmer, a German science teacher, reintroduced natural dyes in the production of carpets. At a village, where weaving poor quality rugs with easy-to-use chemical dyes had become the norm, journalist Nina Hyde wrote, “Böhmer stood near a well, the main gathering place in the village, and dyed some pieces of wool red with madder and yellow with wild chamomile. The village women watched. They knew how to make black from acorns, but they had forgotten how to make other traditional dyes. Using a tea glass as a measuring cup—something found in every Turkish house—Böhmer wrote out recipes for the dyes. After some lessons the women began producing rugs, with character, like those made by their ancestors.” [Source: Nina Hyde, National Geographic, May 1988].

Carpets from Different Regions

Carpet designs vary from region to region and even village to village. Carpet-making places usually have a regional hallmark while incorporating new design ideas. Flowers are vines are among the most common motifs. Sometimes modern images like Snoopy and kittens pop up in the patterns.

The most well known “Oriental rugs” are classed geographically as Persian, Turkish, Caucasian, Turkmen, Indian and Chinese. Turkish, Central Asian and Caucasian carpets are usually coarser and have jagged geometric designs and brighter and wilder colors. They have a knot count that runs from 60 to 100 per square inch. City carpets from Turkey and Iran are known for their formal, dense curved floral patterns. They traditionally have had a higher knot count.

Well-known varities of Persian rugs include the Khorassan, Meshed, Herat, Shiraz, Korman, Tabriz, Senna, Sarouk, Heraz, Hamadan, Sultananabad and Ispahan.

The Caucasus and Central Asian regions of the former Soviet Union are also famous for carpets. Famous varities include Bukhara, Tekke, Yomud, Kazak, Sevan, Saroyk and Salor. Many Samarkand carpets were woven Chinese Turkestan. Prized 19th-century Caucasian rugs are known for their rich pile and unusual medallion designs.

Carpets from the Islamic World, 1600–1800

Marika Sardar of New York University wrote:“Under the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal dynasties, carpet weaving was transformed from a minor craft based on patterns passed down from generation to generation into a statewide industry with patterns created in court workshops. In this period, carpets were fabricated in greater quantity than ever before. They were traded to Europe and the Far East where, too precious to be placed on the ground, they were used to cover furniture or hung on walls. Within the Islamic world, especially fine specimens were collected in royal households. [Source: Marika Sardar, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“In Iran, the carpet and textile industries formed part of Shah Abbas’ (r. 1587–1629) program for restructuring the economy and attracting European merchants to the country. He transferred silk merchants and weavers to the new capital of Isfahan and signed trade treaties with Spain, England, and France. Of the scores of carpets exported abroad at this time, the "Polonaise" type (50.190.1) was the most popular; over 300 of them are in foreign collections, and many bear the coat of arms of the family that commissioned them. Vase and garden carpets were among the other common types. In each of these, vegetal motifs replace the figural ones of the previous century.\^/

“In Ottoman Turkey, weaving patterns and techniques changed in the early sixteenth century after conquests in Persia and Egypt. Anatolia had been known for carpets with stylized animal and geometric designs, but with these new cultural contacts, carpets designed around a central medallion and with flowing saz-style vegetation came into vogue. Similar motifs also appeared on book covers, textiles, and in manuscript borders. The style of these Ottoman court rugs, first produced in Istanbul, then spread to other weaving centers in Cairo and Ushak (58.63; 1984.69), but never fully overtook the various regional carpet traditions. Caucasian and Armenian carpets retained their customary geometric patterns, and kilims (or flat-weaves) remained popular .\^/

Books: Aslanapa, Oktay, ed. One Thousand Years of Turkish Carpets. Istanbul: Eren, 1988.; Bier, Carol, ed. Woven from the Soul, Spun from the Heart: Textile Arts of Safavid and Qajar Iran, 16th–:19th Centuries. Exhibition catalogue.. Washington, D.C.: Textile Museum, 1987.; Walker, Daniel Flowers Underfoot: Indian Carpets of the Mughal Era. Exhibition catalogue.. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999.

Persian Rug Industry

After energy products, handmade rugs are Iran’s most important export, accounting for $560 million in 2013, which amounts to about 20 percent of the global handmade-rug market. The industry employs an estimated 2 million Iranians and about 10 percent of the population benefits economically from some aspect of the rug business, according to the Iran Ministry of Industries, Mines and Trade. now. [Source: Jason Rezaian, Washington Post, July 18, 2013]

Jason Rezaian wrote in the Washington Post: Teheran’s “vast bazaar is home to, by most estimates, the highest concentration of handmade rugs in the world, with millions of the floor coverings piled high in more than a thousand shops in a labyrinth of ancient passageways... In addition to merchants, the industry generates jobs for repairmen and the deliverymen who scurry around the bazaar with rusty hand carts brimming with inventory. The industry, which has changed little” in “half a century...suffers because of the rising cost of labor and the difficulty in importing materials, such as silk, and some dyes.

“On a typical Iranian carpet shop owner, Rezaian wrote: “Like many in the business, Hosseiny was exposed to the craft at an early age, spending hours in his father’s shop, developing an extensive knowledge of rugs produced in various parts of Iran. At 18, he embarked on three years of travel throughout the country to learn what he did not know. “In almost every corner of Iran, people weave rugs,” he said. His knowledge of the types of carpets has become an important advantage, as most rug traders here deal in merchandise from particular regions, usually where they have familial ties...Hossainy’s grandfather started his business half a century ago.”

Hosseiny, “like many other Iranians, considers carpets a vital part of the country’s heritage. “Rugs can be a great ambassador for this country,” he seller said. “When someone buys a rug and takes it home to their country, other people see its beauty and hear its story, and it gets them interested in Iran.”

Decline of Persian Rug Industry

Iran’s rug exports are declining. Revenue was down 17 percent in 2012. The number of people employed in the industry has also declined. Jason Rezaian wrote in the Washington Post: “ The centuries-old industry has been hit hard by repeated economic crises in recent years, as well as by sanctions imposed by the United States, formerly the biggest market for Persian carpets. Even in Iran, cheaper, machine-―made rugs are starting to outsell handmade ones. [Source: Jason Rezaian, Washington Post, July 18, 2013 ]

“In Tehran and across Iran, however, the number of people in the industry is decreasing, according to carpet experts. “The rug bazaar is being eaten by the clothing bazaar, which borders us,” said Hossein Hosseiny, a 31-year-old third-generation rug merchant, navigating through crowds of people pawing through stacks of garments in the shops that are taking over much of the old bazaar.

“Trading in Chinese- and Turkish-―made clothes is more lucrative than selling Persian rugs, so clothing importers are willing to pay exorbitant rents — more than $2,000 per month — for stalls measuring less than 100 square feet in some highly trafficked areas of the bazaar. “In this tough economy, some consider switching to a more profitable business, but then what will happen to art and those jobs which are rooted in our tradition?” Hosseiny said. “I try not to lose my hope. I have to think about not only helping myself, but also my country and the art of rugmaking, with hope for the future.”

“Many of them are being forced out of business because their inventory is limited, including only a small number of styles and colors. Iran’s rug exporters have difficulty competing with the variety of styles produced by rug industries in other countries. Sanctions on Iran also are having a deep effect on the business. Banking sanctions and a 2010 embargo on Iranian rugs by the U.S. government are impeding merchants’ ability to sell goods abroad and transfer the proceeds home.”

Efforts to Revive the Persian Rug Industry

Jason Rezaian wrote in the Washington Post: “ Iranian carpet experts are calling on the government to boost the image of the hand-woven rugs in countries other than the United States.

“We expect the new government to assign enough of a budget for our promotional campaigns to better introduce Iran’s rugs internationally,” said Mojtaba Feyzollahi, marketing deputy of the Iran National Carpet Center. [Source: Jason Rezaian, Washington Post, July 18, 2013 ]

“Ali-Reza Ghaderi, founder and director of the Tehran-based Persian Carpet Think Tank, agreed that officials should concentrate on promoting exports. “The problem is not production but marketing and selling,” Ghaderi said. But not all Iran analysts think the government should support the ancient craft. “I don’t think this is an industry that the country needs to protect, as it does not produce good jobs that young people should be seeking,” said Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economics professor at Virginia Tech who visits Iran regularly.

“Producers hope the government will give them assistance in marketing and access to better health insurance for weavers, who can suffer joint and back injuries, among other problems. “We have to care for our industry like a farmer grows a tree, ensuring that in the future we can continue to pick its fruit,” Hosseiny said.

“Carpet experts and economists say Iran’s rug production might ultimately return to being what it was when it started: a specialized art form. “Eventually, as a handicraft, it must go upscale and produce carpets for high-income people. In that phase, it will be employing very few people and will not be part of the national industries to protect,” Salehi-Isfahani said.”

Valuable Carpets

At famous shops used by connoisseurs the prices range from less than a thousand dollars to over a hundred thousand dollars. Some dealers boast that they have carpets worth a million dollars. Sometimes the most valuable pieces are four-century-old fragments that look like threadbare rags used for changing the oil in your car. [Source: Michael Specter, The New Yorker, March 16, 2000]

Many of the most valuable rugs are sold at auctions. Their prices rise and fall like those of stocks. In recent years they have mostly been rising as legions of people have suddenly started considering themselves serious carpet collectors.

The sources of the highest quality carpets are often somewhat dubious. Some have been stolen from mosques and museums. Some have been swindled from villagers who don’t know the value of the rugs they possess. Many appeared after the break up of the Soviet Union when valuable carpets in the Caucasus, Central Asia and southern Russia were snatched up for a song and sold for huge profits.

There are a lot of fakes hanging in museums and are prized possessions in valuable collections. Some of the best fakes come from factories in Konya. They are rewoven from old wool by craftsmen who use jeweler’s glasses and miniature looms to get the knotting and designs details just right. Many of them work from photographs of carpets in old Sotheby’s catalogues.

$33 Million Persian Carpet

In June 2013, Persian carpet decorated with swirling vines and vibrant flowers that was stored for decades by the Corcoran Gallery of Art sold for more than $33 million in a Sotheby’s auction house sale, shattered the previous record for rugs sold at auction. Katherine Boyle wrote in the Washington Post, “The winning bid for the Clark Sickle-Leaf Carpet stunned viewers and participants at the sale, in which 25 rugs and carpets were auctioned off to raise money for new acquisitions...at the Corcoran Gallery. The anonymous bidder, who participated by phone, paid $33,765,000 for the 17th-century Persian piece, which came from the bequest of William Clark, the industrialist and U.S. senator who donated more than 200 works of fine art and rugs to the Corcoran upon his death in 1925.” Before the sale, “a blue leaf-patterned 17th-century rug from southeast Iran held the global record, selling for $9.6 million at Christie’s in London in 2010. [Source: Katherine Boyle, Washington Post, June 7, 2013 |+|]

“I thought it might sell for 10 or 15 million dollars,” said Mary Jo Otsea, the auctioneer and senior consultant for rugs and carpets at Sotheby’s. The auction company estimated the carpet would sell for between $5 million and $7 million. “No one ever expected to see it on the market. Its beauty and rarity — the closest comparables are in museums.” Which is why, Otsea believes, the carpet sold for such a high figure. Rarity pushes the value of art up, and most Persian carpets are subdued in patterns and hues. But the roughly 8-by-6-foot carpet is said to be the epitome of the “vase” technique, perfected during the Safavid dynasty in Persia. It was last displayed in Washington at the Sackler Gallery in 2003 and the Corcoran Gallery in 2006. |+|

“The Sotheby’s sale also comes as the classical carpet market — carpets made during the 16th and 17th centuries — is booming. A decade ago, only the most famous Persian rugs would sell for seven figures at auction. But collectors in Asia and the Middle East are investing in Persian rugs with the same enthusiasm they are showing for rare, valuable contemporary works. Museums in the Middle East are also investing in Islamic art collections, including the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, now under construction. And renewed interest in Islamic art in the West has probably contributed to prices, too, with the 2011 opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands and last year’s opening of the Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre in Paris. |+|

“As for who bought the record-breaking rug, it’s anybody’s guess. Sotheby’s never talks, and the Corcoran doesn’t know. “It could have gone to the [Persian] Gulf countries, to Europe or to an institution being built somewhere,” said Peggy Loar, interim director of the Corcoran. “In terms of patrimony, or where these carpets came from, there’s great interest in bringing them home.” Otsea told The Post, "Islamic art museums want carpets from the golden age of carpet weaving, so that sector of the market has become increasingly more desirable." |+|

“The 25 pieces in the auction brought in $43,764,750. The 16th- and 17th-century rugs from Persia, India and Egypt each sold for more than double its high-end estimate — which had totaled just $6.7 million. "It was a great day for Oriental carpets and the Corcoran," said Loar. "So many of these carpets had not been turned over to dealers since the 1930s, and there's so few on the market in this field. It brings together everyone who's interested in them." |+|

“The Corcoran won't miss the carpets. They were stored off-site in temperature-controlled units, and the preservation was costly. "I will say, since we don't have any specialists in that area, it wasn't as difficult for us [to sell]," Loar said. "These carpets deserve love, whether from a private collection or institution, and need to be stored properly. It's an enormous financial investment to do that if not central to mission." |+|

World’s Most Expensive Carpets

1) The most expensive carpet ever sold at auction is this sickle-leaf vine scroll and palmette “vase” carpet,circa 1600 to 1650. After being displayed as an example of outstanding Persian carpet weaving in museums and galleries—including the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Textile Museum, the Asia House Gallery, and Fogg Art Museum—the carpet was estimated at $5 million to $7 million. Because the sickle-leaf design is the rarest of vase-technique carpet patterns and this is the only known example featuring a red background, Sotheby’s New York was able to sell the lot for $33.7 million on June 5, 2013. [Source: Architectural Digest]

2) On April 15, 2010, Christie’s London sold a Kirman “vase” carpet—estimated at $307,600 to $461,400—for an astonishing $9.6 million. The mid-17th century piece is the earliest known example of the popular Persian carpet design called the herati pattern.

3) This Mughal Millefleurs “Star Lattice” carpet from northern India was once owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt II and displayed at the family’s West 57th Street residence in New York. The carpet subsequently graced the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, when Vanderbilt passed it along to his daughter. Estimated at $2.4 million to $3.2 million, the lot was sold by Christie’s London for $7.7 million on October 8, 2013.

4) On April 28, 2000, Christie’s Monaco held a sale of items from the collection of Karl Lagerfeld, including this Louis XV Savonnerie carpet, which is one of three designed by Pierre-Josse Perrot. Thanks to its star-studded provenance, the circa-1750 carpet (estimated at $5 million to $8 million) sold for $5.7 million.

5) The Pearl Carpet of Baroda is a circa-1685 masterwork of silk and fine deer hide, embroidered with strings of natural Basra pearls and English colored-glass beads. Estimated at $5 million, it sold for $5.548 million at Sotheby’s Doha on March 19, 2009. The carpet is set with approximately 2,500 table-cut and occasional rose-cut diamonds set in silver, as well as foil-backed rubies, emeralds, and sapphires, all set in gold.

6) This central-Persian Isfahan carpet (circa 1650–1699), was estimated at $800,000 to $1.2 million for Sotheby’s New York’s “Important Carpets from the William A. Clark Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art” sale on June 5, 2013. The lot, which had been on display in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, sold for $4.65 million.

7) According to historians at Christie’s, this silk Isfahan rug is an exceptional example of Safavid art during the reign of Shah Abbas (1587–1629). Which may be why the circa-1600 carpet maintained an esteemed provenance throughout the years, residing in the collections of art collector and philanthropist Grace Rainey Rogers, Armenian-American archaeologist and art collector Hagop Kevorkian, as well as Doris Duke and the Newport Restoration Foundation. The lot garnered $4.45 million at Christie’s New York’s June 3, 2008, “Oriental Rugs and Carpets” sale after being estimated at $1 million to $1.5 million.

8)Three carpets of this exact design by Pierre-Josse Perrot were made for the Crown Furniture Repository in France, the administration responsible for furniture and art inside the royal residences. ThisLouis XV Savonnerie carpet, woven sometime between 1740 and 1750, was the last one produced. The carpet surpassed an estimate of $2 million to $4 million, selling for $4.4 million, as part of Christie’s New York’s November 2, 2000, sale “Magnificent French Furniture.”

9) At Sotheby’s London’s “Arts of the Islamic World” auction on October 7, 2009, this Safavid silk, wool, and metal-thread prayer rug was estimated at $127,368 to $191,052. The circa-1575-to-1625 carpet, inscribed with Persian verses in nastaliq, earned a whopping $4.3 million, making it the ninth most expensive carpet ever sold at auction. The inscriptions suggest that it may have been a diplomatic gift from the Safavid Persian court to the Ottoman Turks.

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.

Last updated April 2016

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