The market for Oriental rugs has changed dramatically since I opened my gallery thirty-four years ago. Galleries that focus on antique rugs are now few and far between, replaced by stores that promote contemporary hand-knotted reproductions made in factories throughout the Near East.
Rug nomenclature is shared with impunity. No wonder there's confusion when one googles “Oriental carpet” or “Persian rug.” And because superlative examples of antique and tribal rugs, like those that qualify as “High-Collectible,” rarely come up for sale, most buyers have little opportunity to become familiar with what 'premier quality' means.
Rankings in the rug pyramid are based on artistry, craftsmanship, quality of materials, condition, age and provenance. Image courtesy Jan David Winitz. Copyright Claremont Rug Company.
To assist them in navigating today’s market, I've developed a six-tier pyramid. The rankings are based on artistry, craftsmanship, quality of materials, condition, age and provenance. As the tiers descend, the number of available pieces increases significantly, while the artistry and originality generally lessens. (In the spirit of transparency; I run a niche gallery specializing in second, third and fourth tier pieces.)
The value of artistry in assessing the overall level of an Oriental rug cannot be overstated. For eons, weavers sought to interpret the harmony of nature and the cosmos through their designs. Ironically, while their work was embraced in the West for its luxury and durability, intrinsic artistic merit went unappreciated, thanks to Western proscriptions regarding what is and is not “fine art.” Three years ago, when New York's Metropolitan Museum and Paris' Louvre substantially enlarged their galleries of Near Eastern art, this began to change.
Level 1. Museum-Quality Historical (Rugs and Fragments) — 13th to 18th Centuries, plus rare early 19th century examples
The Safavid dynasty ruled Persia (present-day Iran) from 1501 to 1736, a period now referred to as “The Golden Age of Persian Weaving,” thanks to royally-sponsored workshops that produced many of the finest carpets the world has ever seen.
Well-preserved, consummately crafted examples continue to grow in importance. In June 2013, a stunning 17th century Kirman sold at a Christie's auction for $33.7 million, over three times the previous record, set in 2010, by another Kirman rug from the same era.
The most precious rugs in this category, when they surface, are usually purchased by museums, while specialized private collectors usually acquire fragments of these quintessential rugs, as well as occasionally intact 200-to-250-year-old pieces. (It should be noted that age alone does not make a rug great. Every era produced both luminary and less stellar weavers.)
Given these unprecedented auction sales, the cultural and artistic appreciation of these rugs in the West will almost undoubtedly continue to rise.
Level 2. High-Collectible — primarily early 19th Century to 1875
Artistic achievement and great originality reign paramount in this rarefied group, the pyramid's touchstone. These best-of-the-best caliber rugs exhibit fluid, subtly varied design and a highly exotic use of nuanced color, achieving superb aesthetic balance and harmony in the process. Created 140 to more than 200 years ago, they were usually woven on commission or for personal use; in both cases, their makers were free from market influence, allowing unfettered expression. This period stands at the height of what is called by some, “The Second Golden Age of Persian Weaving.”
Long-held private collections containing rugs of this caliber in unusually good condition rarely come to market. When they do, they are quickly sought out by seasoned connoisseurs.
Included in this elite category are spectacular tribal rugs primarily from Persia and the Caucasus Mountains (woven by 85 subgroups), with some from Turkey and the Central Asian plateau. These cultural treasures, with their primal colors and at times seemingly "modern" graphic designs, inspire a powerful international following. In 2007, a Caucasian “Eagle Kazak” rug sold for $341,000 at Freeman's Auction House, Philadelphia. In January 2014, Sotheby’s sold another circa 1800 Eagle for $233,000, twice its top estimate.
The best of the rarely found rugs woven in the villages of Northwest Persian Azerbaijan—notably undyed Camel Hair and Bakshaish—are prized for their quixotic artistry. Premier rugs from the tribes of South Persia also inspire avid collectors.
Town and city-based weaving also excelled at this time, particularly when it came to exquisitely detailed floral rugs, including Ferahan, Kashan and Laver Kirmans. Today, these too inspire an impassioned following. Most elite rugs from this era are of smaller size. Occasionally, however, larger carpets are found and meet with feverish demand.
While historical rugs are typically too fragile, most high-collectible pieces have sufficient durability for floor use, although many collectors also hang them as wall art or hold them in storage.
Level 3. Collectible, primarily circa 1875 to late 19th century
This category encompasses outstanding rugs from all of the major Persian and tribal groups mentioned above. While not reaching the originality, design fluidity and color nuance displayed in Level 2 High-Collectibles, these are also one-of-a kind art rugs that masterfully combine time-seasoned natural dyes with innovative renditions of traditional patterns.
Because connoisseurs building personal rug treasuries of entirely authentic rugs find these to be emotionally satisfying for display on floor and wall, the supply of Collectible rugs has been decreasing for decades.
As what is known as “The Revival Period” had begun, rugs were more regularly commissioned to be woven in room size and oversize formats in towns such as Tabriz, Kirman, Sultanabad and Heriz. This guaranteed the talents of highly skilled artisans and the use of excellent materials.
Today, superb examples in extremely good condition are most often found through a handful of specialty dealers worldwide and the top tier of offerings of major auction houses.
Level 4. High-Decorative, primarily 1900 to 1925
A significantly greater number than in the previous three categories are still available. This is because the escalation of weaving gained steam during this era, with rapidly growing domestic and international demand exponentially increasing the number of working looms.
More rugs were woven for export, and designs were often were simplified and color palettes limited in an effort to satisfy Western decorative taste. Yet aesthetic appeal and originality still play a role in these carpets, as alluring designs combine with balanced, hue-shifting color palettes. Synonymous with sophistication and grace, and capable of "mixing" with a broad range of furniture and art styles, both these and level 3 rugs are widely sought after by 21st century interior designers. These rugs have the power to completely transform, rather than merely refine, a room.
Level 5. Decorative (circa 1925 to 1960)
As the decorative carpet market exploded, most of the resultant weavings fell into this category. The level of materials and craftsmanship decreased notably, innovative artistry was typically replaced by strict adherence to traditional regional patterns and harsh modern chemical dyes supplanted more subtle natural dyes.
Newcomers to Persian city weaving groups include finely knotted Qums and Nains. A burgeoning number of geometric rugs were woven in Heriz and by the descendants of the Bakhtiari tribespeople.
Some rugs woven prior to 1925 also fall into this category, as they are either damaged, chemically washed, quite irregular in shape, made with particularly garish or fugitive dyes, or are simply uninspired.
Level 6. Reproductions (typically 1970 to present)
The newest contributions to the hand-woven market are Persian reproductions, created in a wide range of qualities. These are by far the most widely available Oriental rugs today. Although the pieces may be labeled with famous Persian regional names, the majority are woven in India, China, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt and Romania.
While most showcase designs reminiscent of the great 19th Century rugs, their weavers have no genealogical or cultural connection to the patterns they produce.
Thanks to hand-woven construction and a wide range of colors to complement modern decors, these can be enjoyed as durable, mass-produced objects for home furnishing. (It's noteworthy that some recent reproductions are expertly crafted using high quality, natural dyes and are thus actually superior to the Persian rugs of the later part of the Decorative Period.)
However, neither decorative rugs nor reproductions are destined to become future antique investments. The levels of artistic inspiration and individuality that give an Oriental carpet enduring value are simply not present.
The hand-woven Oriental rug market can be daunting, even for those with some experience. This pyramid was compiled to help guide you through its intricacies. If you wish to purchase a durable hand-woven floor covering with appealing design and color, shops in any major city that carry Level 5 and Level 6 rugs will provide what you’re looking for. If you aspire to enhance your home, vacation retreat, office or yacht with great aesthetic and artistic individuality, with something truly distinct and heirloom-worthy, then seek out the handful of galleries that offer selections of Level 3 and 4 rugs.
For those who will settle for nothing less than “the best of the best,” establish a relationship with a reputable, longstanding dealer who can occasionally offer you Level 2 pieces. Or try your luck bidding on Level 1 masterpieces when they surface at major auction houses.