Oriental Rugs: The Art Market’s Sleeping Beauty
An antique carpet is the only art you can walk on.David Harounian
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NEW YORK—The only furniture in 36-year-old Gady Cuneyt Yesilcay’s East 31st Street warehouse is a plastic fold-out table, caving from use. Instead of furniture are piles and piles of carpets from such countries as Iran, India, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. His ruddy face positively beams as he flips through the stacks of multicolored, intricately woven carpets.
“[In] every region, there’s a kind of rug that you look at and you fall in love with it,” Yesilcay said. “Sometimes I see a beautiful rug and wonder how [the weaver] did it. … I am telling myself, ‘This is the best rug I’ve ever seen,’ but the next day I see another rug and see how fine it is. In this market, it’s easy to find a beautiful rug every day.”
Yesilcay buys and sells antique rugs from all over Central Asia and China. Originally from Turkey, Yesilcay had planned to become a banker. After discovering the great, wide world of carpets in the bazaars of Istanbul, however, he started his own dealership and never looked back. Despite starting out in a down market, he says he couldn’t be happier.
Prestigious, high-quality, and undeniably beautiful, the handmade Oriental rug has flown under the radar of art collectors for over a decade. But it is precisely the quiet market that makes the present time ideal for prudent collectors.
The increasing ubiquity of cheap synthetic dyes has made the use of vibrant vegetable dyes less cost-effective. However, organic dyes stay true longer, wear better, and, according to connoisseurs, shimmer in a way that synthetic dyes simply can’t.
Look long enough at antique rugs and it will become evident why Yesilcay, like other rug collectors and enthusiasts, is captivated.
“An antique carpet is the only art you can walk on,” says David Harounian.
Harounian is the former president of the Oriental Rug Importers Association and CEO of HRI rugs, a wholesaler in New York. He deals only in handmade rugs, either antique (turn of the century) or newly manufactured—both in traditional styles and in contemporary ones. Unlike Yesilcay, who is a relative newcomer, Harounian’s family has been in the rug business for a century.
Both Harounian and Yesilcay deal in the New York rug district, which is concentrated in the 30s east of Fifth Avenue. While no comprehensive history of the area has been written, it is believed to have started in the early 1900s with the settlement of Armenians expelled from Turkey. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Persian Jews joined the New York market, dealing and importing handmade rugs strictly from Iran.
Harounian’s grandmother wove a rug at a young age, creating a traditional tree-of-life design that took about two years to complete. Harounian points to a photo of it in a book on Jewish carpets, but doesn’t know where the rug currently resides. On the piece is his grandmother’s name, woven in Hebrew. Harounian estimates that the carpet, created in 1896, is now worth at least $50,000.
Traditionally in Central Asia and the Middle East, men dyed the wool and women did the weaving, learning the art at a very early age. Among Kazakhs, for instance, a girl’s first and only toy was a shuttle.
Rugs were so revered throughout history that designs of significant events were often woven into them; they were hung in houses of worship and passed down from generation to generation. The earliest known rug is the Pazryk rug, carbon-dated to 500 B.C. It was excavated from a Scythian burial mound and now resides in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Unlike collectors of other art, carpet collectors don’t make a lot of noise, especially now, when there’s little hype in the market. Instead, what keeps them coming back for more is nostalgia for a time when art was a part of everyday life, rather than a separate and commercialized field. People owned less stuff, but everything in their homes was embellished, down to the last spoon.
The Changing Market
“Until 10–15 years ago, the value of rugs was growing double-fold,” said Harounian. “It’s only now that the tastes have changed, the values have changed, and other countries, including India and China specifically, have become very aggressive in producing rugs—handmade rugs. They make copies of old Iranian rugs. Therefore, the value is not there anymore.”
Many weavers have moved their production of Persian rugs to India, partly due to sanctions on Iran. They still produce Persian rugs; they just label them as Indian. Before the embargo, dealers created stockpiles of Iranian rugs.
“In America, there is enough stock for the next 20 years,” Yesilcay said.
The main issue for antique rugs is not supply, but demand. With low-cost machine-made rugs being the norm, carpeting as a category has been demoted to a commodity status. Even collectible-quality antique rugs have been passed over by all but a few discerning people.
“In our generation, Americans just want something to match with the furniture or the curtains,” Yesilcay said. “The older generation, when they got married, they [would] buy a house and then a carpet. It was an investment. Today, when we get married, we buy a junk rug, and six months or a year later, we throw it in the dumpster and get another rug from IKEA. The mentality is different.”
Yesilcay is a professed lover of antique rugs in a market that prefers stark, contemporary styles. To strike a compromise between his passion and trends dictated by interior designers, he looks for antique rugs that can work in a modern furnished space. If he cannot find a native design that fits the description, he asks his producers in Pakistan and India to design to specifications.
“More than I follow the rug market, I follow the furniture market. Buyers in the past bought the carpet, and then the furniture, and then the walls and curtains. Today it’s the opposite way—the carpet is the last thing they buy for their home, so the budget is lower.”
Since customers come to antique dealers with a commodity mindset, they sometimes fail to recognize that the rugs these dealers carry have unique cultural origins—each motif harkens back to a tribe or village. Only a seasoned collector would have developed the sixth sense to discern a rug’s origin.
Sometimes a buyer fancies an antique rug but asks for it in a different size or color. “I would have to go back in time and ask [the weaver] to weave it,” Yesilcay says. “There’s no way!”
The market’s answer to picky customers is the antique reproduction rug. Many rug dealers, Harounian and Yesilcay included, work with factories overseas to either modify traditional designs to today’s tastes or make up new designs altogether.
Copying designs from antiquity has always been done. As long as the wool is good and the handiwork is to par, the reproduction rug can be as good as an antique one from a purely utilitarian perspective—the only differences are that you would have to wait a hundred years for the rug to gain antique value and that the rug very likely will have been manufactured in a country not of its cultural origin.
Yesilcay and Harounian both believe that consumer tastes will change back and the traditional antique rug will have its day again—it’s just a matter of time.
The First Foray
For those who are motivated to start collecting rugs, Yesilcay advises the following:
1. “Instead of collecting a lot of different styles and regions, start with three or four regions.” If you try to collect everything, you may start a museum, but not a collection.
2. Work with a specialist who has been buying and selling for years. Not everyone charges for it. Yesilcay volunteers himself for free appraisals by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
3. Make sure everything you buy was made before the 1890s because natural dyes are less prevalent after that decade. Until you develop an “eye” for differentiating natural dyes from synthetic ones, better play it safe.
4. Explore the rug district. It’s concentrated between Fifth and Lexington avenues, in the 30s. “A lot of collectors come all the time.”
5. Go to antique shows and ask questions.
6. “Read a lot of rug books.” Start with James Opie’s “Tribal Rugs: A Complete Guide to Nomadic and Village Carpets.”