Friday, September 9, 2011

Good Buy Friday: Stunning Carpets for a Steal

Master decorator Miles Redd rocks a Persian carpet with complementary tones of olive, French blue and amber.
The Persian Carpet. There are few decorative word pairings that sound more natural; all you need to do is drop in a different proper adjective and you'll see my point:  English Carpet? Italian Carpet? Taiwanese Carpet? Not quite the same cache, correct?

We've been conditioned to expect these two words together because high quality, hand woven carpets have been made in the Persian region for centuries. Interestingly, the art nearly died out in the 19th century to be revived by renewed European interest, fueled, in part, by the London Exhibition of 1862 and the subsequent obsession with Orientalism--but this is off point.

Persian gone wild! Albert Hadley's library features a patchwork Persian--what a great way to reuse old rugs!
More relevant is that fact that "Persian Rugs," while an evocative term, is also quite a generic one; there are huge stylistic differences between Heriz (the most popular style in the U.S.), Tabriz, Kirman, Oushak and so on. I will not get into those differences in this posting, but will instead talk more broadly about the process of evaluating and purchasing rugs at auction.

Markham Roberts capitalizes on the interplay of curtains, chair and carpet.

I'll be the first to admit: buying a rug at auction can be a little bit scary: after all a rug is no small thing and we all know you can't return them. But it is absolutely worth doing your homework and taking the plunge because wonderful carpets sell at auction for a fraction of the retail price all the time--more often than not to dealers. I'm serious. Last spring, I was at a famous Philadelphia auction house and the back room was a veritable bazaar, with about a dozen men in Islamic garb carefully examining a pile of carpets. One of the auction house employees told that me those "crazy rug buyers" bought most of the rugs at their sales--which they then sell in their Madison Avenue stores as rare antique Persian rugs. It makes sense that many of the antique designs favored by Americans would already be on our shores. However, it does not make sense for you to pay six times the price to the dude who simply picked it up in Philly!

A Lavar Kirman (read: a very nice Kirman), at Brunk Auctions on Sept 25th, estimate $1,500-3,000, above,
and a Sivas Carpet from East Anatolia, at Christie's on October 5th, estimate $3,000-5,000, below.

photo: Simon Upton, designer: Thomas Beeton, courtesy of Elle Decor.
Not just for the downstairs: Persian carpets look marvelous in the bedroom, enlivening that restful color palette.
photo: Simon Upton, designer Michael Smith. Courtesy of Elle Decor.
A 1950s Kirman Carpet, at Morton Kuehnart in Houston on September 18th, estimate, $2,700-3,000.
So buying rugs at auction makes sense financially, clearly. But if you're not happy with the final product then the purchase is no bargain. Here are some things you can do to ensure maximum satisfaction to go along with your minimum price.

1. Try, whenever possible, to see carpets in person. Rugs often photograph strangely. I find the beige backgrounds usually end up looking darker than they really are, while the red/blue toned rugs are often much brighter when you actually see them in person. Certain styles, such as Kirmans, which often have denser, more foliate-like decorative areas, photograph particularly poorly, as do most carpets with all over designs. Case in point, below. The top shot is the auction house photograph of a Kirman carpet. It looks dingy and, well, blah, doesn't it?

But when I saw it in person, it looked completely different. This is the same rug, below, in natural light.In person it was actually very light, with lovely subtle colors. Who knew?

2. If you can't see the rug in person, don't automatically give up: do more research!
If you find a rug that's on the other side of the country but it's the perfect size, or you love the pattern--you think--then request several additional shots along with your Condition Report. When the auction house complies, it typically sends the assistants running around the floor with digital cameras. The result is high-def photographs that give you a much more accurate idea of what the item looks like than the catalog shot. Increasingly, auction houses are uploading high-def photos on their own web sites (Pook & Pook, for instance, automatically uploads photos that can be Zoomified). All of Christie's photographs are high definition. In a few years, I'm sure this will be true for every auction house. But until sure to ask for photos with the camera flash on and off, as natural light gives you, far and away, the most accurate read on colors.

Hip, hip Heriz! A classic style, at Brunk on September 25th, estimate $800-1,500.

Mat-sized Persians can be had for $50 - $100 and look great in kitchens, where they hide all those
errant food spills and protect your joints from that unrelenting floor.
photos: Simon Upton, designer: John Dransfield & Geoffrey Ross, courtesy of Elle Decor.
3. Get your shipping estimate before the auction
Most auction houses don't handle shipping in house. They do, however, typically provide a list of recommended shippers right on their websites. What most people don't realize is that you can call a shipper before the auction and ask for a ballpark estimate. With rugs, the estimate will be pretty accurate given the fact that the height of a carpet's pile doesn't vary so much (aka the shipper has a fairly good grasp of the item's weight given its dimensions). Note that even extra large rugs can be transported across the country for a few hundred dollars. That might sound like a lot, but if you've bought a rug for $1,500 that you'd pay $8,000 in a retail setting, paying $300 for shipping, doesn't seem so bad after all, especially when you forswear the sales tax.

Oriental mat, offered in Chester Springs, PA on Sept 17th, estimate $200-300.
4. Know the terms.   I need to finish my guides, I really do. My in-progress "Frequently Used Art and Antique Terms" describes a few carpet styles. Here are a few other rug related terms that are helpful to know, some courtesy of the Oriental Rug Repair Co.:
  • All-over design - Rugs with an even, repeating design throughout the field.
  • Antique - An item that is more than 100 years old. Christie's, Freeman's, Skinner and the older old and established auction houses take this term very seriously; others not so much. 
  • Field - The main section of the rug, surrounded by the border and containing the central medallion or other motifs.
  • Flatwoven -A rug made without knotted pile.
  • Guard stripes - the thin bands that surround the main border, separating it from the beginning of the field.
  • Handle - The flexibility, or give, of a rug.  A rug´s handle might be described as flexible, stiff, or soft.
  • Pile - A rug's surface or nap, formed by the knots in the foundation.
  • Selvedge or (Selvage) - the edge of the rug, or place where the weaver has turned around and started going back the other direction. Often times, you'll see a reference to "reselvedging" which is when this area has been repaired.
  • Semi-Antique - An item that is at least 50 years old. When you see this in the description, you know that the auction house is at least attempting to be accurate.
  • Sheen-  The sheen is the luster of the pile. The older the rug, the better the sheen.
  • Warp - the threads of yarn that extend through the entire length of the rug, on which the weaver ties the knots. 
  • Weft - The width-wise, or horizontal, threads in a rug, passed over and under the warps to form the foundation of a pile rug or the design of a flat woven rug.

Note that repairs are an essential part of rug maintenance and so a rug that has been reknotted and reselvedged has actually been taken care of--it's a good sign, not a bad one! So take some measurements, and get looking--there are pretty Persians up for sale every single week. If you want to learn more about rugs, this is, hands down, the mandatory text: Oriental Carpets: A Complete Guide - The Classic Reference. Happy bidding, everyone, and happy weekend!
20th century Persian rug, in North Carolina on Sept 25th, estimate $400-800.
photo: Laura Resen, designer: Michael DePerno, courtesy of Elle Decor.
Persian rugs are a natural counterpoint to all kinds of wood, and all styles.

photo: Pieter Estersohn designer: Jennifer Chamberlain, courtesy of Elle Decor.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful blog & good post.Its really helpful for me, awaiting for more new post. Keep Blogging!