Collectible or Knot: The Value of Handmade Carpets

It doesn’t take much time shopping for a handmade rug or carpet until one will encounter the phrase ‘It’s an investment.’ Usually uttered by a well-meaning salesperson in response to an inquiry regarding the relative expense of the carpet then under consideration, its nuanced meaning is quite oft left intentionally vague and unqualified. Contemporary English vernacular would have the unsuspecting consumer assume said carpet will appreciate in value, whereas someone more well versed in the parlance of quality objects might understand the implication to be such that the carpet will endure and thus never need to be replaced – at least because of condition. Both are valid interpretations, though the intent depends heavily on the caliber of the dealer and the true nature of the carpet at hand.

In order to sort the nuanced meaning of ‘It’s an investment carpet.’ we must first differentiate between carpets that have been known to hold and appreciate in value – henceforth known as collectable, and those that have not yet proven themselves – which is more or less everything else including new production, what we’ll call decorative. The former are antique and old carpets sold primarily in specialty antique rugs stores and in cases of the extremely rare and desirable, auction houses, whereas the latter are either newly made carpets or any old carpet that is not of the caliber to be collectable typically found in suburban showrooms, design centres, and in branded company showrooms. These differentiations in locale are certainly not rigid, but for discussion purposes they convey the appropriate distinctions between collectible and decorative.

Perhaps it also best at this point to state emphatically that any quality well made handknotted carpet – decorative, collectible (unless already heavily worn), or otherwise – is an investment in so much that its serviceability and its ability to endure years of household use, in short its durability, is such that you will never need to replace it. Carpets of this caliber have pile made primarily of wool, silk, an assortment of other less commonly used natural fibres or combinations thereof and should be knotted to a foundation made of cotton, or in some cases the aforementioned fibres. They should not contain synthetic fibres, nor pretentious overly processed natural fibres. ‘Art Silk’ a deceptively truncated moniker for artificial silk is but one of many examples of fibres to avoid when purchasing a carpet you intend to last, as is viscose.

So. If your intent when purchasing is based upon redecorating as you see fit, choosing as your means provide to either continue using the carpet or replace it, you need not read past this paragraph. If you purchase a carpet that fits into the rough category heretofor described you can feel comfortable knowing you are getting your money’s worth from the carpet. Furthermore, we should acknowledge these such carpets are not inexpensive, but that is not to say inexpensive carpets don’t have value. Just be aware that an inexpensive to genuinely cheap rug may not have the long term durability of one handknotted. Be prepared to spend your money accordingly and choose appropriately as your cheap rug is precisely that. That is the real value of handmade carpets: the ability to purchase something once in your lifetime.

If on the other hand, you are interested in what characteristics might make a carpet collectible in the future, you’re in for a treat. Many in the handmade carpet industry (myself formerly included) would have you believe they are making ‘heirlooms of the future’. A distinction, which to be frank, carries the implication not only will their carpets endure, but that they will also be collectible. While no maker, no expert, no one can tell you with certainty which decorative carpet will end up being collectible (and if they do, I politely suggest treating those words with a degree of skepticism), we can make a more educated guess based on the characteristics possessed by carpets currently viewed as collectible.

Elisabeth Parker is a Vice President of Christie’s and the International Department Head of their Rugs and Carpets department. In twenty (20) years with Christie’s she has been responsible for cataloging and selling many great carpets including those of The Doris Duke Collection in 2004 and The Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2009, and was also responsible for the sale of the Magnificent Louis XV Savonnerie carpet that held the world auction record for any carpet for many years. She is what one might consider a ‘go to’ person when it comes to understanding collectible carpets. We ask Elisabeth what characteristics of today’s collectible old and antique carpets – a genre in which The Ruggist is admittedly underschooled – might translate to carpets made today as we attempt to answer the question: Collectible or Knot?

An early 17th century Portuguese Armourial Carpet from the Doris Duke Collection. Sized approximately 19'5" x 14'10". Sold at auction by Christie's for $80,500 (USD) including premium.
An early 17th century Portuguese Armourial Carpet from the Doris Duke Collection. Sized approximately 19’5″ x 14’10”. Sold at auction by Christie’s for $80,500 (USD) including premium.

The Ruggist (MC): Generally I find when most people describe making carpets as ‘heirlooms of tomorrow’ they have an obsession with quality, insisting that only the ‘best’ will suffice in producing the desirable carpet of the future. Do you think quality is key? I guess I think of some mid-century modern furniture pieces that were not made to endure, yet are highly desirable. Is this scarcity at play as well?

Elisabeth Parker (EP): That is a really good point. I don’t think quality is the determining factor for the antique of tomorrow. [For example] I love Ushaks for what they are, but they aren’t great quality. On the flip side, it used to be so hard to sell intricate and busy city carpets, such as Isfahans and Kashans, that by all accounts are great quality, because they were considered fussy and grandma. I do see that trend changing but I guess my point is quality isn’t always what people are looking for.

MC: Please describe what you look for in old carpets when considering bringing them to auction. Perhaps a list of criteria that allow you to gauge what you have?

EP: When I first look at a carpet, the first thing I check for is overall quality. That includes the quality of both weave and dye. With weave, it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to have the finest knot count. Not all carpets strived to have a high knot count. Rather, I compare like with like. In general city carpets are known for a high knot count and it does matter with rugs from Senneh, Tabriz and Kirman, as well as other city weaving centers. But carpets from a cottage industry or those from a more rural region didn’t strive to a high knot count – their appeal and quality is more based on their uniqueness and success of design and color. Generally I look for natural dyes but exceptions are made. Synthetic dyes were introduced in the 1860s so it is hard to avoid. I try not to sell rugs that have color run or rugs with more synthetic dyes than natural ones.

Next I determine rarity. Is it something that I have seen before? Is the design unique? Is it an unusual size for the type? Does it have an inscription? Do the design and color work together? Is the overall carpet balanced, particularly border vs. field? Do the colors work together? Are the colors pleasing or too strong and harsh?

Ideally I am searching for carpets that are from the 19th century and earlier although, there are interesting rugs that date to the early 20th century. I try to stay away from rugs that are post 1930 when many rugs became routine and repetitive.

Condition. Not necessarily the first thing I look at but certainly very important. Carpets in near original condition are pretty easy to sell. Personally, I like my carpets with a bit of patina so some wear doesn’t bother me but there is an acceptable level. Areas of exposed foundation (typically white, so obvious) can be problematic as it means that sooner rather than later a hole will develop. There are several kinds of restoration: re-weaving, re-piling, and tinting-in. Unfortunately, unlike a painting hanging on a wall, carpets take a beating so a certain amount (under 20%) of restoration is acceptable for a carpet of age, however, tinting-in is the least desirable. Tint is exactly what it sounds like: paint that is used to cover up the exposed white foundation in the colour of the wool that used to be there. When wear occurs, the ends are the first thing to go so many rugs to have their ends rewoven. It isn’t ideal but it also isn’t a game changer, especially if done well. Of course bad restoration vs. good restoration also makes a difference. Often, with old re-weaves, the colour changes at a different rate than the original coloyrs and the restoration becomes obvious and likely needs to be re-done.

Size. Size does matter. Most of my clients are in the tri-state area and in particular New York City so I need to be aware of typical rooms in New York apartments. Long and narrow carpets, i.e. 18 ft. x 9 to 10 ft. are popular because of fireplaces that jut into a room. Many NY apartments also have gallery spaces when you enter so carpets that are 18 ft. x 6 ft. are also in demand. One would think that a large carpet, for example 40 ft. x 30 ft. would be worth a lot of money but they can actually be quite hard to sell. Not many people need carpets that large so there is a smaller demand and I tend to be conservative with pricing. On the flip side, most homes can accommodate a 12 ft. x 9 ft. so there can be more competition in that size range. Runners are really hard to find, especially if they are narrower than 3 ft. 2 in.. On numerous occasions I have had runners go way above estimate not because of its intrinsic value but because narrow runners are rare.

I guess the last thing I think about is provenance. Interesting or notable provenance can add value and help something sell. Andy Warhol had a pretty but not unusual Kirman carpet that we sold in the late 90s that sold for far more than it would have had it belonged to unknown person.

MC: So out of all those criteria, which one may be the most important?

EP: Going through this exercise, I guess the most important criterium is do the design and color work together. I know. Odd choice but frankly, an antique carpet in perfect condition but with an awkward design and harsh colour is really hard to sell. We live with carpets and they affect your surroundings.

MC: When you go to look at comparables in order to determined an estimate, what do you do in a situation where no comparables exist? Best guess?

EP: I definitely have had situations where there are no comparables available. A large Portuguese carpet comes to mind that I sold in 2008 or 2009 from the Doris Duke collection. I can get an image if you want it to illustrate the point. It was super wacky with a large armourial in the centre and with a design and quality and weave that I had not seen before. Setting an estimate was hard but I thought about the decorative quality, rarity and age. A big part of it was a guess – what did I think a decorator or end user would pay for it? I try to be conservative with estimate and let the market decide what something is worth. In this case, the hammer price was well above my guestimate and it always makes me happy when something sells above estimate, especially when I think it is deserved.

An East Caucasian Kuba Rug, circa 1880, approximately 4 ft. 4 in. x 3 ft. 5 in. Property from the Birmingham Museum of Art. Estimate: $8,000-12,000 (USD), Sold 31 March 2016, for $8,125 (USD).
An East Caucasian Kuba Rug, circa 1880, approximately 4 ft. 4 in. x 3 ft. 5 in. Property from the Birmingham Museum of Art. Estimate: $8,000-12,000 (USD), Sold 31 March 2016, for $8,125 (USD).

MC: By way of example, can you describe a carpet that really embodies your ideas of a great carpet?

EP: This Kuba has pretty much everything you are looking for when looking for an antique Caucasian rug. First, I am struck by the quality of the wool. It is extremely soft to the touch and has a lustrous quality that natural dyes love. The range of colour is superb and the natural dyes are very saturated and deep. Purples and greens are particularly coveted in this type of rug and this rug liberally uses not only purple and green, but also a deep yellow and several shades of blue. The design is also very appealing – I am always drawn to an overall pattern and in this example, there is a sense of infinity, as the pattern seems to extend beyond the borders. The border design is also very unusual as this type usually displays a so-called ‘slant-leaf and wine glass’ pattern. But here we have a design of various coloured octagons separated by small decorative motif that changes in pattern and colour. The border is really the weaver’s signature. It is very finely woven for the type but as a result, there is some weak wefting and old slits that are easily repaired. Admittedly, I am conservative with the date and it has been suggested that this rug could be even early 19th century. Having a museum provenance also adds value and interest. Eugenia Woodward Hitt donated her furniture and decorative arts from her Park Avenue apartment to the museum in her native Birmingham in [approximately] 1950. To me, a great village rug is one where you can see the personality and skill of a weaver and one where every time you look at it, you see a new motif or colour used in an unexpected way.

MC continues editorially: A reputable dealer should never promise that a rug or carpet will hold or appreciate in value, as predicting the future demands and whims of Interior Design, fashion, and the style of the times is all but impossible. That same reputable dealer would also, very rightly, tell you that a good quality handmade carpet will likely endure well beyond your lifetime, and thus never need replaced; an ‘investment piece’ as a designer or architect might say. That notwithstanding, we can distill from Mrs. Parker’s experience some characteristics that will help improve the chances the decorative carpet you buy today, will be the collectible one of the future:

  • Is it a good looking rug now? If it’s not sexy and good looking now, it’s not going to be sexy and good looking in the future. Buy carpets that look harmonious and well composed. This is of course subjective and cyclical with fashion, but attraction is paramount.
  • Avoid rugs that are ‘routine and repetitive’. If you can buy the same rug in a variety of sizes, at a variety of showrooms, it’s likely just decorative; unless of course in seventy-five years yours is the only one extant. One way to do so is to buy smaller scale boutique, bespoke, and atelier type production. Carpets that are one-of-a-kind.
  • Always buy the best carpet in its class. Is what you’re buying an exceptional example of [blank]? It’s possible it may even been a machine made synthetic fibre rug – assuming it lasts that long, just ensure it’s the best of what it is. This includes best materials, best craftsmanship, et cetera and so forth.
  • Provenance. Perhaps at no point in the history of rugs have we been so blessed (fortuitously or otherwise) with a preponderance of names, labels, and brands of rug makers. Perhaps this will add value, perhaps not, but the story cannot hurt. Further, if you happen to be a person of certain renown, this may help.
  • By all means use your decorative carpet but keep it maintained, clean, and in good repair so that its relative condition remains high.
  • As for size? On this I’m indifferent. Buy what suits your needs, not what you think may add value in some future time.

Overall whether you’re purchasing a decorative carpet solely with an eye on style and design, or if you’re buying because you’re betting on some future value you yourself may never realize, just remember any attempt to actively label something as collectible in the hear and now risks relegating it to the same class as Beanie Babies, Sealed Mint Coin Sets, and QVC Tchotchkes. Don’t think of buying or making something collectible, rather think of making something unique and beautiful to be enjoyed today, and let the future arbiters of style pick for themselves from the best we – in this time – had to offer.