All about Rugs

An Interview with Fred Blair

How did you initially get involved with rugs?

I had just finished my BA in English at Columbia College, and needed to get a summer job to stay in the city. At that point I lived around the corner from a large rug store and found myself working there and continued to do so far longer than I ever expected. Later, I became the buyer for another retailer and eventually started my own business working with designers, collectors, and private clients. If anyone had ever asked, I never would have thought that I’d still be in the business so many years later.

Is it better to invest in an old rug or a recently made one? What are the advantages of each?

New rugs are a favorite of interior designers because they are designed with the latest colors and styles. Many new rugs are “programmed,” which means that a design can be ordered in custom sizes, and often colors can be changed. This makes them easy to work with, especially when they are only a part (often an afterthought) in the design of a room.

Antique rugs are usually one of a kind works of art with fixed sizes and colors. They were typically designed to be complete works unto themselves, and display lots of color and design. In a Middle Eastern setting, a carpet is often the centerpiece of a room. It has a presence, much like a great painting, and requires a certain amount of accommodation. So I’d say that new rugs offer a great amount of flexibility while antique rugs are unique and can offer qualities that can only be achieved over time. Another difference is that new rugs don’t retain their value, whereas antique rugs often do. (And, in some happy circumstances, they increase in value.)

“Persian” and “Chinese” seem to be the two basic types of oriental rugs. Are there others? What does it mean if a rug is “tribal”? How important is it that the dyes are natural and the knot count high?

Besides Persian and Chinese carpets, rugs are also woven in Europe. Aubusson and Savonneries, from France, are two important types. Rugs are also woven in Greece, Sweden, and the Balkans.
Tibet is known for its brightly colored small rugs. India also produces a wide range of rugs from simple cotton dhurrries (flat woven summer rugs) to very sophisticated carpets such as Agras.

Other kinds of floor coverings, such as hooked and loomed rugs, are made here in the United States.

Knot count refers to the density of the weave. Rugs are knotted on warps (horizontal threads), and each row is finished with a weft (vertical). The warp and the weft form a grid that makes the structure of the rug, allowing the design to be fixed, and the rug to be durable. So the nature of a rug is to be geometric as the design follows this up/down, left/right structure. If the weaver is trying to execute a curved flower, for example, that weaver is attempting something the structure doesn’t allow. As the weave becomes finer, however, the eye eventually is tricked into perceiving that stepped diagonals are actual curves. That’s a reason knot counts are important in more formal floral rugs—they make flowers look like flowers rather than zig-zaggy lines. One important point: the number of knots has nothing to do with what a rug should cost. Indeed, many loosely woven rugs such as Oushaks and Sultanabad fetch quite high prices.

Natural dyes are made from available sources, usually ones found near the weaver. Some common dye sources are: indigo, cochineal (insect), madder root, walnuts, flowers, minerals, and grasses. Each is gathered, ground, and boiled in a large vat. Because there is a variation in the amount of dye in a vat (more sinks to the bottom, less on top), the yarn will have a more saturated color toward the bottom of the vat. Simultaneously, a good hand-carded wool will still retain a lot of the natural fats and oils that vary on different areas of a sheep. Fat repels dye, so different areas of the yarn will pick up more or less dye, so what you get from all these factors is a slight irregularity within the color. This irregularity gives the rug design a dimensionality. Over time this irregularity increases, producing an effect called abrage, which is just a variation within a color.

Because antique rugs are more desirable and command higher prices, dealers will often attempt to simulate aging using methods that can include sun fading, tea washing, and bleaching. These attempts are easy for a seasoned professional to spot because they dull the rug. Actual antiques grow richer over time.

What about kilims?

The term kilim means that a rug is woven (flat) rather than knotted (pile). Kilims are much simpler to weave, and are primarily products of a nomadic lifestyle—most notably in Iran and Turkey. Because of the nature of the weave, they are typically geometric, often with bold colors to contrast with hot and barren environments in which they are produced. They are very utilitarian, and often double as blankets, seat covers, wall hangings, etc. During the later half of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, many of the tribes who wove kilims were (often forcibly) settled. Because of this, as well as other economic reasons, there are almost no nomadic kilims being produced presently.

Kilims are also woven in the Caucasus Mountains. These kilims are generally done in small villages, by several ethnic groups, and are more often used on walls, on beds, or as dowry pieces.

For a good quality room-size rug, what should I be prepared to pay? And, perhaps more importantly in the current financial climate, is this a good time to consider rug shopping at all?

That is a very difficult question, much like asking what a painting should cost. There are a lot of considerations: condition, artistry, age, rarity, materials used, design. It is also important to know if someone is looking for a carpet that is just a decorative object or one that is a work of art. There are so many factors. Rugs as investments are another consideration, as this requires a vast knowledge—historical prices, rarity, desirability, the correct resources from which to buy. Often the best way is to determine a budget first, and then see what’s available in that price range.

Interestingly, now is a very good time to buy an antique rug. The rug market is still recovering from 2008. I think the reason for this is there is still a trend toward economizing. A rug isn’t necessary in the way that a sofa or lamps are, and most people don’t understand their potential as an investment in much the same way as art might be, so rugs are the easiest things to cut from a design budget. Also, the use and importance of rugs isn’t as ingrained in the United States as it is in other areas such as Europe and the Middle East. There is still a very active market today on the highest end of rugs—the best of the best—often with records being set. The lower prices one sees now with most rugs will likely change soon. Many of the sources of the better pre–World War I rugs are being exhausted. Simultaneously, there is also an embargo against importing rugs from Iran—the largest rug producer. The supply is destined to diminish in the future. In the meantime, though, business has slowed enough that sellers are eager to sell.

Can you explain the enormous fluctuations in price? What are the biggest bargains around at the moment? What types of rugs are currently overpriced? Why?

There are several factors. Certain things are fashionable in the moment but in retrospect are just fads. An example of this is wool dhurries that were extremely popular in the 80s, but are not so now. They were made in colors that were very stylish at the time (mauve and teal), but are now less in favor. Chinese needlepoints are another. They skillfully reproduced the patterns of (mostly) French design in incredible quality, but were decidedly reproductions. The demand for this more formal and dense look has decreased, so these rugs can be had for a song. You might say that they were trendy reproductions. Interestingly, the original versions of these carpets, antique cotton dhurries and European needlepoints, are as coveted as ever. I think that part of the lesson here is that, at least in a long-term or investment sense, you want to buy something that is original and timeless.

The antique rug market is complex.

I’ll use the example of a Heriz, which is a type of Persian rug—typically, reds and blues, somewhat geometric. It is a classic: the sort of rug you might imagine you’d see in a New England library. There are a fair amount of these rugs around the market, and a perfectly good 9 x 12′ can be had in the wholesale market in the $5,000–10,000 range.

Within this category are older Heriz carpets that are called Serapis. These were made prior to World War I, so are about 100 years old, or older. These rugs are from the same area as the newer pieces, but have a somewhat different aesthetic with a more open design and softer colors. There are perhaps one of these examples for every 100 of the newer Herizes, so the baseline for these types of rugs is more in the $20,000–40,000 range.

The next question to ask is what kind of border does it have? Typically, most Herizes have an indigo border. However, dark borders are considered visually more confining (they enclose and frame a rug), so a light border, which is quite rare, will add a premium—perhaps 30 to 40 percent.

Next question: with the Heriz, the predominant colors used are reds and blue but what type of reds and blue are they? A grounded brick red and a light robin’s egg blue are considered more desirable than a sharper red or a deep indigo blue. Remember, there is no intrinsically “better” red; however, within this market there is a consensus that certain traits are more desirable.

What about other colors? These weavers had access to a lovely light yellow dye, some of which is sometimes found but rarely. Similarly, it is unusual to have lots of open ivory in the field. These things could bring a rug into the $50,000–70,000 range.

And a final, important question: what about condition? These rugs were not terribly thick, and the pile was fairly low when new, so they were less likely to endure over a very long time. One in perfect, or near perfect condition, will command a premium, so we’re getting near the $100,000 mark for the best of the best.

It should also be noted that at this point a certain X factor comes into play. Two rugs may have all the attributes discussed above that make them one in a thousand, but one of them has a special something that is very difficult to convey, but very palpable. You know you’re in the presence of something very special that an artistic genius in a small village thousands of miles away created and that is still (improbably) here a century later.

So that’s how you can have two 9 x 12′ Herizes where one costs $7,000, and one is over $100,000.

Bargain is a relative term. Do you mean actual cost or worth? I think that certain categories are undervalued. A big shift happened toward the end of the nineteenth/early twentieth century when aspects of industrialization and mechanization took hold in carpets: synthetic dyes, machine carding/spinning, and historical events like the settling of migratory tribes. While some of these developments often made rugs less time consuming to produce, much of the quality suffered. These pre–World War I pieces are quite old at this point, and they’ll never be produced in this manner again. So I think that a lot of Persian and Caucasian pieces from this era are very under-priced, and their rarity can only escalate. Even when you take the example of the $100,000 Heriz mentioned previously, when you acknowledge that it’s the pinnacle of its type, it is relatively cheap when you realize that a painting of that caliber would be a thousand times more expensive.

Price-wise, I think kilims are very undervalued—$3,000 will get you a fantastic nineteenth-century piece in beautiful condition. Charming Caucasian village rugs from this era can also be had in this range. Chinese Deco rugs are less in vogue than a few years ago. You can get a good example of one of these for $5,000, which I think is a real bargain.

Any suggestions if I’d really like to buy a rug not only as something to enjoy at home but also as something of an investment?

Whether a rug is overpriced is something that only history can tell. I’d say that things that are very trendy will tend to look so years later, and will often be less appealing. A type of Tabriz (Tabatabai) was produced in the 70s with the sorts of oranges and green that were so popular. Although they’re often good quality rugs, they’re a hard sell today because the colors seem very dated. Recently, there is an epidemic of beiges and taupes—really a lack of color—and that has greatly increased the prices of the few rugs that have this palette. Certain rugs that were considered less desirable in their day, and were very coarse, are now very expensive. Examples include Oushaks and Mahals, many of which were considered very low-end rugs when they were made. These categories now often fetch very high prices. The reason for this change is that interior designers and their clientele often determine desirability and price for much of the market. The openness of both the design and weave on these rugs make them easier to work with in interior design, so the prices of these have dramatically increased. My guess is that they are here to stay, but there isn’t necessarily an intrinsic reason for some of the prices they fetch.

If you want to consider rugs as an investment, I’d say that you should buy the best. This does not necessarily mean spending lots of money, but you should buy the best of its kind. Look for things that are both original and classic. The period before World War I is still usually the most desirable, but you also have to consider someone’s tastes. People have an affinity for certain rugs, floral, tribal, etc.

Part of the fun of what I do is figuring out what the client wants—even though he or she may not necessarily know—and then finding the best example within these parameters. Some clients enjoy the process and become more knowledgeable. There are many other factors, and those can be tailored to an individual’s needs.

Personally, what are your favorite types of rugs? Any treasures you’ve found unexpectedly? Any rugs you hesitated about and now wish you hadn’t? Any stories about you, an expert, being deceived?

I’m particularly fond of tribal rugs. These rugs come from migratory groups that use what surrounds them to make art. They have a very personal and often unexpected and original quality that I like. On the other side of the spectrum, I really appreciate the incredible artistry that has gone into certain antique formal rugs such as Haji Jalili Tabriz or Mohtashem Kashan.

I’m known for being able to find the unfindable, so a lot of these treasures would come under that category.

There are many rugs I wish I had bought. Oushaks, which are all the rage these days, couldn’t be given away when I was first starting out—they’ve probably appreciated twenty times over their original cost.

One rug that I remember that got away was a nineteenth-century Persian Gabbeh. A wholesale dealer had it, and a friend of mine who worked for him called and said I had to see it. Gabbehs are very primitive tribal rugs that were not really well-known back then, and they were asking $3,000, which was a substantial sum for me as I’d just gotten out of school. The rug was magnificent—very spare, with a checkerboard design, large blocks of (natural dye) color, each containing an animal. But most importantly, it had a “special something.” Anyway, it sold the day before I could buy it, ended up going through several hands, and was sold later that year by a very prominent European dealer for about $80,000—an astronomical sum for that category of rug. He declared it the best example of a Gabbeh that he had ever seen!

Now I would trust my instinct and wouldn’t hesitate because great pieces seldom stay around for long.

I’ve seen many carpets that dealers have tried to pass off as something other than what they are. Some are quite good, others less so. On the best of these, it’s often a relatively minor detail which gives them away.

Can you recommend any books or guides on the subject?

My favorite is The Oriental Carpet: A History and Guide to Traditional Motifs, Patterns, and Symbols by P. J. R. Ford (New York, Abrams, 1981). It is a book I learned from early on, and I think it is one of the best. Books on rugs aren’t the best way to learn because the photos often don’t convey subtleties of qualities like hand-carding or abrage—that’s one of the reasons I started teaching a course on rugs at Parsons. It’s a course that’s held entirely in different rug dealers showrooms, so students get to see examples as we talk about them. Books are a great resource to learn about names, areas, and history; they can give you a lot of background.

Fred BlairFred Blair, a native of Thibodaux, Louisiana, and a friend for many years, is a respected authority on antique carpets and textiles. His classes on oriental rugs at Parsons are deservedly popular and he has a devoted private clientele.

Issue Twenty Two