Thursday, 5 January 2006

Antique rugs and carpets - good investments if you buy wisely

by Christopher Proudlove©
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It's all a matter of priorities, she kept telling me. In readiness for the festive season of television torpor, I fancied a new TV to replace our current valve set that is at least 18 years old. With seemingly hundreds of square feet of bland laminate flooring in the new house, the Business Manager (Mrs P) had other plans.

Both of us had decided we needed some rugs to scatter about the place and last weekend, seduced by sale prices, we took the plunge and wads of money changed hands. We were like lambs led to the slaughter. Whether our purchase of a 12ft by 9ft Chinese Ziegler carpet will prove to have been a wise buy we'll probably never know. With luck, it'll be something the young apprentices will discover when we are long gone.

In the meantime, it does look magnificent -- and it does cover lots of laminate. Interestingly enough, looking at it is as entertaining as watching some TV programmes. We keep spotting new features in its woven design and the more you look, the more you see. Yesterday, we noticed the pattern includes a number of small animals which we simply hadn't spotted before.

So, we're happy, but there are more scientific ways of buying a rug or carpet for your home -- antique or otherwise.

Since we need more, I have resolved to learn about the subject, because I sense that if you know what you're buying, there are bargains to be had.

Fact is, for the outlay of a few hundred pounds (or a thousand or two if you have a little extra to spare) there are some very collectable and quite delightful rugs and carpets out there, just waiting to be identified for what they are - underestimated, colourful and enduring works of art.

And if you buy carefully, your purchases could prove to be a wise investment.

An auction catalogue we saw this week was offering a red and pale yellow, 13ft by 11ft carpet, from Ushak, western Turkey, dated circa 1890.

At £12,000-18,000 it was way out of our price bracket but 10 years ago, it would have fetched between £8,000-10,000 and 20 years ago, around the time we were buying our telly, it could have been picked up for as little as £250.

Buying antique carpets and rugs need not be the nightmare it might sound. Ask for expert advice from a dealer or saleroom specialist and you won't go far wrong.

The most likely antique rugs and carpets to appear in the saleroom today are those dating from not much earlier than the 1800s.

By far the most common method of dating them is by determining whether the type of dye used in their manufacture is natural or synthetic.

Obviously, experience counts in this area, but once an expert has pointed out the colours and their characteristics to you, they are easily recognisable thereafter.

Apart from a rare synthetic green dye, introduced around 1840, the first chemical, or aniline, dye used to any great extent in rugs and carpets was a purple that first appeared around 1860.

Following that, a particular hue of red was popular in around 1880, followed by an orange, which appeared for the first time two decades later.

These dyes were crude concoctions. The purple, for example, was not lightfast and consequently soon faded to a drab grey. Look deep into the pile or on the underside of the rug to find the original colour.

The red, too, was unstable. Rugs treated with this dye show signs of blushing or bleeding into neighbouring colours, a fault even more noticeable if the rug has spent any time in the damp.

Naturally enough, rugs showing these characteristics cannot predate the introduction of the dyes.
We found our Chinese Ziegler-style carpet at a G H Frith showroom - they have three in the UK. Frith have what is claimed to be the largest choice of oriental carpets and rugs in the country including hand-woven masterpieces from all over the world. Their great website also includes a "Rugcam" which by arrangement allows potential buyers to view rugs and carpets online. And they give buyers seven days to return a purchase with a full refund if it's not right when you get it home
A full range of these synthetic dyes was available to rug makers after 1900, but still the technique had not been mastered that prevented them from losing their colour.

Rugs dating from the first 20 years of the 20th century will, therefore, also have a drab, bleached appearance when compared with their undersides.

After 1920, colourfast chromatic dyes were introduced and remain in use today.

They can be recognised because each area of colour is "dead" and of a uniform shade.

This would not be the case with wool or silk dyed with natural vegetable materials.

However, connoisseur collectors consider the introduction of chemical dyes to be the great watershed in the history of oriental carpet making.

They shun anything other than "pre-synthetic" dye carpets. It probably wouldn't bother the likes of you and me. What should matter is whether a rug was made by hand or by machine.

Buy only handmades if you want your carpet or rug to appreciate in value. Anything else is simply a stylish floor covering.

Again, once the difference is pointed out by a specialist, it's obvious.

One simple test: if the pattern can be seen on the back, it was made by hand. And if the pattern is as strong as it is right side up, it's good quality, indicating a high number of hand-tied knots to the square inch. The greater number knots, the better the rug.

Another interesting aid to dating rugs and carpets is through paintings that are of known dates.

Imagine, for example, that an artist, known to have been working in the 18th century, had included a particular type of rug in a picture of, say, a room setting or a portrait.

That style of rug, therefore, must have been around before the artist's death. If the picture is signed and dated, say 1775, then the rug obviously was made in that year or before it.

Find an identical type of rug in a picture dated 75 years earlier and the process of pinpointing the age of the rug moves another step nearer.

Often an approximation is the best the experts can manage and the older the rug, the harder it gets.

As a rule of thumb, they expect to be within five years for rugs dating from the 20th century; 25 years for those dating from the 19th century and before that, to the nearest century, because there are few reliable clues for such early examples.

The oldest known rug, uncovered by Soviet archaeologists in the 1930s, was created in about 500BC. In this case, carbon dating was used to verify its age.

Yes, it's a minefield. Read up on the subject to be better informed. I particularly recommend "Rugs to Riches, An Insider's Guide to Oriental Rugs" by Caroline Bosly (George Allen and Unwin, price £9.95).

And most importantly, ask questions. Visit specialist shops and reputable auction sales.

Auctioneers and dealers are only too happy to pass on their knowledge, even though, at the end of the day, you don't spend any money with them.

Reliable auctioneers and dealers offer a money back guarantee and dealers often an give an undertaking to buy back a rug or carpet at the price you paid.

Avoid the one-day auctions advertised by come-day-go-day "auctioneers" in posh hotels offering so-called bankrupt stock.

And one other thing: if you are able, avoid the temptation to bring home an "antique" rug from an exotic holiday, wherever your destination. It probably won't be! Captions

Pictures show, top: the W H Frith ware house where we found our Zeigler carpet

Below, spotted in a recent auction, left to right: a Heriz carpet, first quarter 20th Century, measuring approximately 12ft 6ins x 8ft. It sold for £3,565 against an estimate of £600-800.

A good Benilin Tabriz carpet dating from the first quarter of the 20th Century. Approximately 15ft x 12ft, it was estimated at £1,500-1,500 and sold for £2,990

A pretty Persian Kashan wool rug, early to mid 20th Century, 84ins x 55ins. Estimated at £300-500, it sold for £437

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