Becoming an expert requires years of tactile experience. Your senses communicate physical details in a way no book can. To know about great, collectible rugs, you have to see them and feel them over and over. And you need to have people around to put the things you see in perspective.
“There could be some wonderful pieces,” Arbab says, “but they may be quite plentiful. For that reason their value will be lower. And there are some pieces that are so rare and so unique and so great, but for most people, it just goes right over their heads.”
Hamadan, Sarouk, Soumak, Tabriz, Qashqais, Khamseh, kilim: rugs get their names from areas, cultures, tribes, or peoples. The names were given to the patterns, color combinations, and weaves by Westerners, to help them identify and classify the pieces so they could communicate among themselves.
The trick to reading a rug is speaking the language. For me, it is easiest to think of some of the elements as other things: a boteh (pronounced BO-teh) looks like a paisley; the quasi-circular design called a gul reminds me of a Chinese good-luck symbol; and the way I recognize the Herati element in borders is to think of a cross section of the female reproductive system. Each element of a pattern is a reflection of a culture, an artist, a tribe, a time, a change in the material process, or a change in fashion.
The way a knot is made, the number of knots per square inch, the materials used for warp and weft, even the size of a rug are clues to solving the mystery of who made it and when. Depending on your expertise, or the way you learned to “speak rug,” you may identify a piece by the colors or pattern, the fineness of the weave, the thickness of the pile, or the dyestuff, or mordant, used.
Rug nomenclature can be misleading. When a rug is identified as “Persian,” you know only that Persian is one possibility. Too often that name is used synonymously with “oriental.” To be Persian, a rug must come from Persia, now called Iran.
Someone who speaks rug well will be able to classify an oriental rug by the area where it was made — Anatolia, the Caucasus Mountains, China, etc. Someone who is really good can nail down the exact area in the country. But only someone fluent in rugspeak can look at all of the elements and pinpoint the tribe, the time, and even the artist, if the artist is famous.
“I’ve made several trips to Iran,” Arbab says. “I was sort of amazed. Before I went, I thought rug-making was a dead art. Then I went to Iran and saw what different people made in different bazaars, and the different merchandise, and I saw the people that were still at it.
“That greatly contributed to my thinking that it was financially feasible to actually have a rug shop, that the merchandise was available. But as it turns out, I decided it’s really only old rugs that I am interested in. Presently that serves me well too. There are fewer and fewer people who know much about the older rugs.
“Rugs break down into two categories — decorative and collectible,” Arbab says. “One can say that all modern production, post–World War II, those are all what I call ‘new rugs.’ New rugs are decorative, and one doesn’t need to concern themselves with any other classification.
“One really needs to distinguish between the decorative classification and the collectible classification, because if there’s one definition of a decorative rug, it’s what’s hot is hot and what’s not is not. In the most modern times, we in the West, when we are through with something, we are just through with something.
“For example, between 1924-25 and World War II, we just couldn’t get enough of the burgundy color. We wanted things plush. We wanted lots of velvets around. Couches of that period were covered with burgundy velvets, and so on. We dictated that in rugs. Americans said, ‘We don’t want thin-pile rugs; we want thick rugs. And we don’t want rugs in these nice peach tones; we want everything to be burgundy.’ So the so-called American Sarouk was born.”
“It was born just for our market?” I ask.
“Yes,” Arbab says. “Not one went to Europe; not until the 1970s did American Sarouks go from the U.S. to Germany. They were the most expensive rugs of their time because of all of the changes dictating the design. That’s the whole idea of ‘decorative.’ ”
Arbab’s voice drops scornfully. “We might be into the Southwestern thing for the next lifetime. If we would go into jewel tones and stay there for a while, there are so many wonderful rugs in those tones.
“Recently, the fashion was these thick Chinese rugs that are embossed and way overtreated chemically. They were so popular; we couldn’t get enough of them. There were rugs that people paid as much as $30 and $35 per square foot for, meaning they paid $3500 for a 9 by 12.
“Now they can’t get a dime on their dollar, because about six or seven years back, we decided we were through with them. There were way too many of them. They had problems with cleaning; all the sharp embossing was just fuzzed out. Half the pale colors would just disappear, and stains… Anything spilled on it would just stain because of the chemicals left in the wool. For all of those reasons, but mostly because of oversupply, we turned off. And when we are finished…
“People call me all the time and ask, ‘Can I consign it to anybody?’ My only suggestion is to donate it and take some kind of tax write-off, because even if you paid $3000 for it, you can’t sell it for $300. There isn’t a market. We seem to have lost the medium used-furniture stores that were very nice for that kind of thing.”