Selling Oriental Rugs and Carpets
Oriental rugs and carpets are popular pieces at auction. Their beautiful designs, long histories, and the fascinating stories they tell make them valuable pieces of functional art.
Oriental rugs and carpets are popular pieces at auction. Their beautiful designs, long histories, and the fascinating stories they tell make them valuable pieces of functional art.
An oriental rug is a woven textile, usually for covering the floor, that comes from the Middle East, Central Asia, or East Asia. Oriental rugs are beloved for their rich colors and fine detail, which often includes flowers and other vegetation, geometric motifs, and sometimes animals and people (though these are more rare, as Islam generally prohibits this sort of imagery). Oriental rugs are today commonly woven in Islamic countries, with Turkey and Iran being the two main producers, and oriental carpets are often associated with these Muslim cultures. Non-Muslim cultures such as the Chinese and Tibetans, however, also have a rug weaving tradition. In fact, oriental rug making predates Islam (and most current religions): the earliest surviving example of a carpet, the Pazyryk Carpet, was woven in Central Asia 2,400 years ago!
Oriental rugs come in three basic types: the knotted pile rug, the brocaded rug or sumak, and the flat woven rug or kilim. All three types are made up of warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) yarns, one which the weaver builds the resulting rug. A flat woven rug or kilim is woven with colorful wefts that completely cover the warps, with the weft yarns going over and under the warp yarns to make a rug. A brocaded rug or sumak is similar to a kilim, but with extra wefts that tie to the warps to create a design. Finally, the knotted pile rug is built out of warps and wefts that have yarns knotted to the warps. These yarns are then cut to create a fuzzy, soft surface. The knotted pile carpet is the most recognizable to the everyday viewer.
Oriental rug producing cultures weave countless varieties of carpets or rugs: floor coverings, bags, saddle blankets for horses, and more are only a few examples of the possible types of oriental rugs. They are made by settled communities in cities, towns, and villages, as well as by nomadic peoples on the move throughout the region. Each region and community has its own style of carpet weaving and design, so a knowledgeable rug enthusiast can figure out where a certain rug they see was made, or at least where it appears to be from.
Nest Egg Auctions has been working with oriental rugs and carpets for two decades. Our knowledge and expertise on these rugs, from their designs and meanings to their manufacture, is among the best in the region. We also routinely get excellent prices at auction for examples of oriental rugs and carpets.
If you have an oriental rug or carpet that you would like to sell, let us know!
Perhaps the most recognizable of all oriental carpets are Persian carpets. Persian rugs come from Iran, which was known as Persia until the early 20th century. There are many regions and peoples that live in Iran, so there are significant differences between different types of Persian rugs, but many Persian rugs have some general characteristics. Persian rugs often feature floral or vegetal motifs, so one will see snaking vines, flowers, and sometimes vases. Another major characteristic of many Persian carpets is a central medallion, a round or oval-ish lozenge shape in the center of the rug. Often, this medallion (or another style medallion) is then quartered in the four corners of the rug and framed by a border. These design characteristics come from a very interesting source: the architecture of mosques. In Persian mosques, there is often a pool of water that can reflect the highly decorated ceiling, often showing floral / vegetal motifs and sometimes lamps. Occasionally, plants would also float on the water’s surface itself. These motifs in mosque architecture often were meant to reflect an image of Paradise or Heaven, being a lush and flowering place of all good things. The rectangular shape of these reflecting pools was soon mirrored in carpets, and the meaning remains the same.
Persian rugs with these types of motifs are traditionally woven in cities or towns, where the carpet weavers would experience mosque architecture or see the large palace size carpets woven for monumental funerary mosques. Major centers and rug types include Isfahan, Tehran, Kerman, and Kashan.
This Kerman carpet is a great illustration of what these major weaving center rugs look like. The central medallion is flanked on either side by stylized mosque lamps and the quartered medallions in each corner of the central field. In addition, the weaving on this rug is very dense and incredibly detailed; this rug would have taken quite a while to weave, and as such is a luxurious, as well as an unquestionably beautiful, object.
As you leave the major cities and travel to smaller cities and towns, the floral designs tend to get larger and more geometrically simplified. Well-known types of these rugs are Sarouk, Dergazine, and Bakhtiari. Sarouks were very popular in the United States in the early 20th century, and thus are what many Persian carpets in this country are. Sarouks often have a red or orange ground (the main color of the rug) with large floral bursts throughout. The medallions have become flowers, though the lamps are still sometimes present. The border is usually a dark blue. A particularly fine example of a Sarouk is shown below.
This Sarouk features the extravagance of floral motifs found in the finest of Sarouks, and the central field and medallion is quite clear. Also of note for this rug (and many others) is the subtle variation in color throughout the piece. For example, look at the red ground throughout the rug. It is lighter in some areas, and darker in others. This variation in color comes up in bands, visible in this image. This effect, called abrash, is highly valued in oriental rugs, and results from the dyeing of wool in different batches. The wool will not come out the exact shade every time, and so abrash results.
As you move away from the major centers and even the smaller towns of Iran, the rugs tend to look quite different. Floral designs may still be present, but often in a more geometric and abstract manner. These are often produced by the nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes of Iran, who raise and herd sheep and use their wool for carpet production. The designs of such rugs, like Shiraz, Qashqa’i and Balouch, often have close parallels in the rugs of other carpet-weaving countries and regions, especially the Caucasus and Turkey.
Another major region of carpet production is the Caucasus. The Caucasus is a land of mountains, plains, forests, lakes, and seas. This is where Eastern Europe and Central Asia meet, and it is a crossroads of civilizations. Many groups of various backgrounds and cultures live in the Caucasus, from the Christian Armenians to the Muslim Azeri Turks. Regardless of their background, however, many groups weave carpets in the Caucasus. Caucasian rugs are often quite similar to one another, usually including geometric and abstracted floral motifs, as well as the inclusion of animal and human figures as repeating elements of design. There is overlap between some Caucasian carpets and Persian examples, as the Caucasus has been historically connected to Iran for centuries.
This Shirvan rug is a good example of Caucasian rug design with some Persian influence. The central medallions and floral motifs have some clear counterparts in the rugs of Iran, but the execution is much more geometric. In addition, we have stylized animal figures which seem to be birds of some sort. This design overall is deemed a Akstafa Shirvan, after a village in Azerbaijan where these carpets were once believed to have originated.
Among Caucasian carpets, however, none are perhaps as well-loved as the Kazaks. Kazak rugs are something of a misnomer: these rugs are not made by the Kazakh people of the Central Asian Steppe, but rather the mountainous region between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. These rugs are quite different from those of their neighbors. Their designs are heavily geometric and feature abstracted floral or vegetal forms, with seemingly little influence from Persian or Turkish rugs. What influence there might be is restricted to the actual formal layout of the carpets, rather than the decorative motifs themselves. Kazaks enjoyed great popularity in the United States in the early 19th century. Older examples occasionally come up for sale in the United States, and sell for impressive prices.
This Karachov (or Karachoph) Kazak carpet, dating from the late 19th to early 20th century, is a prime example of the Kazak variety of Caucasian rug. The defining characteristic of the Karachov Kazak is the central ivory octagonal medallion at the center of the rug. Within the central medallion and all around it are geometric motifs. We see very little that reminds the viewer of Persian or Turkish carpets, with the possible exception of the presence of a central medallion and the two flanking yellow tree-shapes; these could indicate a design based on the mosque dome and lamp motif found in Persian examples, though this is strictly conjectural. In any case, this Kazak has excellent abrash and bright colors, which make it a sought-after example of this popular rug.
Turkish rugs are some of the most varied and intriguing of oriental rugs. Their design features come from a variety of sources, from traditional designs adapted from nomadic existence, which have many similarities to both Caucasian and Turkmen rugs, to motifs that borrow from Persian rug design and, even, Western European patterns. This variety is due to Turkey’s location at the center of trade routes between Europe and Asia.
Turkey began to be settled by Turkmen in the 12th century A.D., and these groups brought with them their traditional designs of carpets, as well as the influence of rugs from the Caucasus. Very common in these types of rugs are geometric motifs made from simplified versions of plants, flowers, trees, and even architecture. These geometric designs are marked by sharp angles and straight lines. One example of this type of carpet are Dosemealti carpets. Woven in the village of Dosemealti, these rugs often sport a geometric center medallion with vegetal / floral motifs throughout and thick borders.
This example of a Dosemealti rug shows the geometric vegetal and floral forms that mark this style of rug. The center medallion sprouts into two plants or a Tree of Life pattern (a popular motif in Islamic art, which recalls Paradise). The borders are filled with flowers that have been abstracted into sharply-angled geometric forms.
An interesting aside are Turkish kilims, or flat-woven rugs. Unlike the carpets we have discussed so far, kilims do not have knotted pile or a finished and unfinished side. Kilims are reversible and relatively simpler and quicker to produce than a knotted pile carpet. Flat-woven rugs are made by many nomad cultures, including the Turkmen, groups in Iran and the Caucasus, and even Native American tribes in the American Southwest, but Turkish kilims have received much scholarly interest in recent decades. These kilims, like most oriental rugs, are the product of women, and their creation is a major outlet of artistic expression for nomadic women.
Turkish kilims often feature geometric and simplified designs found in other Turkish carpets (nomadic kilims may, indeed, be the inspiration for these designs), as well as bright bands of color. While simpler in theory, however, kilims are often made more ornate by design choices on the part of the weaver.
This kilim, either from Turkey or the Caucasus, shows the immense complexity of a kilim rug. The complicated motifs are often stylized versions of flowers and other forms, which have symbolic meaning to the nomadic peoples. These motifs have strong angles and straight lines, as curvilinear forms are incredibly difficult to make in a flatweave. Kilims were traditionally woven on the move using portable looms, so sometimes they are also often very long and not very wide, which makes them ideal for use as a runner. Wider kilims are formed by the stitching together of two years’ production, which is often visible in differences in color and (sometimes) design. While kilims are not as well-known as other types of oriental rugs, their popularity is rising, while traditional production has fallen considerably, as nomadic peoples have settled in towns and cities. Various organizations in Turkey, however, are trying to revive this important artform, and kilims will surely survive.
Until 1922, Turkey was the heartland of an Islamic empire, the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman sultans and court, while almost constantly at war with the shahs of Persia, had deep respect for Persian arts, architecture, and even rug design. As a result, many rugs woven in and around major centers of the Empire, such as the capital at Istanbul (such as Hereke carpets), feature designs that have much in common with Persian carpets. Another style that takes some cues from Persian rugs are Kayseri (or Keyseri) carpets. A particularly fine example of a Kayseri, shown here, is quite similar in design to Persian carpets: there is a central, floral medallion that is surrounded on four corners by quartered medallions. Floral designs are found throughout, with indications of possible mosque lamps flanking the central medallion and even animals shown in the red central field and medallions. Figural carpets (carpets which show people or animals), though popular in Persia, are more rare in Turkish carpets for religious reasons. Also notable in this Kayseri is the use of calligraphic decoration in one border, a motif called Kufic, related to an early version of the Arabic script.
Overall, Turkish rugs have an incredible variety, and demonstrate the different influences that shape taste and design in a culture. At the crossroads of civilizations, Turkey serves as a cultural melting pot, and this is expressed to great effect in the carpets produced there. From geometric floral forms in Dosemealti rugs and nomadic kilims, to the Persianate designs of Hereke and Kayseri rugs, Turkish rugs are among the most popular oriental rugs for their colorful and complex diversity.
The Turkmen people live in the steppes of Central Asia, where many practice a nomadic or semi-nomadic life that has, in many ways, stayed quite similar for hundreds or thousands of years. Many Turkmen live in tents as they tend their flocks of sheep and goats. These animals provide food (meat and cheese) and drink (milk), but also wool and hair for weaving. As such, Turkmen, along with related people such as the Afghans, traditionally weave these fibers for their own use. Their tents can be woven, as well as tent flaps, bag faces (the woven bags that resemble carpets), saddle blankets, and, of course, rugs and carpets. In short, Turkmen can weave any object needed for a nomadic life. As such, Turkmen rugs and carpets come in many shapes and forms.
Many Turkmen rugs and carpets feature an interesting design feature called a gül. A gül is a circular crest of a certain Turkmen tribe or group, not unlike an European coat of arms in theory. Each gül represents a particular Turkmen tribal group, such as the Tekke, Salor, or Chuvash. Each group will make weavings that have their gül repeated as a motif. Below is an example of a room size Tekke carpet.
This carpet displays the Tekke gül as a repeating motif in the central portion, as well as other geometric forms at both ends, called a skirt or elam. The central field also has secondary güls. Note also how the ground of the rug is almost entirely a deep red; many Turkmen carpets favor a deep red for the ground, though other colors, like cream-white, are also found.
A knowledgeable carpet collector can identify which tribe made a carpet based upon the gül used. It should be noted that carpets bearing güls are not always tribally made, but some are commercially produced elsewhere. Turkmen rugs are also often called Turkoman or Bokhara in the marketplace, and this is something one should keep in mind.
Very similar to Turkmen rugs in design are Afghan rugs, traditionally woven in Afghanistan but also by Afghan refugees in countries like Pakistan. Afghan rugs, like Turkmen rugs, often use a type of gül and a repeating motif in much the same way. An interesting addendum to Afghan rugs are Afghan war rugs. Beginning with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Afghan weavers have incorporated imagery of helicopters, airplanes, firearms, and weapons into their rugs. These have been traditionally marketed to foreigners, and are notable for their very different designs. One example, featuring the AK-47 machine gun, is pictured below.
This rug, made within the last two decades, has a relatively traditional border and fringe in red. The central ground, executed in cream colored wool, shows the machine gun, a pistol, and a grenade. There is also an inscription reading “KLASHNKOOF”, an understandable misspelling of the Russian name of the gun, the Kalashnikov. The colors used are still traditional, as is the technique used to make this rug. Afghan war rugs are a collector’s item for this exact reason, appealing both to carpet enthusiasts as well as firearms and military aficionados.
An interesting and often overlooked category of oriental carpets are Chinese rugs. These rugs, woven in China, have a more mysterious history. There is very little information on rug production in China, though some possible examples may date to the Tang Dynasty (late 1st millennium A.D.). Overall, Chinese carpets began to be produced en masse in the late 19th and early 20th century, when Chinese rugs were widely imported into the United States and Europe. Many of these rugs feature designs that melded well with Art Deco designs popular in the 1920s and 30s, though their popularity and production has continued into the present day. Production traditionally took place in the region around Ningxia, while 19th century and 20th century production began in Beijing (Peking) and Tianjin (Tientsin). Chinese carpets often have one of these names attributed to them, though it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between Ningxia and Peking carpets with certainty.
Generally speaking, Chinese rugs are identifiable for their incredibly thick and luxurious pile. A Chinese rug feels plush, and is thicker than most any other oriental rug. This also translates to less fine detail in most rugs. The design of these rugs, however, does have some similarities to the carpets of the Islamic world: the central medallion and quartered medallions of Persian carpets are sometimes found in Chinese rugs, as are the border bands. These Islamic designs are often matched with traditional Chinese imagery, such as the shou (long life) symbol, clouds, animals, and even plant life and architecture.
The example above, likely from Beijing, shows much similarity to Persian carpets in overall design. We see a central medallion, the quarters in the corners of the central panel, a border, and even two turtles where mosque lamps could be. The addition of the turtles and winged creatures, as well as the color, makes clear that this is not a Persian carpet. In construction, its thick, fluffy pile should make it abundantly clear that this is a Chinese rug.
Tianjin carpets are different from the others in that they are more simplified. There can sometimes be few clues to show someone that the rug is even Chinese at all. The example, illustrated above, shows just how different in design it can be.
The origin of this rug is clear from the inclusion of the various buildings, trees, and ox, all shown in Chinese style. Beyond this, however, the rug is plain, with a dark blue and cream design. The thick, dense pile, however, gives it away as a Chinese carpet from a technical standpoint.
As we have noted previously, carpets and rugs are woven for many uses. One popular form of rug is the prayer rug or sajjadah. Throughout the Islamic world, prayer rugs are incredibly popular, as they are commonly used to pray either in a mosque or elsewhere. In theory, any rug small enough to be comfortably carried around by a single person could be a prayer rug, but in practice certain design elements are found in prayer rugs. The most important is the mihrab or niche in the rug. Architecturally, mihrabs are the niches in the qibla wall of a mosque, which points toward the holy city of Mecca. Often, a mihrab is highly ornate and decorative, intended to catch the eye of those praying and direct them in their prayers. The below example, a Persian mihrab in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is a masterpiece of Islamic art, and shows just how beautiful this niche can be.
All Muslims are required to pray five times daily toward Mecca, so the mihrab is of great importance. Incorporating a mihrab into a prayer rug reminds the Muslim of what they are praying and why. This example of a prayer rug from Turkey shows one way in which a mihrab is indicated in a prayer rug. The central field is indicated by the red ground, and two columns flank the central space. Below, a small flower blooms, reminding the viewer of Paradise, and above a mosque lamp hangs. The inclusion of a mosque lamp is likewise an important indicator of the use of this carpet. In the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, God (or Allah) is compared to the light of a lamp. As depicting God is strictly forbidden in Islam, mosque lamps have come to serve as a symbol for God’s light and presence.
All prayer rugs do not look exactly alike, however. Another example, a Balouchi prayer rug (below) made by the semi-nomadic Balouch tribes of Iran, is much more geometric. At first glance, it may not seem to be a prayer rug at all. As one looks more closely, however, things begin to look more familiar. The mihrab has become a rectangle with a rectangular node at the very top. Instead of a small flower at the bottom of the niche, we see a large tree with flowers along the sides and at its top; this is the Tree of Life motif, which calls to mind Paradise in much the same way. While there are no defined columns to flank the mihrab, we do see two geometric forms that flank the top of the mihrab. These are likely geometric versions of mosque lamps, and thus serve much the same purpose as that on the Turkish prayer rug.
Another type of prayer rug, though used for a slightly different purpose, is the sajj or saff. This rug is arranged horizontally, showing multiple niches and arches. This rug would be placed in front of a group of worshippers, whether in a mosque or not, to approximate the qibla wall and direct prayer towards Mecca. The example shown below is likely Turkish.
Prayer rugs are an incredibly interesting subcategory of oriental carpets for a multitude of reasons, and attract many buyers. The combination of artistic design with religious meaning makes these more than simply beautiful objects, as there is belief and care behind them.
While Islam usually prohibits figural imagery (people and animals, but especially God and the Prophet), this does not mean that figural imagery is not found in oriental carpets. Animals make occasional appearances in rugs from all areas, but especially Caucasian rugs. People are sometimes found in most rugs, but are most notably included in Persian carpets. There is a reason for this: Persia / Iran has a tradition of figural art stretching back into at least the first millennium B.C., long before the advent of Islam. Paintings and illustrated books showing animals, people, and even the Prophet Muhammad (almost always shown veiled) have been made in Iran, and have continued to be made.
Figural or pictorial rugs are among the most elaborate and detailed oriental rugs. They can show people, animals, landscapes, and much more. One such rug, shown below, is a Persian carpet depicting the Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. This is a masterpiece of carpetmaking. The rug has a high knot-count of 160 kpsi (knots per square inch), allowing for a high level of detail. The entrance iwan of the mosque, with its beautiful calligraphy in white and blue and its two minaret towers, is shown in great detail. This is a stunning work of art, and a carpet meant for deep appreciation and study. Thus, figural / pictorial rugs are among the most valuable and sought-after rugs for their immense level of detail and unquestionable artistic beauty.
The beauty and wealth of oriental carpets is something that cannot be understated. Like a fine wine, they grow better with age. Building on the wine analogy, oriental rugs are best appreciated after refining one’s visual palate. At first, all oriental rugs may look similar, and it can be difficult or daunting to try and understand their differences or to tell which rugs are worth considerable money. Once one has seen and felt a few examples, however, the differences become clearer, and quality becomes evident. Ultimately, however, a rug connoisseur should collect what they like; if you like a $300 Dergazine more than a $5,000 Karachoph Kazak, then you should purchase the Dergazine. This article is meant only to help guide you in identifying and enjoying oriental carpets. If it has done this, then it has accomplished its mission.