In Hot Springs, Arkansas, a woman named Susan discussed two oriental rugs that her grandparents had bought in 1931 for the exact same price: $2,000. One of the rugs, a very large Serapi, was woven in the late 19th century in northwest Persia, present-day Iran. In a little over 100 years this rug has appreciated twentyfold, to a retail value of $40,000. However, the other rug, a small Turkish Hereke prayer rug, has appreciated to only $6,000, which means its worth hasn't even kept pace with inflation.
What happened? Why does one old oriental rug soar in value over the years, while another one, just as old, stagnates in value?
We took these questions to Peter Pap, the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW rug expert who evaluated the two Hot Springs rugs. He says the differential in the appreciation of these two rugs, and of oriental rugs in general, is closely related to each rug's respective quality. He's quick to add, though, that the worth of a rug at any given time is also tied to cycles of the market and trends in people's taste.
Older Hereke rugs — and other Turkish prayer rugs similar to the one Susan showed in Hot Springs — were in great demand during the first few decades of the 1900s, Peter says. This fact inflated their value at the time. The keen market in turn inspired ever more exaggerated sales pitches — a factor Peter says likely played a part in the grandparents' purchase.
The original paperwork from the interior designer who sold the Hereke rug lists it as a "semi-antique," a term used to refer to objects that are more than 50 years old, but not yet 100 years old — the minimum age for a bona fide "antique." But Peter says that this rug was not in fact a late 19th-century specimen; rather, it was a copy made no more than 20 years before Susan's grandparents purchased it.
"They were definitely misled, and they overpaid for the prayer rug," Peter says.
Quality of craftsmanship — or lack of it — has also played a role in the Hereke's lackluster appreciation in value. The red dye used in the pattern was of poor quality and has bled into the rug's lighter colors. Peter also notes that the rug is not actually made of silk, as was claimed, but instead is woven from treated cotton.
On the other hand there is the second rug, a Serapi, which Peter spotted in a photograph that Susan showed him of the St. Louis penthouse that her grandparents lived in. But how can Peter tell from the picture that this rug is a winner? Serapis, he explains, only started being made late in the first decade of the 1900s; in the 1930s, this type of rug hadn't been around long enough, nor become popular enough, for rug makers to begin producing copies for sale. That's why Peter doesn't have misgivings about its authenticity. And Susan reports that the Serapi is still in excellent condition. A wealthy collector, her grandfather even built a special museum-like room in St. Louis to house his rugs. So Peter feels comfortable that his $40,000 estimate is accurate provided the Serapi has continued to be well cared for.
"While large Persian carpets with primitive geometric designs were relatively inexpensive at the time this was bought, they are now one of the most desirable types," Pap says.
So the first — unsurprising — lesson illustrated by Susan's two rugs is that quality matters in oriental rugs. But what may be a more important lesson, even for collectors of fine hand-made oriental carpets, is that the market is fickle.
Peter says that in the 1950s, oriental rugs lost their allure when buyers began to develop a preference for the color beige, as well as for wall-to-wall carpeting. Peter knows old-timers in the antiques business who had to dump the oriental rugs they bought as parts of complete estates. "One of my mentors in the business would drive from Washington in his Volkswagen Beetle to New England with $200 and be able to fill the car with antique rugs purchased at antiques shops," Peter says.
Prices for Turkoman tribal rugs and saddlebags, however, which collectors eagerly sought in the 1970s, have moved in the other direction over the last 10 years. "Now collectors are only looking for the masterpieces to round out their collections," Peter says. "And there isn't a second wave of younger collectors to support the entry-level pieces, so the prices have dropped in value."
In addition to changing patterns of demand, changes in the supply of oriental rugs have also affected the prices of mid-century rugs. As part of the renaissance in oriental rugs over the last 20 years, rug makers have begun to use quality natural dyes again and have created vibrant designs that borrow from 19th-century patterns.
"These rugs now make many of the semi-antique rugs look stiff in design and have caused that market to come down in price," Peter explains. "Any rugs whose designs and colors evolved to meet current taste in the West after World War II are bound to experience drops in demand and therefore price."
So perhaps the ultimate lesson in all these up-and-down swings is to buy what you like and treasure what you have. "Investment should not be your number-one requirement with a rug," Peter says. "An oriental rug, if it's cared for, will last a hundred years or more. You don't want to discount the value of something that can be used for a lifetime."