The current market for oriental rugs can be broken down neatly into two parts: decorative and collectible. The former is larger and caters to those who buy rugs, essentially, to cover the floors in their homes. “For those using rugs simply to decorate there are certain trends that go in and out of style–like fashion. Often color has a big part in this,” says Sumru Belger Krody, Head curator of the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. In this category, aesthetics are the main draw, and though buyers might spring for a very fine carpet, it is look, color, or size that drive them to choose one piece over another.
image of Arthur arwine’s apartment decorated with antique turkmen tribal carpets and akstafa long rug

The vintage tribal collectible market is smaller in size but greater in enthusiasm. It is sustained by those who collect rugs for various reasons– perhaps on the basis of region, time period, tribe or the like–but with the intent to acquire and display their rugs as pieces of art. Hadji Rahimipour, vice president of Bonhams’ carpets and rugs department, explains that he judges fine-art quality carpets according to four features: origin, age, quality of workmanship and condition. “Carpets are not like paintings, which you can’t touch or get too close to,” he says. “Carpets go on the floor–that’s the beauty of the old rugs.”

On the other hand, this traditional placement of carpets–on the floor and underfoot– is to some a stigma that keeps the genre from ranking alongside other pieces of fine or decorative art. Peter Poullada, a San Francisco-based independent scholar and collector, says, “One reason these rugs are undervalued is that they are on the floor. The natural tendency is to think that they can’t be that great if they are lying on the floor, even if a carpet is more valuable than the Georgian chest sitting on top of it. If you can get a rug off the floor and look at it and judge it on aesthetic grounds, then you’ve won a victory.”

Poullada adds that the analogy between carpets and artworks breaks down somewhat because “we can’t celebrate the artist.” But for hard-core collectors, the anonymity of Middle Eastern weavers is no drawback but actually a large part of the interest. What makes each rug one of a kind is the cultural context in which it was created, and this context has a large bearing on style, colors and, consequently, collectibility. The most sought after rugs in today’s collector market are tribal rugs– those woven by nomadic peoples in Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere– and these are the most geometrical and abstract in their designs.