Persian Rugs: Still Priceless or a Magic Carpet Ride to Nowhere?

The lifting of U.S. sanctions on Iran allows U.S. citizens to buy Persian carpets for the first time in six years, but it's not clear they're worth the steep prices

A Kirman ''vase' carpet fragment, Southeast Persia, mid-17th century (Photo: Courtesy Christie's ) A Kirman ''vase' carpet fragment, Southeast Persia, mid-17th century (Photo: Courtesy Christie's )

For centuries the rich beauty of Persian rugs has been desired by collectors, decorators and individuals. The deep colors, natural fibers, ornate and intricate designs and famous loop weave all make the Persian rug that rare collectible: an item that’s at once usable and a piece of art.

Although other countries such as India, Nepal and Turkey, have recently stepped in to fill the gap -- some even able to match the Persian beauty -- none seem to provide that something which is magical and mysterious in the works from old Persia.

In 2010, Christie’s sold the Comtesse De Behague Kirma Vase Carpet from Southeast Persia, circa mid-17th century, for £6.2 million (approximately $8.8 million).  Although there have been many Christie’s sales since, no Persian rug sale has matched that price, even a recent one of an almost identical rug. And as dealers and auction houses know, the market is fickle, narrow and cyclical.

“Lifting the embargo is something we anticipated for a long time,” says Oscar Tatosian, owner of Oscar Isberian Rugs, a store started in 1920 in Evanston, Illinois, by his grandfather (today they also have stores in Chicago and Highland Park, Ill.).

“It’s exciting because it offers a range of both antique and newly woven, highest quality Iranian carpets. “ It’s also a relief for Tatosian who says he was “teased” when attending auctions in Europe in the last several years “because we could look at the Persian carpets and admire them, but we couldn’t bring them into the U.S.”

So has that pent-up demand for Persian rugs led to a flooded market?

Not really, at least not yet. Elisabeth Parker, Christie’s International Head of Rugs and Carpets, says it’s still a bit early to know the impact of the end of the embargo. Christie’s did have an auction of Persian rugs in April 2016 which did better than previous sales, but that may have been because it included three Persian carpets with a Rothschild provenance.

“It’s a great story,” she says. “Three 17th century or earlier Persian carpets, virtually unknown, had been in the attic in one of the Rothschild’s homes. They didn’t know what they had. It was a perfect storm of great condition and beautiful pieces.”

One rug was complete and sold for $1.368 million, another one was a fragment, cut down from its original size and sold for £794,500 (approximately $1.128 million) while the final was a fragment, and sold for £542,500 (approximately $773,350). Some people just collect fragments.

The factors of a carpet cost really depend on age, condition and quality. Parker says although 18th century and older Persian rugs are desired, rugs from the 1930s and 1940s are having a “second renaissance,” especially when woven in such areas as Isfahan and Qum. She priced one last October between $2,000 and $3,000 and it went for $20,000.

But when asked if Persian rugs were good investments, both Tatosian and Parker said “not really.”

“How do you define investment?” Tatosian asks. “If it is that it will increase in value from when you buy and sell, then they aren’t good investments. As an heirloom, they are an intelligent purchase. Good Persian carpets have stood the test of time for generations; you can pass them on, trade them in. They are works of art on the floor. Especially some of the older ones, handspun wool and made with techniques that aren’t able to be duplicated today because there are fewer people who know how to do this craft.”

Parker says they dissuade people from buying a rug purely as an investment. “You need to want to love it, live with it and enjoy it.”

Another issue with Persian rugs is today’s aesthetic and decorating taste.

“Now [decorators] are more minimalist and less about having a busy Persian carpet on the floor,” Parker says. Tatosian adds that almost half his stores’ sales today are modern rugs with updated colors and patterns. Persian rugs coming from Iran today, though with old designs and colors, and not the same quality, says Tatosian, but he believes they will catch up.

In the meantime, he says, “If you want something really beautiful to live with and you love textiles and you want to decorate your home with traditional rugs, [with] some of the best quality ever made, then it’s a very good time buy Persian rugs,” he says.

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