In just a few days New Year 2015 is here and RK thinks it pertinent to memorialize how we see the state of the antique/collector segment of the oriental rug market at this moment.
But before we look at the present, and what we feel is in store for the future, taking events of the past into consideration is vital, particularly concerning future prognostications.
A lot has happened since October1965 when RK first got interested in antique rugs and related weavings.
Actually our interest was initiated not by a desire to collect but rather to furnish our college freshman dorm room with an “oriental rug” to impress our townie girlfriend on her frequent visits.
She was a darling, sexy, blonde senior in high school and regardless of the fact we spent most of our time together with the lights very dimly lit RK’s desire to have an old, cool looking, genuine oriental rug on the floor motivated some forays to the local antique shops where we did not find anything we liked or in our price range.
We did, however, score our first rug at the local “Good Will” second hand shop for $7.50. It was a 4x6 foot Hamadan in good condition, one that today is referred to as coming from the Zarand district of that large and prolific rug-making area.
Back then we didn’t know a Hamadan from a hammam but soon we became interested enough to begin to study rugs to learn something about them.
After checking out some books at the library we were most impressed by one titled “Oriental Rugs Antique and Modern” by Walter Hawley. It remains still today the one we always recommend to all beginning collectors.
Firstly, it is easily acquired both in the original hard cover edition(s) or numerous reprinted Dover Press paperback versions.
Besides for its availability, the most important reason this book was our choice, and why we recommend it, lies in the fact it succinctly divides all rugs into geographic locations and then lists their technical characteristics, as well as prominent design ones, for the many locations in each country where oriental rugs are produced.
This year, 2015, will be our 50th rug anniversary and the changes we have seen in this collecting pursuit are mammoth, but the greatest one, and one that is never mentioned, is the following.
Back then, in 1965 (and up to about 1980) there really were few collectors and hardly who any hunted rugs like RK did.
Most relied on an ‘expert’ rug dealer to show, guide, and vet examples for them to purchase. Among the more adventurous were those who bought at auction, with or without the help of an ‘expert’ dealer.
Therefore RK pretty much had our chosen hunting grounds – out of the way country auctions, antique shows, antique dealers and flea markets – pretty much without competition.
And we can well remember picking up many interesting antique rugs, often for absurdly cheap prices.
Beginning around 1980 and until the mid-1990’s our hunting grounds began to get more and more crowded, and while we still were able to score enough pieces to keep us on the trail, by the late 1990’s we saw the writing on the wall and each year spent less and less time on the hunt.
Another big change was during the years 1965-1975 many top European rug dealers would visit America a few times a year to vacuum cleaner up all the best pieces and take them back home to sell to their clients.
Believe it or not at this time American retail prices for antique rugs were far less than the European wholesale prices, forget about what the retail prices top foreign rug collectors were paying.
This trend accelerated during the 1980’s and early 1990’s with more and more European dealers coming more and more frequently over the pond to buy in America and this finally culminated in the early 2000’s when prices leveled off to the point no longer were there many bargains remaining in the New World.
Nor was the supply as plentiful as it formerly had been.
We really must say we greatly miss those days, but don’t think everything back then was so hunky-dory.
Yes, one could find many antique rugs for very reasonable prices but there were hardly any buyers for them.
So the over abundant supply really had virtually no takers. For us, since we have always been a collector and keeper of antique rugs rather than a seller, we surely preferred this time.
OK, that’s our short romp through the past let’s take a look at the present, then squint our eyes to try and see though the mist and see the future.
Beginning around the mid- 1990’s our growing belief finding antique rugs was becoming more and more difficult by 2000 became an obvious reality, and the following 15 years has demonstrably proven the supply coming from old homes and estates is practically finished.
The seemingly endless supply of antique rugs from American, English, French and German homes is now at best a trickle and never again will these countries provide the endless supply seen over the past 50 years.
The old saying “When one door closes another opens” is active here – the old door being antique rugs from homes and estates and the new door being antique rugs coming to the market from the stashes of collectors.
Rugs coming from older rug collectors, former investors and hoarders are now, and will be in the future, the market’s primary sources of interesting and valuable pieces.
This is not to say there will be no new discoveries from the floors, attics and basements of old homes. There always will be some but the heydays are over and this elephant’s graveyard has been practically picked clean, so don’t expect things to change.
Another important factor is the proliferation of rug auctions, both in America and Europe.
This has naturally diluted the supply and while there is the same net amount of pieces the publicity these auctions generate guarantees fewer and fewer ‘sleeper’ discoveries can be made.
It also dilutes the pool of expendable capital, making prices appear to steady or decrease, as well as make rugs look more common than they actually are.
Then, there is the internet and each year more and more rugs are offered for sale online. Even small out of the way salesrooms now tout their wares to a global audience, again making discoveries harder and harder for local buyers who have to compete against buyers worldwide.
And this too dilutes the available pool of capital and makes antique oriental rugs appear more common than they really are.
And lastly while there are fewer and fewer “collectors” (something we will discuss below) there are more and more “hunter” buyers, who are trying to make a buck reselling what they hope will be ‘scores’ made at these smaller auction venues, as well as flea markets, antique shows, and antique shops.
Speaking of antique shops? In most cities and countries these stores have become ever disappearing, with fewer and fewer old shops remaining in the business and hardly any new ones opening.
These factors are important; however, perhaps the most important is the lack of new, younger generations of collectors with interest in antique rugs.
Old collectors are dying out and their collections are, and will be, coming to market. But unfortunately for them only their best pieces are, and will, sell well; the rest, which could find homes with newer, beginning collectors, are either selling for hardly what they cost decades ago, or in many instances not selling at all.
Then there is this: the failure of people like franses, tabibnia, Hermann, etc, that rag hali, and the now defunct acor and icoc organizations, to create interest among younger generations of possible collectors, or even to more significantly raise the stakes of rug collecting high enough to attract cross-collecting interest from other art areas.
It’s not rocket science to see even if antique rugs are rarely coming to the market their prices should rise, but because there are fewer and fewer buyers prices cannot really rise, nor can middle range pieces find truly motivated buyers.
And add to the mix an ever dwindling number of antique rug dealers that is another trend which has been accelerating over the past two decades.
All told RK believes the general antique oriental rug market will only continue its descent, and except for the top of the pops examples the rest will continue to make lower and lower prices.
The great will sell great, the good will struggle to sell at adequate price levels, and the less than good will only sell for dirt prices.
A good bell-weather indication of our projections will be the coming dispersal of the Vok collection.
We have already predicted, and do here again, only the best of his Suzani will sell well, his medium ones will not even make the prices he originally paid (and trust us we know they were healthy ones), and his lesser examples will go begging for buyers.
And don’t forget the Suzani market is hot, but like all antique rug collector areas it is very thin, with a top heavy segment of rich buyer for the best, meager as a beggars dinner with buyers for good examples, and almost flat with buyers for lesser ones.
But Vok’s losses on the Suzani will, compared to how his Kelim fare, look like success.
We again predict his Kelim section will provide hardly any surprise upsides and many, many huge losses.
OK, so RK has painted a rather bleak picture of the present, what about the future?
We can only see more of the same –downside -- with only genuinely great examples of Anatolian, Turkmen and Caucasian village and encampment rugs, Anatolian Kelim and trans-Caucasian soumak khorjins and related weavings continuing to prove golden, with ever increasing prices for the top, top pieces of these categories.
These are the real rarities, and the ever-increasing knowledge and awareness for them will prove a solid foundation for their future sales-successes both at auctions, dealer exhibitions and private sales.
The same future will continue to hold for the best Classical Safavid and Ottoman rugs and weavings.
We need mention the mid-range examples of the above mentioned types will hold their ground, but their price levels will not increase nearly as dramatically as the top of the line ones.
Over the next ten years we are sure a number of well-known collectors, and others not so well known, will take the plunge and try to sell their pieces through auctioneers and dealers, as well as do it yourself jobs on the internet.
We predict: They will find little satisfaction, as we see the decreasing pool of interested collectors, investors and other buyers only paying up for the best. They will leave the rest unsold unless the prices are, as we already said, dirt.
The picture is surely bleak and besides for the now widespread recognition best of type examples enjoy it is really a shame good pieces will not be able to find buyers.
What about the decorative antique oriental rug market?
Well, this is really not RK’s balliwick but we have watched the past twenty year trend and see, like for collector rugs, less and less interest in this category.
Granted if the USA lifts the embargo there might be some new light but even if this happens today there is still a huge backlog of unsold pieces in Europe and the East that will take years to sell off.
Plus the home buyers of today, ages late twenties – early forties, are not as interested in antique oriental rugs as their parents and grand-parents were.
Different times and different tastes will undoubtedly show them buying handmade rugs with contemporary designs, not traditional “oriental” ones.
Anyone who doubts this has eyes closed, as this trend is unmistakable and shows no signs of abating and returning to the traditional oriental rug for the floor.
Sorry to be so pessimistic, but a realistic view always proves better than one seen through rose-colored glasses.
Will good oriental collector rugs ever come back in fashion and price?
For the foreseeable future we have to say no.
What will happen in 50 years?
One thing is for sure good condition 19th century oriental rugs are rare and they should command attention and far higher price levels than are seen today.
Regrettably rug collecting has little éclat or panache, no real juice behind it, and until and unless this changes we see little possibility for any upside attention or price increase.
Let’s just end this here by saying as we always have said “Better to have one great rug that 10 good ones”.
And “Better to have a great early example in any condition than 10 mediocre ones in good condition”
Good luck and good hunting…you never know what you’ll find but you will find nothing by not looking.