Wise rug buyers get oriented before investing

October 16, 1994|By Sharon Overton | Sharon Overton,Special to The Sun

There's something intriguing -- maybe even a little dangerous -- about the idea of buying an Oriental rug.

Perhaps you picture yourself like Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca," bartering in some Middle Eastern open-air market. The smell of goat sizzling over an open fire, the calling of prayers from a nearby mosque, the crush of the crowd, the veiled women, the camels . . .

Oh, get over it.

Probably the closest most of us will get to intrigue is a meeting room at some hotel, where a guy with a fake accent will try to pass off a cheap, brand-new carpet as a "genuine Persian antique." The danger comes when you open your checkbook. If you don't know what you're buying, chances are you'll get taken to the cleaners.

Buying a handmade Oriental rug easily could be the biggest single investment you make for your home. After all, it's not every day that you plop down several thousand dollars for something you're going to walk on.

The bottom line is, buy what you like. But how do you know you're getting what you pay for?

You might get lucky. One woman who was in the market for an Oriental rug recently paid $50 for three old carpets at an estate sale. Not really knowing what she'd bought, she took them to a dealer to have them appraised. One of the rugs was worthless. But the other two were valued at about $3,000 each.

But, in most cases, getting knowledge is more effective. If you don't know Oriental rugs, find someone who can teach you, suggests Jon Levinson, vice president of Alex Cooper Oriental Rugs in Towson. In the rug trade, where "going out of business" sales are as common as flies on a camel's back, "It's very important to deal with reputable sources" who have a significant track record in the community, Mr. Levinson says.

It's also important to do your homework. Some people have made careers out of the study of Oriental carpets. But even if you don't know the difference between a Bakhtiari and a Bidjar, a few basic facts will help you get started.

Let's start with the real basics: How do you tell a machine-made rug from a handmade one? To the untrained eye, it's often difficult to distinguish between the two. While a machine-made rug can give you a lot of look for relatively little money, to true connoisseurs, it's like the difference between looking at a poster Monet's waterlilies and the real thing.

* The fastest way to identify a machine-made rug is to turn it over and look at the back. If you see perfectly straight lines running the length of the carpet, you can bet it's machine made.

* Dig into the pile. Handmade rugs will have knots at the base; machine-made rugs won't.

* Check the fringe. If it's sewn on, the rug is probably machine-made. In handmade rugs, the fringes, or "warp" strings, are part of the foundation of the carpet.

Also, don't be fooled by a carpet with a cloth backing. These relatively inexpensive Chinese and Indian imports are made by a machine method called "tufting." The yarnis shot through a piece of burlap with a gun. The back is coated with latex and covered with cloth to hide the loops.

If you're in the market for a handmade rug, figure out how much you want to spend. According to Mr. Levinson, buyers typically fall into two categories: collectors and those more interested in the way a rug looks than its pedigree.

If you want the look of a good Oriental rug but don't have a sheik's fortune to spend, you might find flat-woven rugs such as dhurries and kilims, and even some imitation Persians, for well under $1,000. (Prices vary widely according to the quality, age and size of the rug. Estimates here are for new, 9-by-12-foot rugs.) Most of these rugs are mass-produced in countries such as India, China and Pakistan.

These countries also make higher-quality imitations of classic Persian designs that generally range from about $1,000 to about $4,000. If you're in the market for genuine Persian -- the Rolls-Royce of rugs -- you easily could pay $12,000 to $16,000 for a new carpet of good quality.

Perhaps more important than price is finding what you love, which isn't as easy as it sounds. There are more than 50 major types of Oriental rugs, most named for the city, village or nomadic tribe from which they originated, according to Aram K. Jerrehian Jr., author of "The Oriental Rug Primer" (Running Press, $12.95). The most popular styles such as Tabriz, Bidjar and Shiraz, which originated in Iran, now are copied in other countries. The label on an Indian-made Tabriz, for instance, will read "Indo-Tabriz."

(By the way, a Bakhtiari is a tribal design from western Iran; a Bidjar is a more formal city carpet.)

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