The princes of Persia

James Cockington

March 31, 2010

The Sydney Morning Herald

"I wonder if an oriental carpet has sold anywhere for full price?" a
reader asks, commenting on the tendency of rug merchants to offer "up
to 80 per cent discounts" at all times.

The exception is antique carpets, where prized specimens are full
price and generally increasing in value.

The earliest known example of a sophisticated pile carpet is the
Altai, or Pazyryk, rug from southern Siberia, found in the tomb of a
warrior prince who died about 500 years before the birth of
Christ. Water flooded the grave and it turned to ice, deep-freezing
the rug. When found by archaeologists in 1949, it was surprisingly
well-preserved. Anything approaching this age would be valued in the
hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's believed some rugs have changed
hands for millions.
More readily available are fragments of ancient rugs, such as the
16th-century Indian Moghul shown here. It's of great interest because
the colours and textures are intact.

Oriental rugs are basically of four types: nomadic (tribal), village,
city (urban) and court rugs. These are classified by such things as
the type of loom used, the type of knot and the nature of the dye.

The oldest rugs used only organic dyes or stains derived from local
plants, insects and animals. Yellow traditionally comes from saffron,
pomegranate, onion skin and camomile flowers. Red comes from the roots
of the madder plant or the cochineal insect.

By the 1880s, chemical dyes were used in most carpet regions but never
quite captured the colours of nature. Rugs featuring organic dyes are
generally considered more valuable and an expert can tell instantly if
the dye is chemical or organic. Serious collectors like to inspect the
carpet before they buy. Antique carpets are rarely bought online.

Wool quality varies depending on the sheep. The best wool comes from
the first clip and from around the neck and shoulders. Again, this
requires an expert eye.
Where they were produced is also a factor. Nomadic or tribal rugs are
usually made from wool while village rugs are usually cotton-based,
because the villagers could establish farms. City rugs are mainly
based on a standard pattern. Court rugs are usually of a more
sophisticated design. These were made for the elders, kings and
community leaders by master designers and weavers.

Court rugs are the most prized, with mint examples valued at $100,000
and up.

By the end of the 19th century, the European influence was evident.
Magnificent carpets were produced in Persia by the Anglo-Swiss firm
Ziegler & Company from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. They
set up offices and a workshop in the town of Sultanabad to make
carpets suitable for European and American tastes. Zieglers are still
in demand today, featuring prominently at Sotheby's specialty textile
auctions in New York and London.

Recent prices for Zieglers in fine condition range from $US50,000
($55,000) upwards. Even a faded Ziegler, circa 1890, "with moth
damage", fetched US$21,600 in 2003.

Bakhtiari rugs are among the finest of the Persian tribal rugs. These
were hand-woven by the semi-nomadic Bakhtiari tribe from Iran. The one
shown here was made for the Hessamedin Khan Bakhtiari. It bears the
date 1320 of the Islamic calendar, which translates to AD1902. This
carpet was made for a "tallar", a special room where the khan would
entertain honoured guests.

These carpets are considered works of art in the same way as a poem or
piece of music. In this case, the design is separated into four even
sections. The typical Bakhtiari design incorporates a chequerboard of
patterned squares representative of the Persian garden.

Another important category is the Afshar horse saddle cover, a style
based on the tradition of using animal pelts on early wooden
saddles. More recently in Persian society, saddle covers became purely
decorative, reserved for special occasions. In the nomad tradition,
the saddle cover was part of the dowry, woven by the bride.
Afshar weavers favoured bright colours. Their work tended to be small
because they were woven on transportable horizontal looms. These rugs
are very collectable and, in the oriental rug scale, a good starting
point. Because of their size and shape, most collectors would mount
them on a wall.

The main reference for this article is Oriental Carpets: from the
Tents, Cottages and Workshops of Asia, by Jon Thompson.


Born in Tehran, Behruz Alligorgi first worked for a local rug merchant
when schools were closed during the Iran revolution. He became
fascinated by tribal Persian rugs that sometimes appeared in the shop.

When he migrated to Melbourne he started his own collection of antique
rugs, some of which are displayed in his showroom, Behruz Studio, at
1509 Malvern Road, Glen Iris.

He conducts regular courses on the history of oriental carpets for
others interested in the subject.

Behruz began collecting seriously by travelling to places like
Armenia, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan looking for the antiques that are
now very hard to find.
He's been surprised to find some fine examples in Australia. His
oldest piece, a fragment from the 16th century, was found in Brisbane.
His advice to collectors is to do your research so you can identify
rugs by their colour and design style. "It is imperative to see them
first," he says. "Unless you can get a very good condition report."

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