From antique Suzani textiles to embroidered kilim rugs, a recent sale by Estuary Auctions highlighted the breadth and versatility of the Oriental rug scene
Why you should invest in an Oriental rug
If you’re thinking of investing in a rug, either to update your decor or as a memento of your time in the UAE, you’re well positioned to do so. The UAE sits in the middle of the Oriental rug “map”, which extends from Turkey in the west to China in the east.
For prayer, to divide rooms, to decorate floors and walls, or to keep beds warm, rugs can be as multifunctional as they are varied in their pattern and design. The nomadic peoples of the Orient relied on them as one of the few items that were decorative, but also practical and easy to travel with.
Investing in a rug
Should you be looking to invest, auctions can be a good way of getting your hands on a rare piece. Abu Dhabi’s Estuary Auctions recently held a specialist sale of unique Oriental rugs, carpets and textiles at its headquarters on Al Reem Island, where more than 50 well-preserved examples of hand-knotted antique and vintage rugs from across the region were put up for sale.
The most expensive rug yet to have sold at auction was a Kerman, which yielded over US$30 million (Dh110 million) when sold in 2013 by Sotheby’s New York. Kerman was a centre for weaving in south-east Iran and its pieces are still considered by many to be the finest ever made.
The oldest piece in the latest Estuary auction was a 180-year-old Kerman Lavar or Ravar Kerman, made in the town next to Kerman. With an estimated value of up to Dh16,000, auction-goers were given an opportunity to own a piece of Kerman heritage without the multimillion-dirham price tag. The tightly knotted handmade rug with all-natural dyes and colours featured a classic design with parakeets, peacocks and a central vase with boteh (the Persian plant motif was adopted by the Scottish weavers of paisley, who made it famous under the name of their town).
Another highlight from the Estuary auction was a Tabriz in characteristic deep red. The signature of the master maker, Shadi, made it possible to accurately date the production of the rug to about 1930. Because of trade, Tabriz was exposed to various cultures, which influenced the design of its rugs, but this particular piece features many of the more traditional motifs, including flowers and vines, with a central medallion set within a rectangular border embellished with literal and geometric forms of plants.
The rug is woven in very fine merino wool – interestingly, the weavers of Tabriz once favoured wool fibres imported from Manchester, England, considered at that time to be the best in the world.
The different types
Aly Al Bayaty, an art aficionado who founded Estuary Auctions, believes that it is the idiosyncrasies of the pieces made by hand that enhance their artistry and make them unique, setting them apart from modern mass-produced and machine-made rugs. “Even a matching pair of rugs by two different rug makers won’t be identical, because every rug maker will have his own way of working – thus a diamond shape in one piece may appear differently in another.”
A distinction is made between city rugs and tribal rugs. City rugs are generally named after the place in which they are woven, such as Kerman or Tabriz, where the fine work involves highly intricate designs. The tribal rugs, such as Turkoman, Shiraz or Samawa, were made in less structured circumstances, by people who were likely to be weaving or stitching using wool from their own sheep herds.
Many antique and vintage rugs derive their rich palette of colours from vegetable dyes, which are made from locally available plants such as rubia tinctorum or madder (red), indigofera (blue), sumac (violet blues), isperkek (turquoise) and the skins of pomegranate or occasionally saffron (yellow and golden tones), among others.
The graduating tones of rugs using wool dyed in different batches are prized by collectors, as evidence of these natural and handcrafted processes. Modern dyeing techniques penetrate the fibres much more thoroughly, resulting in a stronger, more solid colour that lacks these subtleties.
During the auction, a semi-antique Shef Al Samwa embroidered kilim rug was bought by the parents of an anthropology student who thought it would brighten her university room in England. The tribal rug, which the auction house described as its “star of social media”, would itself provide ample material for anthropological study, reflecting as it does the life and times of the people of south-west Iraq who made it.
Such rugs take about six months to complete, and this kilim would have been worked as a bridal gift in about 1940, and used as either a room divider or a bed throw. The bright design is hand-stitched in wool and worked by a group of women who draw on their surroundings for stylised images of flowers, camels and palm trees, set within an established design structure of rectangular borders enclosing diamond medallions.
To allow the artisans better access to the central portion of the design, the piece is made in two parts, before being joined together. This also allowed the work to be more easily shared between different embroiderers.
These tribal and ethnic pieces are enjoying something of a resurgence, with followers of “boho” and “jungalow” interior styles seeking out such patterns, to add vibrant pops of colour in interiors already brimming with macrame wall art and leafy house plants.
A 1910 antique Suzani textile from Uzbekistan would have also originally been made as a dowry piece and handworked in naturally dyed silk threads on cotton. Used as either a wall hanging or a bed throw, these textiles are also enjoying a resurgence and feeding into the current popular jungalow style trend. Repeated circular motifs are characteristic of this work and representative of flowers, such as carnations, as well as the moon, sun, pomegranates and other natural forms.
Before the sale commenced, chief auctioneer Steven Poole shared some of the fascinating stories behind the history of Oriental rugs, and explained that it’s his job to help people feel at ease at the sale.
“One of the messages that we try and get across is that it’s fun and interesting to come here, have a look and potentially buy. People don’t have to be nervous about inadvertently making a bid by scratching their nose.”