Lately, thanks to events like the Antiques Roadshow, many people have become more interested in the financial value of things than in their intrinsic worth. Persian rugs, while they can be articles of great value monetarily, provide the greatest value visually and tactilely. There are some types of rugs that are always desirable and usually expensive because of their broad, decorative application. Oversized, pale, Oushaks and Sultanabads and Mahals and some Serapis will always find a home. The classic, early tribal rugs are greatly desired by collectors. Fine Persian rugs are less in favor decoratively, but will always find placement eventually. There are incalculable other rugs that have a wonderful sense of personality and individuality; but sadly, because they might have a few chemical dyes, many of these are beginning to be corrupted.
Since the mid 19th century when travel to the Middle East became more possible and even popular, chemical dyes and more European design elements have been woven into oriental carpets reflecting historical and cultural changes in the art of rug making. Although the rulers of the Persian Empire did everything they could think of to keep these changes from happening, it was a tide that could not be stopped.
Over the past 20 years, with the increasing desire for, and cost of, good old rugs, there is an ever increasing trend to restoring and rebuilding. While some of this work is preservative, there is quite a lot of it being done as enhancement or even as deception.
Because much of the information we have tells us that rugs with aniline dyes are not good or that they are not really old enough, many rugs are being sent overseas to have bright aniline pinks and oranges and hot reds replaced with softer colors. Rugs that have dark borders or medallions are being sent over to have these elements changed to light colors. This is a very sad thing. It is important to realize that these rugs should be seen as art. Altering them to change appearance is akin to adding a carved shell on a plain highboy, inlay to a plain table or putting a ship in the background of a portrait. It perhaps makes the pieces more broadly desirable, but it removes any aspect of originality. When rugs with only a few aniline colors were woven, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, those colors were considered wonderful additions by the weavers. The new chemical dyes were like magic and probably very costly compared to going out to collect roots and flowers. They were often used sparingly. When a weaver put a deeply contrasting border or medallion into a design, it was because it was pleasing to him.
By altering the colors of a rug, the basic value of a tribal art form is diminished. By value I do not necessarily mean the financial value, but rather the intrinsic value of the rug as art. The color of a rug is perhaps, the most compelling and appealing aspect. By changing it you are changing the way the artist saw the creation. Changing just a few overly bright colors can totally change the visual impact that the artist has tried to create in favor of a more generally “saleable” look. The use of bright chemical dyes signifies the historical and cultural changes that occurred in the Middle East . By changing the colors of a rug, you are denying that things had changed by the beginning of the 20th century. I believe that especially in the case of rugs, beauty can be in the eye of the beholder. There will always be someone who will understand and appreciate the creation of an artisan.
Because there is such a premium on rugs with all soft and mellow hues, the removal of aniline or chromium colors would appear to make a rug much more valuable; and it will often sell for a much higher price than it is truly worth. This is a particularly deceptive practice when it comes to changing the entire medallion or border of a rug to make it all light instead of contrasting. The uninformed buyer will end up with a carpet that appears to be very old and rare, when in reality it is a piece from the 20th century that has been radically altered. In the long run these newly knotted areas will fade or change and be clearly unoriginal. In addition to the color being off, the texture of the wool is often different than the original which has been walked on for 80 years. Although no one can predict the future, it is unlikely that these pieces will hold their financial value.
The removal of specific colors and the reweaving of those areas with other colors is a trick that is rarely discussed or disclosed. It is difficult to see when it is new. The only really good way to find these changes is to examine at the texture of the wool -- even then it can be difficult to discern. You should at least ask if anything about the rug has been changed, but I am beginning to find that even the dealers don’t always realize what has been done. If you are uncertain, you should get another person to look and give you a condition report.
The magic of antiques is that they connect us to the past and to other cultures and hundreds of years of traditions. The human need to decorate and make pleasing surroundings to live in is universal. It is, as much as opposable thumbs, the thing that sets us apart from other life forms and ties us to other humans. We should embrace the individuality of that need and respect each culture’s contribution.