THE greatest challenge the average shopper with a living room will face in a lifetime can be summed up in two words: rug merchant.
On one hand, the phrase conjures images of tall stacks of grand Persian Sultanabads, intricately woven Kermans and luxurious antique Tabrizes, all accompanied by mysterious pedigrees and hardy rug assistants who seem only too happy to unroll them for inspection.
But ”rug merchant” also invokes nerve-racking images of shop windows that proclaim: ”Going Out of Business.” Anytime I see a rug store with a banner that says ”Eighty Percent Off — One Day Only,” I’d rather try to find a bargain in a Times Square electronics store.
So for years I took the easy way out. I bought shoes.
Then one day last week I had an epiphany of Joycean proportions. I suddenly saw the living room for what it was, a loveseat adrift on a scrap of fabric roughly the size of a face cloth. I called that a rug?
I could have ignored this crisis. I could have walked past the face cloth to go pay the bills from last month’s credit card purchases. Instead, I immediately drove over to the local rug store, armed with nothing more than the vague goal of making my living room look like one of those glossy shelter magazine pictures that feature the muffled elegance of an age-mellowed Oushak.
An hour later, I came out shaken. Prices for room-size rugs ranged from $4,500 to $46,000, and I had no idea why. And what was an Oushak, anyway? Still, I took home three rugs on approval — one good test of whether a rug store is reputable is whether you can try out a carpet at home without having to purchase it first — and all of them looked good.
I only wished I knew why or whether they were worth more than the similarly sized hand-knotted New Zealand wool rug I’d seen for $1,300 at potterybarn.com. They were prettier, but what was that worth?
If not for the Internet, I would still be floundering. Luckily, I quickly found a number of rug information sites, the best among them being the amazingly detailed spongobongo.com, where a longtime rug collector, Barry O’Connell, has meticulously amassed information about every kind of rug imaginable that is native to the Middle East or Far East. So I phoned Mr. O’Connell, the associate editor of the online journal Oriental Rug Review (www.rugreview.com) to ask him how to evaluate the rugs in my living room, which included one made in Pakistan that I was really starting to like.
”First, use the online sites to do some research,” he said. ”See which kinds of rugs you like and which rugs you can afford. Then you buy from a reputable dealer who does not have ‘Going Out of Business’ sales every week.” From Mr. O’Connell’s ”Trusted Resources” list, I found dealers who sell online, like cyberrugs.com (which specializes in Art Deco rugs), internetrugs.com (which has a large selection of high-quality new rugs) and c-innercircle.com (which specializes in new and antique authentic Persian and Iranian rugs).
At another site, called Antique Rugs Studio, I found a list of high-end dealers who sell antique rugs (www.antique-rugs-studio.com/antique–dealers–links.htm), which were generally made no later than the early 1900’s, before synthetic dyes were widely used.
I got carried away clicking on little digital images of beautiful rugs at sites like http://www.moheban.com, http://www.pasargadcarpets.com and markarianantiquerugs.com. By then I knew that the Hereke carpet hailed from the north shore of Izmit Bay in Turkey, the Oushak from northwest Turkey, and that both were too far expensive for me.
Now descriptions like machine-made (a category that includes rugs from manufacturers like karastan.com and couristan.com), hand-tufted (pile carpets made with a gun-tufting tool), handwoven (hand-loomed flat weaves like kilims) and hand-knotted (what we traditionally think of when we hear the phrase ”Oriental rug”) made sense.
I also learned that the best rugs are wool, use vegetable dyes and have denser concentrations of knots than lesser rugs. Prices for room-size rugs can range from $50 for a machine-made synthetic to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a hand-knotted antique in excellent shape.
So what about the three rugs, one of which I now knew I loved with all my heart, that I had brought home?
Allen Arthur, an Atlanta dealer who operates Cyberrugs.com, explained the difference between new and old hand-knotted rugs. ”New rugs are mainly reproductions of traditional designs and are not investments,” he said. ”The exception is new rugs with designs that are being woven in the same original location, in the same tradition and by the same people who have always done them.”
Translation: the Pakistani rug I loved probably would not hold its value. For rugs like those, the way to compare prices is by the cost per square foot. The highest-priced new rugs in that category can cost from than $50 to $100 per square foot; the rugs I had on approval cost roughly $75 per square foot.
Had the rug betrayed my love?
”They’re expensive because they’re coming from certain manufacturers who are exactly on top of what the market wants,” Mr. O’Connell said. ”It takes months to make a rug, and to be able to get them in time to market, in the shades and colors and designs that are fashionable, is a very expensive thing.”
Among the best buys in new rugs, Mr. O’Connell said, are Iranian rugs that have become widely available since 2000, when the United States government lifted a 13-year embargo against importation.
So should I break up with my current rug in favor of a new Iranian or a semi-antique Persian rug?
Not necessarily, said Emmett Eiland, a dealer in Berkeley, Calif., who sells online at Internetrugs.com. ”There’s no reason to distrust a new rug,” said Mr. Eiland, the author of ”Oriental Rugs Today: A Guide to the Best New Carpets From the East,” (Berkeley Hills Books, 2003). ”The best new rugs with natural dyes are better-looking and better investments than semi-antiques made with synthetic dyes and machine-spun wools.”
I took the rugs back to the store.
But having learned so much online, I wasn’t going to give up now. I brought home a semi-antique Heriz from another store.
My behavior was typical of shoppers who do online research. Dealers say that while few buyers actually purchase rugs from their sites without touching or seeing them, many come into a store armed with information from the Internet that makes their search more specific.
But I took the Heriz back, too.
Then I went back to the first store and brought home the rug I loved.
It still loved me back.
I haven’t made up my mind. But I must say this has turned out to be much more fun than paying last month’s bills.