London Diary: The Carpet Beat Me


HERE I was, waving my white card, bidding on Lot 2, ”a fine antique kaskai carpet from southwest Persia,” and competing with a bank of 10 telephones and a back wall lined with Iranian rug dealers.

I lost.

This was my chance to beat the mercilessly high prices of the New York market and fly home with a cargo hold of impressive room-size antique and not-so-antique carpets in rich Turkey reds, ochers and indigos.

Soon to be the co-owner of an 1872 brownstone, I flew to London to bid on Oriental carpets — as many as I could buy with $10,000 of borrowed money. From the printed estimates published in catalogs and the full-color pictures of each rug, it was evident that London was the place to go for a bargain. Estimates were much lower than I was used to in New York and Connecticut auction rooms, even after factoring in a $468 airfare, hotel charges, shipping and other fees.

Of the 68 rugs pictured for the April 10 sale at Christie’s South Kensington gallery, I liked at least a dozen. I imagined I could drop by the gallery on auction day, wave my white card a few times and come home with carpets and a few dollars left in my checkbook.

That’s what I thought.

In the weeks before the sale, I did some homework. The directors of the carpet departments of New York’s biggest auction houses told me that market forces might be on my side in London, especially for the less valuable semiantique rugs I was looking for — authentic hand-knotted rugs that would not lose their value, but were in less demand across the Atlantic.

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The London auctioneers said that an increasing number of their clients were Americans, flocking there for the lower prices — both privates (British slang for retail customers like me) and interior designers.

Aaron Nejad, a London-based carpet dealer, estimated that rugs could be bought for 30 to 40 percent less than in New York. Elisabeth Poole, head of Christie’s rug department in New York, estimated the saving on certain rugs at 10 to 20 percent. ”Yes, rugs at auction are definitely cheaper over here,” said Mark Dance, head of carpets at Bonham’s Auction Gallery on New Bond Street.

I picked out my favorites: an antique mahal from western Persia, 8 by 11 feet, with a Turkey red background and a pattern of angular vines and rosettes, estimated to bring $2,025 to $2,600, and an 11-by-18-foot gem, full of rich reds and greens, billed as a ”fine modern carpet in the Arts and Crafts design,” estimated at $3,600 to $5,000 (perfect for my 15-by-22-foot library). I also took orders from friends — orders that were, alas, not to be filled.

The experts had warned me that buying rugs at auction was tricky business for a novice, even one who spends weekends haunting country auctions. I decided to find an adviser to join me at the London auction house to inspect the rugs before the sale. I was looking for decorative rugs for my house, but I also wanted to be sure my investments would hold their value.

My adviser, Daniel Shaffer, editor of Hali, an international magazine for rug dealers and collectors, was wry: ”A lot of these rugs are fifth quarter, 19th century, or even sixth quarter,” he said as we strolled around the exhibition. But I was not interested in age so much as design: superb colors and interesting weaves — and real Orientals, not machine-made copies or rugs cheapened by harsh aniline dyes. As it turned out, there were only two rugs in the auction called ”modern.” Most were 20 to 80 years old, with a smattering older than 100, clearly labeled ”antique” in the catalog. (Mark Henry Lampé, the rug specialist at the South Kensington gallery, said the auction house would stand by its listings.)

But age does not seem to affect price in the so-called midmarket (between $1,000 and $8,000). It was not the number of knots either. Or the condition. In today’s decorator (versus collector) rug market, it’s the color that counts.

Pale Oriental rugs are in vogue right now, especially in America. ”That rug has New York written all over it,” one dealer said, gazing at a modern northwestern Iranian carpet. The rug looked old, a rich dark beige, almost gold, in the catalog. Up close, it looked bleached out — and it was, said several dealers, who speculated that it had been lightened for the American market.

At this sale, the catalog’s colors were the biggest problem. They were off — way off. Mr. Lampé had warned me on the phone that the photographs were too dark. But when I arrived at the exhibition, most of the rugs looked faded and newer than in their pictures. ”That rug dates from tomorrow,” one dealer said, kicking the corner over a gold rug with his foot, which dealers do to check the knot structure (and, I suspect, to intimidate the less knowledgeable). My favorite rug, the Arts and Crafts, did not have William Morris’s hunter greens and mellow reds. It had Morris Lapidus colors, a bubble-gum pink and a lime green more conducive to a Miami beach house.

I didn’t care whether the pale-gold rug was new or old. I didn’t like it, but I was obviously in the minority. The telephone bidding, which an auction spokesman said was ”full of Americans,” was hot. The rug, a desirable 13 by 15 feet (”perfect for Park Avenue,” a dealer said), went for $4,000, plus Christie’s 17.5 percent buyer’s premium. (This is a standard fee added to each purchase and just raised to 19.5 percent at King Street and in New York, but not at South Kensington.)

That was my rug-buying adventure: loved the photograph, hated the rug. Nevertheless, there were bargains to be had among the disappointments.

The best deals were in dark rugs or classic Orientals with center medallions, because they are out of fashion. A 14-by-20 foot Bakhtiari, made in western Persia probably about 50 years ago, was estimated at $3,620 to $5,065. At that price, Mr. Shaffer said, it was ”cheaper than chips.” In good condition but with a black background, it sold for $3,186, plus premium.

An antique Ziegler — a late-19th-century 8-by-12, an allover pattern (no medallion) — was another deal. Estimated at $4,345 to $7,240, it went near the low end at $5,069.

And there was definitely at least one sleeper. Lot 55, an antique Herez with a biscuit-color border and an ivory background (both popular now), was estimated at $3,750 to $5,200. It sold for $3,000 to the dealer sitting behind me, David Mahgerefteh, who later told me he would have gone to $5,000. (Ms. Poole of Christie’s Manhattan branch had said that judging from the catalog, the rug might have fetched $8,000 in New York.)

So why didn’t I buy that rug? It seemed dull, though maybe washing would fix it. But of all the rugs I viewed up close, I really loved only one. The kaskai that inspired me to jump into the bidding was charming — a tribal rug with animals, trees and palmettes. Nevertheless, it had a 3-by-3-inch repair in the middle, which meant I would either have to stare at it for the rest of my life or find the right craftsman to restore it. And it was not the right size for me: I was trying to fill nine big rooms. This was only 4 by 8 feet.

And then there was the price. Estimated at $860 to $1,300, it sold for closer to $3,200 (way over my limit of $1,100). ”You picked a collector’s rug — not a decorative rug,” said William Robinson, the international director of rugs and Islamic art at Christie’s, who conducted his own, higher-priced-carpet sale on April 25 at the house’s King Street galleries.

By auction’s end, I had bid on three other rugs besides the kaskai, mostly because I had come so far. In each case, I dropped out when the bidding advanced beyond the ridiculously low limits I had set for myself. I knew I could live without them.

But the kaskai: I still mourn for it. I went to London and fell in love with the wrong rug.

Before You Fly Off, Tips on Rug Buying

WHEN Americans buy rugs at auction abroad, the so-called hammer price — the winning bid, by telephone or hand-waving — is only part of the cost. Besides the customary buyer’s premium, which adds 15 to 20 percent, there may be customs duties. If the seller classifies the rug as antique, meaning 100 years old or more, the United States does not charge customs fees, but if it is newer, 4.6 percent will be assessed. Americans buying in London may also have to pay the VAT (value added tax), but it is generally refundable. Large international auction houses like Christie’s or Sotheby’s will arrange for a refund.

Then there is shipping. Cadogan Tate of London will send your 9-by-12-foot rug for about $330 by FedEx. It will arrive at your door within days. If you are lucky and fall for a smaller rug, you can carry it back yourself. (Black nylon bags can be bought for $12 outside the Russell Square tube stop.)

Still not daunted? The major carpet auctions take place in spring and fall. For bargains, aim for the off-season. Christie’s South Kensington will offer carpets on June 12; Bonham’s New Bond Street on July 9. Auction house Web sites will give other sales.

Obey the same rules you would at any auction: ask for a condition report. Unless the rug is misrepresented — calling a Tabriz a Kashan or labeling a rug antique when it is not — the gallery may not be legally responsible. (Auction executives say they are flexible, especially for retail customers.)

You may also ask to speak to a carpet expert on the staff, who can point out repairs and tell you whether the rug has been bleached, cut down, tinted with felt-tip pens or otherwise ”improved.” If you bring a dealer to advise you, make it clear you will not buy a rug from him, no matter how much he runs down the carpets at the exhibition.

Finally, buy for love, not for investment.

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