Arguably the finest quality rug available for the home, authentic Oriental rugs are investment pieces that, when cared for, become an heirloom quality item capable of being handed down from one generation to the next. They are literally art you can walk on, and they are one of the few old-world quality items you can still buy and enjoy for your home.
Unfortunately, authentic rugs can be difficult to come by, and many purveyors of counterfeit rugs attempt to swindle unsuspecting buyers into believing it’s the real thing. It’s illegal, but not usually enforced by law enforcement. A quick search online nets dozens of merchants claiming to sell fine Oriental rugs, but only a small handful seemed to be in possession of bona fide Oriental rugs.
The true Oriental rug is a heavy pile-woven carpet that is constructed by hand. Although there doesn’t seem to be any indication of just how long they’ve been around, the oldest Oriental rug found intact is one found in Siberia by a Russian archaeologist in the 1940s. The rug, known as the Pazyryk rug, has been dated back to the 5th century BCE.
To learn more about the history of area rugs, be sure to check out our in-depth guide that focuses on all styles of area rugs for the home.
Persian Vs. Oriental Rugs
One of the most common questions asked is: what the difference is between a Persian rug and an Oriental rug? The best way to answer this is to clarify that all Persian rugs are Oriental rugs, but not all Oriental rugs are Persian.
Persia refers to modern-day Iran, while the “orient” refers to the entire geographical area in which these handmade rugs are constructed. In order to qualify as a Persian rug, the carpet must be made in Iran. Any rug made in Afghanistan, Turkey, India or another regional country is an Oriental rug.
Who Should Buy an Oriental Rug
The fact is that Oriental rugs, while admired by many, are really only suitable for people for whom the cost and the value of owning one matches. Since the cost of an Oriental rug can be very expensive, it goes without saying that purchasing one is something not just based on price, but also on your lifestyle. Furthermore, Oriental rugs are typically made in classic or tribal patterns, which only appeals to people who like that style.
Oriental rugs are best procured when they are done with the intent of having them as an heirloom or a design showpiece. The silk rugs require a fairly extensive amount of regular maintenance and care. Keeping an Oriental area rug clean is a must as dirty rugs show easily and are not well suited to deep cleaning. Therefore, they are not the best choice for those with pets or children, nor are they suitable for high traffic or wet areas. In the end, if the rug is prone to dirt, spills, and soiling, it can be a waste of money. To compound this, insurance may not cover the cost of an expensive Oriental rug in the event of a flood or some other catastrophe.
Real vs. Counterfeit
Counterfeiting, or manipulative marketing of rugs, is commonplace because there is a limited supply. Like searching for a famous painting, one is more likely to come across a print of the original, rather than the real McCoy. The difference between rugs and paintings is that most purveyors wouldn’t expect you to believe that the Picasso sold in a department store or thrift store isn’t authentic.
To capitalize on an unassuming consumer, Oriental “style” rugs now abound. These are not authentic rugs but rather they are:
- Oriental-style rugs made using inferior materials or unethical labor.
- Counterfeit Oriental rugs claiming to be the real deal or advertised as a replica.
In many cases, it can be exceedingly difficult for the untrained eye to distinguish between the real and fake rugs. Therefore, as important as it is to look for hallmarks of an Oriental rug, it’s equally vital that you purchase it from a reliable source if you’re not familiar with the rug.
Professional Oriental Rugs and Village Oriental Rugs
There are two major styles of Oriental rugs. In the professional rug workshops, the choice of design styles is normally dictated by the demands of the market, either overseas or locally. The warps and wefts are nearly always cotton or silk, and the knot count is usually higher than that of village production. In oriental rug workshops, the weaving is carefully supervised by a master weaver who is responsible for every loom under his watchful eye. In these workshops, the weavers are following an exact design drawn out on graph paper with all color choices predetermined. The tribal or village carpets are often woven in the home with many of the design elements committed to memory. The opportunity for creativity in this arena is much greater, but sometimes the quality can be lacking if the rug maker isn’t employing quality control measures.
Tips for Determing Authenticity
There are a number of ways to discern a real Oriental rug from a replica. Here are a few of the basic ways to confirm authenticity when purchasing an Oriental rug.
- Purchase from reputable dealers who come with references or positive reviews
- Avoid pressure sales, discount sales and furniture stores. Unless it is a specialty rug dealer who only sells fine rugs or luxury furniture, it’s likely you’ll end up with an imitation rug.
- If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t real. Inexpensive Oriental rugs are a surefire way of determining quality and authenticity. In other words, you get what you pay for.
- Ask questions. Any responsible Oriental rug dealer or private seller will know rugs intimately and will share their knowledge with you. They will be able to tell you where it’s from, how it was made, who it was made by, and articulate the hallmarks. They understand that they need to articulate the value of an authentic piece.
- If buying vintage or pre-owned, look for reliable re-sellers and after-market dealers, purchase from an auction like Sothebys or Christies, or hire a rug expert to assist you in procuring a genuine rug.
- If buying online, sight unseen, or from a private seller, purchase the rug on the condition it can be inspected by an expert to determine authenticity. If the expert determines it is a replica, ensure you have a written guarantee that you can return it for a full refund. Keep in mind that online purchases by credit card or with Paypal can often only insure amounts up to a certain denomination. Be sure to confirm the amount prior to purchase. The last thing you want is to file a claim only to find out that you’re insured for just a fraction of what you paid for the rug.
- Look for the pattern by turning the carpet over. Persian and Oriental rugs are made by hand from patterns passed down from generation to generation. If you can see the pattern markings on the back of the rug, it’s a fairly good indicator of authenticity.
- Turn over the rug to look at the base of the pile. You should be able to see rows of knots which are markings of authenticity as well. Backings cover the knots and should be viewed with suspicion.
Key Indicators and Quality Hallmarks
The two main materials used in authentic Oriental rugs are wool and silk. The wool rugs are not nearly as valuable, but they are more durable.
The vast majority of replica rugs are made with artificial silk that’s produced by first dissolving cellulose into a thick yellow liquid, called viscose. The viscose is extruded through tiny holes into a chemical bath that makes long filaments that are spun into thread or yarn. Artificial silk rug is not a long lasting quality fabric and loses its lustrous shine quickly. It is even less durable than wool.
Look at the Rug Closely
Look carefully at the rug: it should be tightly woven (with more than 200 knots per SQ. in., and often with 500 or more knots), intricately detailed, closely clipped, and it should have real silk fringe that is clearly an extension of the rug’s structure, not sewn on or sewn into the ends of the silk rug. Artificial silk oriental rugs often have only medium weaves (less than 250 knots per SQ. in., and sometimes less than 150 knots per in.), and often have cotton fringe. Good quality real silk rugs always have real silk fringe.
Unfortunately, you still might be looking at a rug made of artificial silk. Here are three field tests that might help you distinguish real from fake.
How to Field Test an Oriental Rug
Here are three field tests that might help you distinguish real from fake. Please note that these tests do require slightly damaging the rug. Always be sure to ask permission from the seller before conducting such tests. Our advice is that you only test rugs you’ve made a commitment to purchase if it’s authentic. Most reputable sellers who have nothing to fear will be happy to accommodate. If the merchant refuses, it’s likely that they have something to fear. In that case offer to pay for the rug in advance provided they offer you a written guarantee that you can return the rug for a full refund if it turns out to be a replica.
This is another tactic that works well to ensure authenticity if you’re purchasing online or from a private seller. Offer to purchase the rug either on the condition you can have it inspected by an expert or with written confirmation you can return it for a full refund if an Oriental rug expert inspects it after the sale and determines it to be counterfeit.
It is sometimes claimed that you can tell real silk from artificial silk by vigorously rubbing the pile with your open palm. The real Oriental rug feels warm; the artificial silk rug stays cool to the touch.
Clip off a small piece of the fringe and burn it. Notice both the appearance of the ash and the smell of the smoke. If the material is artificial, the ash should be smooth and powdery, and the smell should be similar to that of burnt paper. On the other hand, if the sample is real oriental silk rug the ash should be blackened and flaky, and the smell will be reminiscent of the smell of burning hair.
The last step to test an Oriental rug is the most accurate test, though we don’t recommend attempting to do this yourself. This test is one that chemically differentiates protein from cellulose or petrochemicals. At room temperature, a solution of 16 g copper sulfate (CuSO4) in 150 cc of water is added to 8-10 g glycerin, then caustic soda (sodium hydroxide: Na OH) until a clear solution is obtained. This solution will dissolve a small sample of natural silk but will leave cotton, rayon, and nylon unchanged.
Where to Buy Oriental Rugs
An authentic Oriental rug can sell for thousands and sometimes even millions of dollars. This isn’t the “Oriental rug” you find hanging on a rack at a home or design store. This is a work of art that may be 300 years old. If you’re going to purchase an investment rug like this, the most important factor is to purchase it from someone you can trust.
Low-Risk Oriental Rug Purveyors
If budget isn’t a concern for you and you want to eliminate the risk of purchasing a replica rug, the very best Oriental rugs will be sold by one of two types of merchants.
Oriental Rug Expert
This is typically an individual who works from an office rather than a store. Their entire job is brokering deals. Like a real estate agent, they utilize a Rolodex of brokers and negotiate the sale between the customer and the seller. In some cases, this can mean arranging a sale locally, or it might mean having them travel or converse with an international source. These experts are also useful when confirming the authenticity of an Oriental rug. In most cases, they won’t focus on any other styles of carpet. They will either specialize exclusively in Oriental rugs, or they will focus on the sale of antiquities and luxury furniture for high net worth clients. Any qualified expert will be easily vetted and should be able to offer a who’s who list of past clients as references.
Another way to purchase authentic Oriental rugs is to bid on them at auction, as long as they can prove the material and provenance of a rug.
If budget is a concern and you’re looking to score a deal on an authentic Oriental rug, there are some places where you can find deals provided you know what you’re looking for and are willing to assume some risk.
Specialty Rug Stores
Some higher end design and home boutiques will occasionally have access to authentic Oriental rugs or possibly some in stock for sale. This can be very dicey, but if you know what you’re looking for and they are trustworthy retailers, you can often find real Oriental rugs at some of the best specialty rug stores in major cities.
eBay and Craigslist
This is arguably the riskiest way to purchase an authentic Oriental rug, but they regularly have them for sale by private sellers or estate managers. In this case, you want to ensure that you know what you’re looking for and have the knowledge and skill to discern a real rug from a fake. Occasionally you can find rugs being sold by motivated sellers or people who don’t know the value of what they’re selling.
In wealthier communities, you can often find authentic Oriental rugs sold from estates. Again, it’s vital that you know what you’re looking at. It’s mostly a matter of luck when you do come across one, so we don’t recommend perusing estate sales for the purpose of trying to find one. The risk is high, but in some cases, so is the reward.
Care and Maintenance
Silk Oriental rugs require significant maintenance and care to protect them and increase their lifespan. With proper care, a silk rug should last for centuries. With improper care, you’ll be lucky if it lasts a few years.
Here are some tips to protect and maintain your silk rug.
Move Your Furniture
We naturally navigate our homes based on the placement of furniture. Over time we will repeatedly walk in the same path to get around the house. To prevent significant wear from eroding the rug, move your furniture regularly, so you and your guests will alter the way you move throughout the house.
Sunlight can cause an Oriental rug to fade over time. Keeping it out of direct sunlight is highly recommended. If you do keep it in a room that gets lots of sun, rotate it every few weeks to keep any fading even and not confined to one spot.
Straighten Fringes Immediately
If you notice the fringes on your rug are getting tangled, don’t take the easy road and try to brush or comb them straight. Although it requires some effort, carefully flip the rug over. Thanks to the knotting of the rug, the fringes should naturally fall back into place.
Vacuum Once a Week
It’s important to vacuum your rug regularly to keep it clear of dirt and debris. Over time, small amounts of dirt and dust can wear down the rug and become trapped between the fibers.
Use a high-quality vacuum such as a Dyson without any scent infusers or filters for the body of the rug and the nozzle and brush accessory to gently vacuum the rug in the direction of the grain of the rug rather than back and forth which can damage the rug. This is especially important when vacuuming the fringes.
- Clean up spills immediately with distilled water, not carpet cleaner, and dab the area with paper towels.
- Dry the rug immediately if it gets wet
- Use a carpet pad to cushion it from wear and tear
- Keep the bugs outside, as they are drawn to silk rugs and can ruin them
- Have your rug deep cleaned annually by a professional oriental rug launintricateice
Hopefully, this article has given you some insight into the wonderful art of Oriental rugs. Do you own an Oriental rug? What tips do you have?