Antique Rugs: An Endangered Species

Antique rug dealers in New York struggle to survive as the market shifts towards modern and cheaper rugs.

Antique rugs in Yeganeh's store midtown Manhattan

Maier Yeganeh, of Maier Oriental Rug Company on 21E 31st St (Katerina Iliakopoulou)

When Maier Yeganeh entered the antique rug business in 1979, he sold his first carpet for $14,000. He had bought it for $165. Yeganeh always had an eye for good art, but the antique rug market was strong back then. Twenty years ago, he would find himself covering a lot of auctions. He would constantly receive calls from other rug dealers requesting an antique carpet. He would buy merchandise tonight and sell it tomorrow.

But these days, the face of the business has changed for Yeganeh, and for many of the antique rug dealers like him on East 31st St. in midtown Manhattan. “People are not considering the quality of the rug, only the look of it,” says Yeganeh. He runs a small warehouse store on East 31st between Madison and Park Ave., called Maier Oriental Rug Company, which is filled with Persian rugs that date back to the early 19th century.

Twenty years ago, the traditional look they represent was considered fashionable and the rugs clientele consisted largely of older customers, who were going after high quality antique carpets that were viewed as an investment. If they would buy an antique Persian rug for $5,000 or $10,000 they were confident that in a few years the price would go up 40 to 50 percent. Now, he says, the market is filled with baby boomers, who are interested in modern—and often cheaper—merchandise. “They just want something that goes well with their furniture,” he explains.

Modern rugs are lighter and more color neutral compared with antique rugs, which feature strong, darker colors and tribal design. However, there’s also a difference in quality, as antique rugs are handmade of 100 percent wool or silk, which makes them last longer.

Rodney Hakim, who is the vice president of Persian Gallery Co., another antique rug store on East 31st St., says that many of the rug dealers his company does business with across the U.S. have replaced 80 to 90 percent of their inventory with new rugs. Nevertheless, for Hakim the bigger problem is the competition due to the plethora of merchandise that is available nowadays. “In the past 10 or 15 years, so much production has occurred of new rugs—modern designs but also reproductions that are copies of the old designs. Now anyone can go online, anytime, and they can find anything. Some of the exclusivity has gone away,” he says.

Yeganeh’s and Hakim’s companies are part of New York’s historic Oriental Rug District—once a vibrant hub of antique rug commerce—between 28th and 33rd streets on Manhattan’s East Side. Over the past few years, rent hikes have forced most of these stores to move to more affordable areas, such as Long Island or Secaucus, New Jersey. Among the ones that survived are Maier Oriental Rug Company, Persian Gallery Co.,  and others, such as Pasargad and Chafieian Oriental Rug Gallery on East 31st between Madison and Park Ave, which offer a glimpse of the old market that appears to be slowly fading away.

Antique Rugs Inventory, Chafieian Oriental Rug Gallery on 31 East 31st St (Credit: Katerina Iliakopoulou)

Antique Rugs Inventory, Chafieian Oriental Rug Gallery on 31 East 31st St (Katerina Iliakopoulou)

It’s not only a matter of losing domestic business. Most of the antique rug dealers in New York have also been selling merchandise to Europe and South America. Now, they seldom sell abroad. Yeganeh says that 90 percent of that business has been lost, while domestic sales are down by 60 percent compared with 15 years ago. “I didn’t have any stock back then. Now it’s different. I have a stock of rugs because people don’t buy.” As a result of this glut, rug dealers have been forced to lower prices, which according to Yeganeh, have dropped at least by 30 percent. “These days we are just desperate to sell and survive,” he says.

Prices for antique carpets, most of which come from Iran, and some from Turkey, India, and China, range from $1,000 to more than $100,000, based on size, age, and weave. As Hakim explains, the high end and the low end are still selling strong; it is the middle point that suffers. “There’s more competition in the middle price range,” he says, “because that’s where the price points for most of the new low quality rugs are.” In the U.S., people still want rugs, according to Hakim, but the younger generation is less informed about the difference between a new contemporary rug and an antique rug. “I don’t think they care about the difference,” he says. “They only care about color and price point.”

Antique Rugs Inventory, Persian Gallery Co. on 36 East 31st St (Katerina Iliakopoulou)

Antique Rugs Inventory, Persian Gallery Co. on 36 East 31st St (Katerina Iliakopoulou)

“The world has gone much more modern,” says Alex Papachristidis, an interior decorator based in New York. “And because of that people tend to like neutral and plain things.” Papachristidis says he adores antique rugs, but thinks that ‘aubusson’ carpets feel quite dated now. “An ‘aubusson’ carpet with neutral furniture on it could be very sophisticated,” he says. “But that’s not what people are looking for today. They are looking for cleaner more contemporary patterns and more modern sensibility.”

Another important factor affecting the antique rug industry, according to Papachristidis, is that a lot of the market has turned to custom-made rugs, which can be manufactured in the exact size and color the customer wants. “For $50,000 you can make a large beautiful rug for your living room that’s custom made to go with your scheme. So, why buy something that you have to do the theme around?”

Papachristidis doesn’t see heavy oriental rugs coming back into fashion any time soon. Yeganeh agrees. He buys merchandise moderately, and when he does he usually buys modern, soft-looking rugs. Others, such as Hakim, are more optimistic, retaining a stock of antique rugs only and hoping that his company’s merchandise will become mainstream again. “I see a lot of opportunity in the future. Whether the rug dealers have less antique rugs that they bring to their inventory, there are many channels being developed, catering to an antique rug audience that will allow us to reach people we couldn’t reach before. ”


2 Responses to "Antique Rugs: An Endangered Species"

  1. Douglas Stock  February 20, 2017 at 11:12 pm

    Many aspects of this article are quite accurate but, as with most things, there are nuances and overlooked qualifications.

    I agree with Robert that the “mid level” in antique Persian rugs has suffered, and we have never dealt much in the lower end items. And Maier is certainly correct that much of the export market to Europe of antique rugs has suffered. However, there are certain types of antique Oriental rugs that have held up quite well, including top level Mohtashem Keshan rugs and the best antique Serapi and Bakshaish carpets.

    If anything, I believe the current market, which is indeed less frothy than it once was, represents an opportunity for prudent connoisseurs to acquire great pieces. An early Safavid Dynasty period (circa 1501 – 1722) carpet sold about three years ago at auction for $ 33 million. After the Safavid Dynasty fell, there was a dramatic drop in Persian rug production until the 1870s, when European demand caused production to increase again, with the input of Tabriz merchants and firms like the Anglo-Swiss Ziegler and Co. who produced carpets for the English aristocracy and other clients. In my opinion, the long term result from the increase in prices for earlier Safavid carpets will eventually mean that the best examples from the late 19th century will fill the void left in the market for very high end pieces. This does not suggest that mediocre 1930s Hamadan and Sarouk rugs will make a big comeback; indeed, the best new, natural dye rugs have supplanted much of the market for mid-level older Persian rugs. That, however, does not apply to the best late 19th century Persian rugs.

    Mr. Papachristidis makes some valid points but also is looking at things through a narrow lens in other ways. The market for antique Aubusson carpets, which are flat-woven French carpets, was always limited and largely went away 25 years or so ago when reproductions killed the market. This occurred long before the more recent swing to mid-century modern and bland colors.

    As far as a $ 50,000 custom carpet being a better choice than an antique carpet on the logic that “So, why buy something that you have to do the theme around.”, I should note that for hundreds of years sophisticated people worked their decorating around items of quality and beauty and it is only recently that many interior designers have chosen to take the easy, and radically more profitable for them, route of custom making essentially disposable $ 50,000 items.

    Antique Oriental rugs always have a niche. That niche might expand or contract with prevailing trends, but trends are simply an indication of the herd mentality that many, but certainly not all, people fall into. Beautiful items do not lose their intrinsic beauty because a group of shelter magazines and interior designers find it temporarily more profitable to change the styles. Individuals concerned with both quality and beauty have genuine opportunities during market periods where the herd has gone elsewhere, and many wise people capitalize on that opportunity. The herd will eventually come back and the best examples will then become more difficult to find and buy.

    Douglas Stock
    Quadrifoglio Gallery Oriental Rugs

  2. Omri Schwartz  April 17, 2018 at 10:55 am

    I am the general manager of Nazmiyal Antique Rugs which is also located in the same district on 32nd street between Park and Madison. While I agree with the fact that the market has changed drastically, its is not the reason why many of the smaller brick and mortar type businesses are struggling.

    First off, this is probably the best buyer’s market in a generation. The priced for good pieces have never been lower and we are buying more than ever before. This also enables us to offer these new acquisitions to the public at far lower price points than ever before. Sometimes, our antique pieces are less expensive that newly made Pakistani rugs! So for the first time in decades, people can finally afford to create personal tailored looks and even start their own personal collections at prices that will surly not be this low forever.

    Our buying also enables us to keep aligning our collection based on the ever changing tastes and trends. Keeping on top of the trends, having a good variety at lower price points is what keeps people coming through our doors.

    While the market is surly tough for the antique rug market, there is a lot of people who still want good things.

    As for the custom-made carpets mentioned above… sure that is one way to go. But why someone would want to spend $50,000 (and even much more than that) on something that has absolutely no true value and was made to be used in a very specific spot with very specific surroundings is beyond my comprehension.

    The new rugs, as nice as they are, will never have the depth, history or patina of an antique. We are finding that after a couple of years, many people grow tired of them. Realizing the lack of timeless beauty, those who can afford to swap them out, are starting to do just that.

    Omri Schwartz


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