Antique Rugs: An Endangered Species

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. ”