Collector's Corner: A magic carpet ride to riches

With antique rugs at bargain prices, now could be the time to buy, says Gwyn Jones

Tourists who have fought off rug salesmen in Turkey or the Middle East may have made a mistake. Now could be the time to buy an antique rug, with bargain prices available, particularly away from the top end of the carpet market, where pieces can sell for £100,000 or more.

The key is to consider them in the same ways a paintings, says Iain Stewart of the specialist rug auctioneers Rippon Boswell. "Rugs are closer to an art form and it's just like buying a painting," he says. "You buy with passion and knowledge and taste - those are the three ingredients which go to make something that has value."

The carpet market is effectively split between serious collectors, who tend to buy the older and smaller pieces, and the decorative side, which is where fashion dictates trends. While the top end of the market is steadily rising in value, there are some areas that have been struggling, as Jackie Coulter, the head of the carpet department at Sothebys, explains. "The middle of the market, pieces with decorative aspects but not true collectables, is quite weak at the moment," she says. "At the moment, people want the modern look so they haven't been focusing on the decorative aspects of the middle market - that means there are now great bargains to be had."

Coulter says exceptional traditional Persian rugs - typically around six feet by four feet and dating from the early 20th or late 19th century - are incredibly good value. Rugs that cost £1,000 to £1,500 in 1984 are at the same price today. Fashion can, however, work the other way round. If you'd bought a late 19th century Oushak carpet back in the Eighties for £3,000 to £4,000, you would now have a piece worth up to £40,000. Interior designers picked up on this particular type for its simple patterns. "Rugs don't always fit with the modern look but fashions and tastes change," says Coulter. "There are some extraordinary things that just aren't expensive at present." One area tipped by experts is the market in Isfahan rugs, which are not currently fashionable, even though 30 to 50 years ago they were considered to be the best. Following this fall from grace, collectors believe prices should two or three times higher.

Stewart also thinks investors should consider Persian workshop rugs from the middle of the Twentieth century.

To buy a rug for investment purposes, choose the best piece artistically, the rarest, the oldest, the best condition and, if possible, the most famous piece you can afford. Publication in a specialised carpet book can sometimes double the value, for example.

"A really good rug is a physical thing with wonderful wool that's amazing to touch and is graphically interesting, says Coulter.

Tips for collectors

* Machine made rugs don't have a clear pattern on the back.

* Hand-made rugs have the threads tied with knots, while machine productions are looped on.

* The most valuable rugs are not Oriental. The most expensive are the 18th century French Savonnerie, which were made for the French Royal family; you won't get much change from £5m. Even 18th century Axminsters are in six figures but the bulk of carpets on offer are Islamic.

* Most rugs are categorised by their place of origin or the tribe that made them.

* Rugs that were mass produced for export after 1920 are not so likely to hold their values.

* Mansour: 020 7499 5602, www.mansourrug.com; Rippon Boswell: 020 7091 7474, www.ripponboswell.com, Sotheby's: 020 7293 5000, www.sothebys.com.

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