Iran hardly counts as an ‘emerging market’ these days, even for the most adventurous stock-pickers. But there is one Iranian export that appeals to the most sophisticated investors — not oil traders or arms buyers, but those who search for trophies that please the eye as well as making interesting conversational gambits at dinner parties. Have you ever thought of buying a Tabriz?
But what is a Tabriz? And how much do they cost? The word conjures up images of exotic palaces, or perhaps some ceramic marvel. But those who know will thrill at the thought of a Tabriz because it is currently the most sought-after property in the market for the true carpet collector.
Tabriz is the dominant city of north-west Iran and has been a centre of the Persian carpet trade for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Tabriz carpets date from the 15th century right up to the present day, and with their signature fine weave they are well known as some of the best rugs made in Iran.
‘Tabriz has become a magic word recently,’ says Jackie Coulter, head of the rug department at Sotheby’s auction house. ‘They were hard to sell in the late 1980s, but they’ve become very hot recently, particularly those made by the weaver Hadji Jalili, whose workshop covers the period from the 1880s to about 1910. Prices can go well into six figures for a good one, and the reason they are popular is because they come in a very soft palette of colours: pale blues, pale greens and greys. Colour is definitely driving this market because they’re very easy to decorate with.’
At a recent Sotheby’s auction, a Tabriz carpet made in 1880 ‘of the Hadji Jalili type’, seven metres by five, was given an estimate of £40,000–£60,000. Its pale blues and celadon greens, combined with a design very easy on the eye, clearly appealed widely. It was eventually sold after brisk bidding for more than £100,000.
Of course, fashions come and go in the world of rugs, as in any other. Those who bought French rugs, particularly Aubusson rugs when they were popular in the late 1980s, will have found their value has depreciated recently. ‘In the early 1980s Aubusson rugs were selling for seven or eight thousand pounds, then prices went right up in the late 1980s to 20,000 plus,’ says Coulter. ‘Now you can buy one for five or six thousand pounds, but it’s important to look for good quality with the Aubusson. They’re flat-weave carpets and very delicate and it’s difficult to find good ones. In many ways, however, the Aubusson is a better investment at the moment, if you are thinking about selling on, because they’re bound to come back into fashion.’
Leon Sassoon, of the rug dealers C. John in South Audley Street, agrees that now is a good time to buy a rug of that sort. ‘There isn’t really any one trend at any one time, but in general we’ve moved away from the formal, fussy, densely coloured conservative rugs that your parents or grandparents might have bought, and instead people seem to want something a little more open and pale, and soft in colour and design.’
So who buys serious rugs these days? In the 1980s, after the fall of the Shah, the Persians who came to Europe brought with them a cultural appreciation of rugs. The market was very strong then, but their children have typically become investment bankers more interested in buying a Damien Hirst or a Lamborghini than a Tabriz.
Serious European buyers, however, particularly the Italians, Germans and British, tend to collect on a large scale, often owning 50 or 100 rugs and rotating them for use according to season while keeping the rest in storage. And Sotheby’s has identified a curious little niche market among software engineers. ‘They love central Asian rugs with geometric arrangements of patterns,’ says Coulter. ‘For them, their value lies in the minute differences in the pattern. The arrangements of motifs and secondary motifs seem to appeal to these people. It’s all about classification, a kind of microchip in an ancient rug.’
But in the end, if you are interested in buying a rug, nothing beats going to look at them yourself, handling them and talking to a specialist. Some rugs are so finely woven that they crumple in your hand like a handkerchief; other cruder copies feel more like cardboard. Go to the next Sotheby’s rug auction on 20 September and you will see that value lies in the condition, the quality of materials and dyes, the colour and the design. ‘At the moment you can get spectacularly good examples of fine rugs in the £8,000–£20,000 range,’ says Coulter. ‘These are pieces at the top of their class. There are not many markets where you could get tip-top pieces at that price.’ Inform yourself, buy the best you can afford, and make sure you like it. The chances are, if you want to sell it, that someone else will like it too.