By: Anne Gilbert

Tree of Life

“Persian rugs are the only practical pieces of fine art in the world. No other investment grows in beauty as it ages,” says Geoffrey Orley, co-owner of Orley & Shabahang Persian Carpet Gallery. The gallery that opened in Palm Beach is a virtual museum of Persian rug history. A perfect example is “The Pride of Bakhtiari” that was commissioned in 1903 by his Excellency Ghamol-Gholeekham, Chief of Bakhtiari. It includes representational characters and beautiful motifs of the 16th, 17th, 18th, & 19th centuries. It was selected for exhibit at the International Fine and Decorative Arts Fall Fair in New York this past Sept. 18-23.

Over a million strands of wool were gracefully tied into a pattern of Persian figures with stylized flowers.

As with many fine Persian carpets, age only enhances the appeal. This particular rug is credited to Amal, a highly unusual and very talented Bakhtiari master weaver who transmitted a spiritual idea through his hands to create a colorful masterpiece using dyed sheep wool on a “canvas” of cotton warp threads.

Although this particular Bakhtiari is very rare, Orley & Shabahang have a large inventory of high qualify Persian rugs, from every famed region. This includes other Bakhtiari rugs as well as outstanding examples from Kermanshah, Tabriz, Yazd, Malayer, and Senneeh, among others.

“Tree of Life” patterns are popular. In the Gallery collection is one that was commissioned in 1900 for His Excellency Nader Gholi Bakhtiari another outstanding early Bakhtiari, from the workshop of top weaver Aradal. It has a “Garden Design” with “oabes” woven into the design with the garden beyond.

Antique Tehran

However, Persian rugs don’t have to be vintage to be collectible. Partner Bahram Shabahang, who makes frequent trips to Iran says “I am astounded at the quality I have been able to revive and recreate with the Persian weavers working today. These are the heirlooms of the future. “For example, in July, Shabahang saw rugs he had commissioned using forgotten techniques of the past, by families creating new masterpieces.

The History of the rugs and carpets considered among the finest in the world began in 1810 in Northwest Persia’s Zagros mountain range, home to the Bakhtiari, famed for their weavings. From their beginnings there was much competition among villagers who knew that only the very finest carpets would wind up with royalty or the very rich. Their “golden age” lasted from the early 19th century well into the 1930’s.

Until the end of the last century, Iranian rugs were usually long and narrow, partly because of the shape of the rooms, but also because many were made on narrow nomad looms.

Isfahan is a main trading capital for Persian rugs, and where Bahram Shabahang grew up, in a family who had been rug specialists for four centuries. He began acquiring some of the finest rugs in Persia over several decades.

According to Shabahang, “Bakhhtiari carpets are admired for both their technical skill and artistry.” He noted that Americans in particular respond to the Bakhtiari’s signature bold geometric, floral and figurative designs.

Shabahang offers advice to would-be-buyers “Hand-crafted Bakhtiari carpets have some basic characteristics that mark them as examples of the highest quality” Tightness is a key to durability. The carpet should be dense and tight to the touch. If the knots are tight the pattern will be clear and crisp like a focused picture; not blurry. The carpet should feel neither rough and dry not too soft. It should have good body. Contrary to popular belief, thickness has no effect on durability. The thickness is determined by the climate in which the carpet was woven.

He also pointed out that in authentic Persian carpets the pattern is visible from the back of the rug. The fringe is part of the rug itself and not sewn on. Another tip: The rugs with the best colors are made from dyes drawn exclusively from a vegetable or animal base.

Shabahang says, “the rugs of metropolitan areas differ greatly from those of rural village. Like a symphony, the city carpets follow a prepared pattern and are noted for their sophisticated floral designs and fine knots. Village and nomadic carpets, like jazz, have a more freehand design with bold, simple patterns and a wider variety of weaving techniques.

Learn to look as such clues as border designs and central motifs, one by one. Each tribe and village had specific border designs. Persian rugs for example may have stars and rosettes. There are also many types of knotting used to identify where the rugs were made.

Another tip, the natural sheen that comes from the using the finest wool enhances the color tones, so that the older a rug gets, the better it will look. “Use and enjoy” Shabahang says.

If you think a fine Persian carpet is too expensive, consider that it can take a family a year or more to create a single artistic carpet. Fine examples at the Orley & Shabahang Palm Beach Gallery can cost between $12,000 and $32,000. “That seems like a fair price when compared to other art forms. And, it can be handed down for generations.”

Rugs Clockwise From Top: West Persia, Antique Kasham, Garden of Eden

Thirty years ago, an American rug collector, Geoffrey Orley, was introduced to Shabahang during a trip to Iran. The carpets in Bahram Shabahang’s home were of so much higher quality than anything else Orley had seen, he immediately sought to become Shabahang’s. Together, they felt they could give Americans an opportunity to possess the finest examples of Persian carpet artistry.

The partners celebrated their 30th year with the opening of their Palm Beach Gallery. A special exhibit “Prized Bakhtiari Rugs from Persia” is the first of many planned. They also have showrooms in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin and exhibit at the most prestigious antiques Fairs in New York, Texas, Chicago and Los Angeles. Orley commented that, “as Americans have become more interested in and appreciative of the finest Persian carpets, we discovered many people we knew who were decorating homes in Florida. Our answer is the Palm Beach Gallery.”

A visit to the gallery is a learning experience with Orley and Shabahang anxious to share their knowledge.

 “Authentic Persian carpets can be viewed as a reflection of the past and as an expression of the Persian way of life,” Shabahang says. “Each arabesque, medallion, cartouche, spandrel and rosette is specifically selected to achieve harmony and balance between man and nature. The colors, symbols and borders express the history and hope of a people. To this day these various “styles” provide a woven language which speaks lovingly of the centuries old culture of Persia.

Shabahang is quick to point out that it’s taken thousands of years for Persian carpet makers to develop the looms, dyes, designs and materials that go into making one of these textile masterpieces. The result is that Persian carpets have an inherent beauty and artistic detail that sets them apart from any other mid eastern rug.

He advises visitors to the gallery to carefully examine a fine Persian rug. “Look at the rhythm and flow of as many as on e million hand tied knots and you’ll be looking at the soul of the artist who created it. Like a pointillist painting each twist of colored yarn, although seemingly insignificant, contributes to the overall design”

With the uppers and downers of the stock market many people are turning to other possibilities, such as Persian rugs and carpets.

What makes a Persian rug or carpet an investment, as important as fine art? Orley tells visitors that points to consider are technical quality, design, rarity and collectibility. The partners’ are accustomed to personally showing carpets to clients in their homes and offices, as well as museums. A service they say distinguishes the purchase of an investment-quality ‘artistic carpet’ from a commercially offered imitation.

“We are happy to work privately with clients to meet their individual needs,” Orley says.

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