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Your 90 Second Guide to Buying a Persian Rug July 31, 2013

James Tarmy reports on arts and culture for Bloomberg Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Read his article below!

Persian rugs are a contradiction in terms. They're ubiquitous and utilitarian. They're works of art and coveted investment pieces. The rug you barely notice as you tromp from the couch to the kitchen could very well be an extremely expensive, 300-year-old objet d'art.

For a few people, the difference between a $5 million rug and a $400 rug is as clear as day. For the rest of us, how to tell if we're tracking mud over a rag or an heirloom?

"Oriental rugs are blind items -- it's like buying a fur coat or antiques," says Scott Gregorian, owner of Gregorian Rugs, a third-generation company in Newton, Massachusetts. "It's like anything where the value isn't immediately apparent."

"I've been in business for over 40 years," says Jason Nazmiyal, owner of Nazmiyal Rugs in midtown Manhattan, "and I'm still learning every day."

Uh-oh.

What about those of us who just want to make sure we're not getting ripped off when we put a rug in our living room?

"There are certain criteria you can look for that separate a good rug from a bad," Nazmiyal says. "It's the complexity of the rug's design, the quality of the wool, the number of colors that the rug uses, and how finely the rug is woven."

A rug's complexity is fairly straightforward -- it lies in the intricacy of the pattern. As for the quality of the wool, Gregorian has a trick. "Make your hand into a rake and you scratch the surface of the rug," he says. "If your fingers are covered with wool bits, that's not a great sign. If you do that and your hand looks like a mitten, that's a very bad sign."

Colors. "Older pieces, up to around 1900, used vegetable dye," Nazmiyal says. "After that point, chrome dye, or 'Swiss dye,' came and changed the market. With synthetic dye, you don't see variation in the colors. But with a vegetable dye, you get variations throughout the whole rug, and a patina as the rug ages."

The really hard part is the quality of the weave. Both Gregorian and Nazmiyal dismissed the idea that knot count -- found on the underside of a rug and roughly equivalent to thread count in sheets -- is a good indicator of its quality. "Knot count gives you the same information as kicking the tires on a car," Gregorian says. "As long as there are knots in a rug, you're in a good place."

The measure of a rug's quality, says Gregorian, "is not just how fine it is -- that's why knot count is very deceptive. Those unique, one-of-a-kind tribal pieces, by that measure, would be discounted." Instead, he says, "what you want to see in a rug is an appropriate knot count for what kind it is."

What about provenance? "Hearing about a rug's provenance is fine, but it doesn't matter." says Gregorian. "It's like going out and buying a Toyota Camry and being told, 'Oh, this was once owned by Glenn Close.' It's like, yeah, but so what?"

Both Gregorian and Nazmiyal said the essential thing is to trust your rug dealer.

"At the end of the day," Gregorian says, "it's easier and better for you to vet five, ten oriental-rug dealers and figure out who you trust than it is to spend five, ten, fifteen years learning about oriental rugs."