Everything you need to know about buying antique rugs

Antique and vintage rugs and carpets are an easy way to enhance your interior instantly. And as Ticky Hedley-Dent discovers from talking to the experts, choose carefully and you could enjoy a beautiful design that will also hold its value

The drawing room of an Edinburgh townhouse decorated by the late Robert Kime, featuring a mid-19th-century Turkish Oushak on the floor.

Robert Kime famously said that he always started a room’s decoration with the rug. ‘They are a key to decorating,’ says Orlando Atty, who learned everything he knows from Robert and is now the company’s managing director. ‘They add layers, textures and colours that can really soften a space.’

Roger Jones, one of the directors at Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, is also a great fan of antique rugs. ‘It’s as if they bring some of their past existence with them,’ he says. Finding the right one can be a daunting task, however. Carpets (which are generally classified as anything larger than 9 x 6ft) and rugs (everything else) have been objects of desire for centuries and across continents, resulting in seemingly unlimited options in style, provenance, quality and price.

‘Its rich colours were the basis of the scheme,’ says Henriette von Stockhausen of the Persian Heriz c1890, sourced by her from Farnham Antique Carpets for this hall.

It may sound obvious, but if you are buying a large rug, it is prudent to know where you intend to put it because that can influence your choice of design. A runner in the hall will probably be completely visible, whereas you might see only the border of a dining room carpet. Make sure you like the bits that will be most prominent. Rug dealer Robert Stephenson suggests, ‘In a drawing room, you might want something that has an overall harmony of design and that doesn’t have a strong difference between the border and the centre or main body of the rug.’ Many interior designers say they find a more open design, without an obvious central medallion, easiest to work with.

This ‘Salerno Grey’ hand-woven wool rug was designed by Barbro Nilsson for Märta Måås-Fjetterström in 1948; £28,000 from Modernity

Oriental carpets have long held an appeal for those trying to capture the English country-house aesthetic. In this context, the epithet Oriental refers to those woven along the Silk Route: in China, India, Persia, Turkey and the Caucasus. Early examples from the 15th and 16th centuries (carpet weaving actually began around 5th century BCE) are favoured by museums, private institutions and top collectors. They are rare and hugely expensive – specialist dealers can sell significant examples for hundreds of thousands of pounds. For example, Christie’s in Paris sold a large 16th-century Imperial Dragon Throne carpet from the Ming Dynasty for nearly €7 million in 2021.

In terms of antique and vintage rugs, however, most of us are likely to be looking at examples from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Oushak, Sultanabad, Heriz, Indian Agra, Tabriz and Bijar are among the most popular Oriental carpets, each named after the places in which they were woven. ‘Older rugs have a certain character and atmosphere,’ observes specialist Joshua Lumley, who recently supplied all the rugs for the redecoration of Aldourie Castle in the Scottish Highlands by Charlotte Freemantle and Will Fisher of Jamb. ‘Like an antique piece of furniture, they have a patina that comes with age and that is impossible to replicate,’ Joshua explains.

Joshua Lumley sourced all the rugs for Jamb’s redecoration of Aldourie Castle

It is the muted, worn-in colours of antique rugs that make them so desirable: the light blues, saffron yellows, terracottas and faded reds. And examples from different regions will come in distinctive colours. Antique Indian carpets, for example, feature pinky, bluer reds, whereas Persian carpets such as a Sultanabad might have more of a tomato-red base. Henriette von Stockhausen of VSP Interiors regularly uses antique rugs in her projects and particularly likes antique Indian dhurries for bedrooms. ‘They cost much less and are very decorative in their geometrics and their patterns,’ she enthuses. ‘I look for pale greens and pale blues with a less strong border.’

An Agra carpet thought to have been woven by prisoners in c1900, £38,500 from Robert Stephenson

Zieglers, which were inspired by Persian rugs, and Oushaks, part of the Turkish tradition, are two of the most sought after and have been for many years,’ says Stephen Marsh, co-owner of Farnham Antique Carpets. Ones from the 1850s to the early 1900s were made with natural dyes and are more expensive than those made from the 1920s onwards. ‘They got very fussy in design, and also used a lot more chemical dyes,’ he explains.

A fine example of an Ushak carpet, woven in Anatolia, c1880. It costs £45,000 from Farnham Antique Carpets, which also sells Ushak rugs for less than £5,000.

Louise Broadhurst, international head of rugs and carpets at Christie’s, advises looking for abrash, the Persian term for the variation of colour in a carpet as a result of different batches of hand-dyed, hand-spun yarn being used. This way, you will know you are not buying something new and machine made.

A Sultanabad made for the export market in north-west Persia, c1890, £26,000 from Robert Stephenson

Many antique rugs on the market today were woven with Western taste in mind, so they come in designs, colours and sizes that work well with European furnishings. Certainly, this is the case with Zieglers, named after the Manchester-based, Anglo-Swiss company Ziegler & Co, which established a workshop in Sultanabad – modern-day Arak in Iran – in 1883. ‘I think the wide border of a Ziegler, with an open field of amber, smoky blues and terracottas, works handsomely in a drawing room,’ says Charlotte. ‘As with any antique, it is the surface we are interested in and, if it happens to be worn, so much the better.’

A Ziegler dating from c1880, £70,000, from Farnham Antique Carpets.

Like Zieglers, Oushaks (originally woven in the Anatolian city of Usak), are available in a variety of colours with designs that work well in drawing rooms. They are also usually priced higher. Less expensive are antique Heriz carpets or rugs, which were woven in north-west Iran, often with more red and blue tones.

A Swedish flatweave designed by Anna-Greta Sjoqvist in the 1960s, £4,500, from Robert Stephenson

An option less explored and found less in English decorating schemes are antique and vintage Swedish rugs. Most collectable are the 20th-century examples woven by master designer and pioneer of Swedish textiles Märta Måås-Fjetterström. Having set up her studio in Båstad in 1919, she trained mainly female weavers to produce rölakan (flatweave) and rya (knotted) rugs, which were inspired by nature and merged rural Nordic tradition with modernist trends. All her rugs feature her signature – something to look out for – and the complexity of the design will affect the price. Designs by Barbro Nilsson, who was the artistic director of Märta’s studio, are also highly prized. One of her rare rugs was recently on sale at Modernity for £48,000. But you could buy a 1950s flatweave by a lesser-known Swedish designer from the mid 20th century for around £2,000.

This 1970s Berber Boucherouite, made using recycled cloth in the Azilal region of the Atlas Mountains, would also work well as a wall hanging; £600 from Larusi.

Vintage Berber rugs, from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, are also in demand. These include black and white Beni Ourain rugs, colourful Azilals or funky looking Boucherouites made of recycled textiles. ‘Most vintage examples are rectangular,’ says Berber rug specialist Souad Larusi. ‘Beni Ourain rugs tend to be the biggest, but are almost never wider than 200cm. If a dealer shows you one that is 250cm wide and tells you that it is an original Beni Ourain rug, you’ll know they are lying.’

If you buy a carpet from a reputable dealer, you can have some confidence that it is the genuine article. The dealer might also let you test out a couple of examples at home to see which works best. Buying at auction is also a good option and can be less expensive. Christie’s has two specialist auctions a year (in April and October) and local auction houses are worth considering.

Louise offers an interesting point of view on the lasting value of an old rug over one that has been made recently. ‘Much like buying a new car, as soon as you purchase a modern carpet from a shop and take it home, it will already have fallen in value. Within 10 years, it might have shed its synthetic fibres and faded in colour,’ she says. ‘A Tabriz carpet that was woven in north west Persia in the late 19th century will continue to wear well and look great. And any Persian Bijar carpet, with its deep pile and heavy wool structure, will go on and on’.

Address book

  • Robert Kime: This respected interior design studio is also known for its fine selection of antique rugs and runners.
  • Larusi: Based in London, Souad Larusi specialises in vintage Moroccan Berber rugs dating from the 1970s onwards.
  • Keshishian: On Pimlico Road, SW1, this is a favourite with interior designers. Its offering stretches from the Gothic to Pop-art examples.
  • Robert Stephenson Handmade Carpets: With decades of experience, Robert Stephenson has a showroom on Elystan Street, SW3, that stocks a selection of Persian, Turkish and Indian carpets, as well as mid-century Scandinavian flatweaves.
  • Farnham Antique Carpets: As well as selling carpets, this specialist company has completed notable work at National Trust properties and at Castle Howard, and provides expert cleaning and restoration services.
  • Gallery Yacou: Based in north London, this fourth-generation family business specialises in antique oriental and European examples.
  • Franses: With over 100 years’ experience, it sells to both collectors and museums, and is a good source of decorative antique, Art Deco and modernist designs.
  • Modernity: This gallery specialises in 20th-century Nordic masterpieces, including rugs woven by Märta Måås-Fjetterström and her Swedish studio.
  • Woven Place: The American company has just opened its first London showroom on Bloomfield Terrace, SW1, in collaboration with the Pimlico Road antique dealer Christopher Howe.