Fakes of antique carpets are nothing new in the rug business. But today's versions are technically so good that they can fool even top rug experts and sell for big money. How do the counterfeiters do it? Textile researcher and traveler Vedat Karadag has been looking into the question for 15 years from his home base in Istanbul and shares this information.
ISTANBUL, January 11, 2012 -- Counterfeits of old Turkish carpets began to appear in the marketplace in the first half of the 20th century. At that time, they were usually aimed at tourists or amateur rug collectors and were easy enough for experts to detect.
But in recent years a new, technically sophisticated production of fakes has arisen in Turkey, Iran, and the Caucasus that is so good that the new rugs pose a real danger to the antique market.
The new techniques began to develop in the 1980s, when there was a renaissance of rug repair in Turkey and restorers became very skillful in matching colors and wool quality as they repaired old rugs.
In order to match the colors and feel of old wool during a restoration, they moved pile knots from one part of a rug to another or even borrowed the knots from an entirely different old rug if it had an adequately long pile.
However, rugs were not just restored this way. They were also sometimes upgraded and made to look older than the evidence their original dyes presented.
If there was a limited amount of synthetic color in a rug, it could be completely replaced with natural colors. Once the offending colors were gone, the rug could be marketed as older and sold for more money.
In these pictures of restored rugs, we see both chemical color replacement and antique restoration.
Here the restorers have taken out chemical dyed orange color knots.
And here the chemical orange dyed knots have been replaced with natural dyed antique madder color knots.
It wasn't long before the high prices that these restored and upgraded rugs brought in the marketplace inspired some restorers to explore methods that would allow them to weave “old” rugs from scratch.
However, there were some technical problems to overcome.
The primary one is that old rugs have a different look and they feel different than new rugs made from new wool. Over time, exposure to light and air softens a rug's colors, increases the shininess of the wool, and opens up the wool fiber so that an old rug has the appearance and feel of age and use.
To obtain old wool for new "antiques", restorers turned to old kilims from Anatolia, Iran, and the Caucasus. These were pieces that were relatively inexpensive, either because they were damaged, or had very plain designs, or were originally un-dyed.
Unraveling these kilims gives a good yield of yarns in a variety of colors. So much so, that the price of these types of kilims actually began to rise with the increased demand for them from restorers.
Here are the unraveled yarns from old fragments.
But there is a problem with getting wool from old kilims. The yarn is crimped from being squeezed for years between warp strings and has to be made to relax enough to use it again in knotting a new rug.
Here is a close-up of the crimped yarn that comes from a vegetable dyed kilim.
Nevertheless, rug restorers always find a way to solve a problem. To relax the wool, they hit upon the idea of boiling it in a cauldron of hot water. The result is that the wool softens and loses its twist.
The softened yarns after the boiling and untwisting process.
Just as there is the question of where to get old wool for weaving an antique, so is there the question of where to get an old rug foundation on which to tie the new knots. The restorers solved that problem in another clever way: they took an old rug of little value and stripped it of its original knots until only the foundation remained.
Here is an Anatolian yastik that is of little vaule because of its washed-out chemical colors and not very exciting or well-executed design.
And here is the same rug with all of the knots picked out of the foundation.
We don’t know what happened to this foundation after all of the knots were picked out. But we can be sure that the new colors were vibrant and the design was well executed, to the best of the faker’s imagination.
Finally, there is the problem of making a newly woven pile look worn and aged.
Counterfeiters have found that rubbing the pile with a smooth pumice stone is much more convincing than clipping the blacks and browns with scissors. Whereas clipping leaves the wool with small, sharply cut ends, rubbing with pumice makes the ends of the fibers look naturally worn, even under examination with a magnifying glass.
The rubbing helps duplicate the effect seen in old carpets, where the ingredients in black and brown dyes have caused the wool to deteriorate faster than the wool dyed with other colors.
But there are other ways to do it, too:
Sheep shearers being used to make the pile lower in places -- also an effective method.
The pile can be burned with a strong flame and then rubbed and cut away to make different colors have slightly different pile heights. This is another technique to simulate natural wear and age.
Dust tumblers have been used for generations in Turkey to get the dust out of rugs before they are washed. If you tumble an old rug in there for a little while, the dust comes out. If you leave a new rug in there long enough, it becomes more pliable and the edges and ends get some wear, a little bit like an old rug.
The strong summer sun of Anatolia is another great tool for aging rugs. They are left in the sun for weeks at a time in order to soften the colors. Often a rooftop is used for maximum sun exposure.
Of course, a little light traffic on a rug is good, too, and heavier traffic is probably even better. Great spots with heavy traffic are a restaurant or even a sidewalk.
Heavier traffic and busier streets have a fast effect on aging process.
Once the counterfeiters work is done, all that is left to do is to admire their artistry. And, as these pictures show, the results can be stunning.
Here is a great looking, all finished fake of a late 19th century southwest Iranian Gabbeh rug.
This is a counterfeit 17th century Anatolian rug.
Here is a counterfeited fragment which can be sold as all that remains of an 18th century Anatolian prayer rug. It is placed beside a genuine 18th century Anatolian prayer rug for comparison.
And here is a very fine forgery of an antique flat-weave sumac with a Laila & Majnun design from the epic Islamic love poem of the same name.
The forgery is of this genuine antique Layla & Majnun piece, which is worn with true age.
Are there ways that true antique rug lovers can protect themselves from the forgers' ever increasing skills?
One of the best keys may be training ourselves to recognize the lanolin content in the wool fibres.
A sheep's natural wool is naturally coated in lanolin, a substance which prevents the wool fibers from locking together. The amount of lanolin in the wool diminishes as a rug ages over decades and centuries but it is not easy for forgers to reduce it artificially.
It is not that difficult to see the differences in the wool with a close up examination or by feeling the wool with your palm and the tips of your fingers.
Train your hands and palm by touching as many pieces as you possibly can. You will develop a feel for it. Study your own pieces with magnifiers. You will see how real wool fibers look with natural use.
Another good safeguard against forgeries is to trust your instincts and your taste.
Fakers often make aesthetic mistakes. They sometimes put fake repairs into the flat woven ends of rugs so that you will easily spot the fake repair but not realize that the whole rug is newly woven.
If you sense your eye is being deliberately distracted, there's a good chance it is.
Faking old rugs is not just an Anatolian phenomenon. Many other weaving areas have followed the Turkish lead. Convincing copies of old Gabbeh rugs come from Iran, as do fake Shahsevan flatweaves.
And just as the rug business is a cross-border industry, the counterfeiting business has become one, too.
Iranian dealers have employed Turkmen weavers in Afghanistan to copy anqique Turkmen pieces, while Anatolian traders have financed the faking of antique Caucasian rugs in the Caucasus and of Kaitag embroideries in Daghestan. Even, India is on the same path with their famous Muhgal and local design embroideries.
It is interesting to think that if the last century had its legendary Theodor Tuduc (1888 – 1983), the Romanian carpet forger whose work was so good it was collected by museums, this century may produce yet greater counterfeit artists. The sophistication of techniques available to forgers only keeps growing and with it so does the challenge of separating genuine antiques from look-alikes.
Vedat Karadag heads Cultural Travel, an Istanbul-based company specializing in custom-designed travel for small groups or individuals interested in exploring Anatolia or the Silk Road countries of Central Asia. Textiles are one of his many areas of interest and expertise.
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