Saturday, 31 December 2011

Bad Goods: How Counterfeiters Weave Antique Rugs From Scratch

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.




Saturday, 17 December 2011

Turkmen Carpets: From Bukhara To The Black Desert

BUKHARA, Dec. 17, 2011 – When the "red rugs of Central Asia" first arrived in Western Europe in the mid-to-late 1800s, nobody knew much about where they came from.

They trickled out through the Russian Empire and bore an exotic name: Bokhara carpets. But apart from the fact Bokhara (today Bukhara in Uzbekistan) was a legendary city on the Silk Road, the name gave no hints of the rugs' origins.

Another name commonly used in Victorian England for the carpets told even less: "Gentlemen's Carpets." They were called that because they particularly appealed to men as furnishings for dens and studies.

It took until our present day before people widely realized that the red rugs' only relation with Bukhara was that the city's bazaars were the collection point for sending them to Western markets. And that, in fact, the carpets were woven by a specific people that mostly live far away from Bukhara: the Turkmen.

The Turkmen who sent their carpets to the bazaar inhabit a vast expanse of arid land between the Amu Darya river and the Caspian Sea that mostly is made up of the Kara Kum Desert, or "Black Sand" Desert. Today, much of that land is the country of Turkmenistan, but there are also populations of Turkmen living across the borders of Iran and Afghanistan.

Traditionally, the Turkmen were both a nomadic and settled people, largely depending on how much water was available. They wove everything needed for a nomadic lifestyle but also wove many of the same items when residing in towns and villages.

Here is a picture of a nomadic Turkmen family posing on a carpet outside their felt yurt. It was taken by the Russian photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky in the early 1900s when Turkmenistan was part of the Russian Empire.

When the Turkmen arrived in the region is uncertain, but they were part of a vast migration of Turkic peoples who moved into the Caspian area, northern Iran and Anatolia around 1,000 AD. Their language belongs to the same family of languages – Oghuz Turk – as those spoken in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and by the Turkic tribes of Iran.

It is often said that to like Turkmen carpets, one must like the color red. And that is true. Early Turkmen carpets are all dyed in shades of red taken from the madder plant and the shades vary from brick-colored to a dark purple brown. Usually, the other color in the carpets is black.

But if this traditional color palette seems limited, the effects achieved are both striking and subtle. And part of the reason is that the colors heighten, rather than compete with, the carpets' decorative pattern of mysterious tribal "guls."

The guls, the Persian and Turkmen word for flower, are usually octagonal forms that are quartered and placed in rows. Often a large gul will alternate with a subsidiary one, as in this photo of guls in a main carpet woven by the Tekke tribe.

Here the main gul is a variation of a type of gul known as a "gulli (or gushly) gul." The capet is available from Knights Antiques in Britain.

The world of Turkmen carpets is a world of guls and guls themselves are part of the common artistic heritage of the Silk Roads. Historically, guls (known as "rosettes" is Western art history) are found in silk fabrics made by civilizations up and down the length of the road, from the Chinese to the Soghdians, to the Sassanians to the Byzantines.

But just what the Turkmen guls represent is not certain.

According to the Turkmen themselves, they symbolize birds or parts of birds. But the way some guls are used more than others by different Turkmen tribes has long created a debate among Western rug experts over whether they also serve as identifying totems for the tribes that weave them. Research is still needed to answer the question.

Often, Turkmen carpets include both large guls and subsidiary guls arranged in an endless repeat pattern. The arrangement creates an optical illusion in which the eye connects the large guls into one pattern of compartments and the small guls into another, so the two patterns appear to be overlying.

The "double-compartment" pattern is visible in this carpet woven by the Yomut tribe. The large guls are variation of a type of gul known as a "tauk nuska gul." The capet is available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

The double-compartment pattern may be another fascinating link between Turkmen carpets and the ancient Silk Road trading routes. The design, using various kinds of elements, has been found across the ancient world, from Chinese textiles to ceiling drawings in Egyptian tombs.

Today, Turkmen carpets are well known to rug collectors and the early generic names like "Bokhara" are less and less used. But finding a new way to name them has proved difficult because, unlike most rugs, they cannot be reliably named after specific geographical regions where they were woven.

Turkmen tribes were historically so mobile -- claiming and abandoning territories as their neighbor's lost or gained strength -- that it makes more sense to name the carpets after the tribes which wove them rather than the tribe's location at the time.

Here is a map of Central Asia showing the Turkmen's homeland, which includes parts of northeastern Iran and northwestern Afghanistan.

The effects of the Turkmen's mobility can be seen in some of the tribes' rugs. The guls of the Yomut (or Yomud) tribe which had long contact with Persia (and which mostly lives in northeastern Iran today) are believed to show adaptations of complex Persian floral forms.

An example can be seen in the photo at the top of this page of a Yomut carpet with kepsi guls. The carpet is available from James Cohen in Milan.

Over the centuries, as more and more Tukmen moved from nomadism to settled life, the carpets of the tribes which settled underwent more changes than those which stayed nomadic.

One of the earliest tribes to settle appears to have been the Chodor. The designs of main their carpets more varied than those of the other tribes and use more colors.

Here is an example of a Chodor carpet with ertmen guls. It is available from Joshua Lumley near London.

In the case of many nomadic groups elsewhere in the world, settling has meant a loss of weaving traditions.

But in the Turkmen case, settled women maintained their weaving traditions as a way to supplement their family income. Over time the volume of rugs they produced far outpaced those woven by their nomadic sisters.

Thus the rugs of the Saryk, which remained nomadic longer than any other Turkmen tribe, until the end of the 19th century, are considerably rarer than those of other groups.

Another tribe whose rugs are rare is the Salor – but for a different reason. The Salor, long considered among the oldest of the Turkmen tribes, disappeared at some time in the 19th century, leaving behind their weavings as their only legacy.

At what point the weavings of settled Turkmen tribe turned into a major regional business sensitive to the changing tastes of buyers is unclear.

But by the time the traditional red rugs came to the attention of Western enthusiasts, there was already production of another class of Turkmen carpets – not traditional at all – which were aimed at the sophisticated tastes of urban centers such as Bukhara, Samarkand, and far beyond.

These rugs were the so-called "Beshir" carpets, named not after a tribe but one of the towns where they were woven along the Amu Darya river, which flows between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Here is a Beshir carpet available from Knights Antiques in Britain. Some other Beshir carpets show the influence of popular ikat designs taken from Central Asia's vibrant textile industry of the same time.

Exactly who wove the Beshir carpets is unclear, because historically these towns were home to a mixed population of Turkmens from different tribes and even indigenous Iranian people who pre-dated the Turkic conquest of Central Asia.

But if Beshir carpets show how Turkmen weavers could adapt to market tastes, the more remarkable thing about Turkmen carpets overall remains how much they have remained true to tradition over the centuries.

An example among many are the carpets woven the Ersari tribe, which has been mostly sedentary since 17th c. Their large carpets are too big for a yurt, so they were clearly made for urban buyers, but their designs stayed traditional.

As experts Robert Pinner and Murray L. Eiland, Jr. note in their 1999 book 'Between the Black Desert and the Red: Turkmen Carpets from the Widersperg Collection':

"The same gols have been used from the pre-commercial into the commercial period and the designs have changed little … The number of colors has tended to decline from the six or nine colors used in earlier rugs to sometimes only three or four in later rugs, (but) the guls will be drawn in a strikingly similar manner."

Here is modern Ersari carpet with another of the many variations of the gulli gul. It is available from Nomad Rugs in San Francisco.

Traditionally, Turkmen weavers not only produced main carpets for the floors of yurts but also carpet-like hangings to cover the yurt doorway (ensi), bags of different types and sizes for storage and transport (chuvals and torbas), decorative trappings used in wedding rituals (azmylik), tent bands and tent pole covers. Many of these smaller weavings show more variations in design than do the carpets.

Perhaps due to this variety, Turkmen weavings of all kinds are today highly popular with collectors. According to Pinner and Eiland, there are more Turkmen weavings in private rug collections in the US and Germany – the two countries with the largest number of private rug collections in the world -- than rugs from anywhere else.

That's a long way for Turkmen rugs to have traveled from the days when they were simply all lumped together on Western markets as Red Rugs, Bokharas, or Gentlemen's Carpets.

And it is a tribute to the weavers' skills that today their work has not just put the Turkmen people on the world's art map, but even the names of their own individual tribes.





Articles about Turkmen Rugs, Designs, History, and Tribes