Hooked on Rugs
Our insider’s guide to buying carpets at Izmailovo.
By Marina Nikolskaya
Photographs by Simon C. Roberts
No trip to Moscow is complete without a visit to the Izmailovo flea market, whether you are here on business and need some Russian souvenirs and bric-a-brac for friends and family at home, or whether you are a long-time resident looking for a bargain to decorate your apartment. After rows of matryoshka dolls and Soviet army kitsch, you reach the stairs leading to the upper level of the market. And you suddenly leave Russia, and find yourself in an Oriental bazaar: sunlight and dust settle on hundreds of brilliantly colored carpets, all ruled by sleepy and relaxed salesmen, who look as if they have no particular business but the enjoyment of their colorful world.
Central Asian or Caucasian?
There are two main groups of carpets for sale at Izmailovo: rugs from Central Asia (mainly Turkmen – also called “Turkoman”), and rugs from the Caucasus.
Turkmen, who were nomads, used felts and rugs the way others used furniture. They were placed on the floor and around the tent for insulation, or woven into bags (big bags are called “chuval,” long and narrow bags are called “torba”) to store their belongings. Rugs were used for gifts, for prayer, for weddings – everything had to be both functional and decorative. Sometimes you can find chuval and torba on sale at Izmailovo. Despite their small size, they can be more expensive than a large rug; sometimes small items had a better chance of surviving the various upheavals that have shaken the Silk Route nations over the last century.
Traditional and sacred patterns are woven into the rugs as part of the very fabric. The borders protect and enclose a space decorated with signs to ensure good fortune, fertility and to ward off evil influences. Some designs are used by particular tribes, which settled in Russian Turkmenia and Afghanistan.
The Tekke rugs and the rugs of the Yomud and Ersari tribes are identified by their “gul” – a symbol of their tribe – and the repetitive element in all carpets made by their people. When you look at a carpet and see one ornament that is the dominant feature, that is the “gul” of the tribe that made it.
Tekke, the dominant Turkmen tribe, were masters of refined weaving. Tekke rugs have the highest density (number of knots per square inch) and their gul is an ornament that looks like (and is commonly called) an elephant’s foot. The weaving of the Ersari tribe is distinguished by strong and bright colors and striking designs, as well as a shaggier pile.
Most of the rugs from the Caucasus are named after the district of origin: Karabakh, Borchaly, Kazak, Kuba, etc. Many designs can be traced to modified Persian patterns of the 17th century. Some weavings resemble those of Turkey and Turkmenia.
Kilim or Sumak?
Kilims, flat-weave rugs, are reversible with no pile. In kilims, the only threads visible are the wefts. Sumaks (also called weft wrapping) look very much like kilims, but when you turn them over, you see a mass of threads.
The kilims and sumaks sold at Izmailovo are mostly from Dagestan. There are some kilims from Azerbaijan and Turkmenia (the ones made of camel wool are especially valuable).
Price range: From $150-1000, depending on the size, condition, date of production and your bargaining ability.
Most of the pile (tekke) rugs at Izmailovo are new, but you can, on rare occasions, find an old and valuable one. They are called Bukhara rugs because in the 19th century tekke rugs made in Turkmenia were sold at this famous Silk Route rug market. These rugs have the highest density and very detailed patterns, usually against a rich background of dark red or burgundy. They are also the favorites of New Russians, perhaps because they see them as a sound investment.
Price range: $80 per square meter for small rugs, $100 per square meter for large ones and up to $150 per square meter for the enormous ones.
Natural or Synthetic Dyes
The introduction of synthetic dyes in the 1860s changed rug weaving forever. Many old techniques have been forgotten, and people do not even remember the names of the plants that produced dyes. Natural dying still survives in some villages of Iran, but it is rare among new rugs.
Natural dyes barely fade over the years; the colors remain vibrant and deep even after a century of use. There may be a more limited range of colors and tints, but the colors have a richness and depth unmatched by synthetic dyes. It is difficult, even for a specialist, to tell the difference between good synthetic dyes and natural pigments at first glance. Ask a salesman to show you both kinds of rugs and then turn them over. On a rug dyed with chemical dyes, you might see that the red threads on the reverse side have run a bit and have faded to pink on the front of the carpet. In a rug made with natural pigments, the color will be the same on both sides.
Old vs. New
Dagestani carpet salesman Ramiz Mirzakhanov shows his wares.
Most of the “old” rugs at Izmailovo are 30-60 years old, and cost from $200- 2000 (kilim, sumak or Bukhara). For $500-700, you can find a truly interesting rug made with natural pigments. A real trophy is an old Caucasian rug made with natural dyes. Anywhere else in Europe or the US, it would cost thousands of dollars.
If you want a carpet in perfect condition, at Izmailovo this won’t be an antique, but rather a copy of an old famous design – or a “silk Iranian pile carpet.” Alas, according to one of the vendors, 80 percent of the “Iranian” silk rugs at Izmailovo were actually made in China, India or Pakistan. However, at the rug market a Chinese “Iranian” silk rug costs from $800-1,500 per square meter (2-3 times less than in Russian stores), whereas the real thing is at least $2500-3000 per square meter. If you want the real thing and can afford it – Izmailovo isn’t the place for you. But if you fall in love with a brand-new silk carpet and don’t care who made it, the prices at Izmailovo are excellent.
How to Bargain
Spend some time wandering around the market, noting rugs that you like. When you have narrowed down your choice to three or four, talk to the salesmen. Ask him where the rug is from, when it was made, whether the dyes are natural or synthetic. Check over the rug carefully, noting any tears or damage. Make sure the weave is tight and dense. The warp should be made of wool or silk, not cotton (which feels stiff), and never rayon (which is stiff and slightly shiny). Note any imperfections and mistakes in the weave or slightly uneven borders (signs of a hand-made rug).
What raises the price: age, size, natural pigment dyes, rarity of design, authenticity, density of the weave, materials (such as silk). What lowers the price: strongly or unevenly faded colors, tears poorly mended, a missing border or fringes and general poor condition that the vendor tries to pass off as “antique.”
Close inspection of, from left to right, a tekke, a kilim.
After the salesman states his opening price, point out the imperfections (such as tears or missing fringe) and give a counter offer (10-15 percent less than he wants). Izmailovo is not the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, where a rug salesman opens the bidding at twice the price he expects to get. Izmailovo rug vendors are mostly poor refugees with a small profit margin, so don’t try to bargain down to half price. After your counter offer, he’ll respond to your comments about the imperfections and lower his price…at least by five percent. If he insists that the sun-faded blotch “only adds to the carpet’s value,” move on to the next salesman. If you think you can continue the bargaining, keep pointing out everything that is “wrong” with the rug, and pretend that you’re not sure if it will match your decor. Listen to his counter-arguments and check them: if he says the weave is tight, really look at it, and compare it with other rugs to see if it’s true. If you really aren’t interested, tell the salesman you’ll come back tomorrow. That phrase usually stops the sales pitch.
If you are considering an expensive rug as an investment, consider coming back with a specialist.
Taking the Plunge
The allure of handmade rugs is not only their vivid colors and patterns. It’s also the sense of the presence of the artists who made them and left little reminders of their personality in small imperfections and whimsical elements. A good rug can change the appearance of a room and delight the eye for years to come.
And the ritual of buying is half the fun. You may make a few mistakes, or even come home with a rug that you think is old, but was actually made last Tuesday. But there is always hope that you might stumble over something truly remarkable.
So as you descend the stairs and a salesman calls after you, "Madame, antique!" holding up a faded, dirty, and worn carpet…you wonder if under the dust and grime there might be a very old and valuable tekke…