3 Oriental Rug Rip-offs to Avoid

Rugs described as Oriental may have been made anywhere in Asia: Iran, China, India, Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, Tibet and Nepal, whereas Persian rugs are made only in Iran (formerly known as Persia). This gorgeous Persian rug sold for $156,000 in December 2017.

Oriental rugs are popular and practical decorating items, lending a cozy flair to a home’s decor. At auctions, estate sales, and online, they are pervasive. Yet, a quick review of recent offerings and prices achieved for these rugs shows that only about one in five sells. Why is that?

Lisa Wagner, nationally known rug expert, author, and trainer, suggests a reason on her blog RugChick.com:

“Everyone has heard a story, or seen an exposé of someone being ripped off on a rug purchase. They were sold an ‘antique’…when it wasn’t. Or they were sold a silk rug…when it was actually viscose or mercerized cotton…When I hear a ‘horror’ story on a rug, it usually comes down to this one factor – that the buyer did not get any education on what they were buying beforehand.”

Case in point, from a Reddit contributor: “There was an auction in my city yesterday, but I suspect it wasn’t an ‘Urgent Divorce Auction’ as the flyer stated. I didn’t do my due diligence before going and ended up purchasing a handwoven silk oriental rug for $3750. After having it appraised, today it’s worth $1500 at the most because it’s fake silk and the workmanship is not good. It was implied that it was pure silk and semi-antique (50-100 years old), but clearly it’s neither of those things.” 

This Ethan Allen rug sold for $10; at least they were honest in calling it “Oriental Style,” rather than “Oriental.”

Attempting to thoroughly educate would-be oriental rug buyers in this small space would be presumptuous, but I can provide some tips on how to avoid the most common oriental-rug ripoffs. Here are three scams that should be avoided:

Ripoff #1: Ignorant auctioneers. Such auctioneers (and estate sale sellers) don’t intend to deceive; they just don’t know any better. Regardless, their lack of diligence may cost you money (as with the Reddit contributor quoted above). For example: hand-woven, hand-tufted, and hand-hooked are not the same techniques. “Handmade” is a much-abused term. Rugs described as Oriental may have been made anywhere in Asia: Iran, China, India, Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, Tibet and Nepal, whereas Persian rugs are made only in Iran (formerly known as Persia).

Reputable auctioneers who specialize in art, rugs, and antique furniture make every attempt to describe goods correctly. In my experience, general estate and liquidation companies haven’t a clue about the finer points of Oriental rugs. If you go to an auction intending to buy a rug, you must arrive well-educated, attend the preview, and ask a lot of questions. Dealers who don’t have time for questions or can’t answer questions should be avoided.

Ripoff #2: Going Out of Business sales. Liquidation auctions are common among struggling retailers. But for some, “Going Out of Business” is an avowed business plan. Stores are opened, closed, and renamed with regularity. Rugs are offered at steep discounts from inflated retail prices. In 1995, the Washington City Paper ran an exposé on these sales, relating:

“(A Washington, D.C. area dealer) owned a rug store on Connecticut Avenue in the District. It went belly up. So he opened a new shop in Springfield, Va. Same result. Ditto for a store in Rockville. Now he’s trying again in Bethesda…But for some oriental-rug dealers, going out of business is the business. Mattress retailers may offer President’s Day promotions, and fast-food chains may slash burger prices for a few weeks. Rug dealers, however, have turned sales—specifically ‘going-out-of-business’ sales—into high art.”

You should already know not to attend travelling rug auctions. You may have seen these: a rug dealer rolls into town, sets up in a hotel banquet hall off the interstate, and advertises his sale on the hotel’s marquis and in newspaper display ads. Typically, these dealers say whatever they need to say to sell rugs. Then, they pack up and leave town.

Ripoff #3: Sanctioned sales. These sales appear to operate under the auspices of a government agency (Customs or Bankruptcy Court) or Freight Forwarder (trucking, airline, etc.). To add credibility, advertisements for such sales may list permit, customs, court, or Bill of Lading numbers. It all sounds very official. The implication is that some special circumstance has created a need to liquidate a rug inventory, and consumers can benefit. Mike Fleming, spokesman in Los Angeles for the U.S. Customs Service says “Any kind of connection with the federal government gives it some kind of official stamp.” Government agencies regularly hold auctions of confiscated goods. Consumers believe that buying such goods offers tremendous values at a particular level of trust (after all, it’s the government…or bank…or police department).

Municipalities have tried many remedies for scam oriental rug sales. Ultimately, there’s nothing they can do as long as the buying public remains uneducated about the finer points of oriental rug buying: design, fiber quality, knotting, country of origin, and age. Ray Albed, three-time president of the Oriental Rug Retailers of America, once shared: “There’s an old saw in the oriental-rug trade that says there’s nothing quite as stupid as the American rug customer…I’ve had these guys (scammers) tell me straight to my face that they won’t stop the sales as long as customers believe them.”

This “Chinese Persian” sold for $19.99. It’s either Chinese or Persian, but not both.

The Internet is replete with articles on the “ins & outs” of buying Oriental rugs. Those wishing to buy such a rug could easily spend an evening researching the topic. One of the best “rug value” articles I’ve seen was written in 2016 for the insurance claims industry by Rosemary Kress; it’s titled Don’t Sweep it Under: Best Practices for Valuing Oriental Rugs and can be found at the Claims Journal.

Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, check out Wayne’s blog at SellMoreAntiques.com.

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