Even in an increasingly expensive Manhattan, $3.5 million still pays for a lot, like a 2,000-square-foot apartment (without south-facing light) and 12 years of private school for one of the children. But if you’d like to outfit the living room of that apartment with the very finest Persian carpet Jason Nazmiyal is selling out of his Midtown showroom, you’ll need an additional $3.5 million.
For decades, antique Persians, hand-knotted from silk and often taking years or even decades to produce, were the gold standard of floor coverings for the swank, the sine qua non of Oriental rugs. Then the market got flooded with fakes, tastes shifted, and people became aware that most of what they were being sold was as likely to return a profit as a decade-old flat screen TV.
“That’s why we don’t really steer clients towards super-expensive rugs anymore,” said Brian Sawyer, an architect and interior designer whose clients include Madonna and Vera Wang. “Most of the time, they wind up being more trouble than they’re worth.”
In the Hamptons estate of the billionaire Ron Perelman: a flat weave modernist Swedish design carpet with black and blue triangles that looks terrific near a Nakashima bench and a hanging Calder sculpture. In the clothing designer Cynthia Rowley’s West Village townhouse: a starburst-y, geometric millennial-pink carpet from the Rug Company. And in the colonial of the longtime Vogue eminence André Leon Talley, in White Plains: a floral-print, 17th-century French carpet known as an Aubusson, which he bought from Sotheby’s in 2014 during an auction of Bunny Mellon’s precious collectibles.
“I selected it from the catalog,” Mr. Talley said. “I knew it was going to be just the thing for my living room, which by the way has Truman Capote’s famous Victorian sofa, with an exotic palm-tree pattern.”
The current celebrity poster boy for the Persian rug set is Paul Manafort, but he may not be buying any for a while. In October, Mr. Manafort was charged by a federal grand jury with conspiracy and money laundering; he pleaded not guilty.
One of the claims in the 30-page indictment involved a series of excursions to an antique rugs dealer based in Alexandria, Va., where Mr. Manafort is said to have spent $934,000 in eight transactions between 2008 and 2010.
It was a lot for someone to spend — even someone with $40 million in “suspicious transactions” (although there was something fitting about a man who had previously been described by one of his friends as “The Count of Monte Cristo” spending so much on antediluvian decorations).
“I’m imagining a lot of gold-plated stuff and pseudotapestries,” said Wendy Goodman, the design editor of New York magazine. “Needlepoint faux 14th-century furniture and bath curtains in silk taffeta that the Manaforts were told was water-repellent. What do you think the interior of the cars look like? Was it sheer fur?”
In short order, reporters from The Weekly Standard and HuffPost identified J&J Oriental rugs as the likely location of Mr. Manafort’s spree. (J&J did not answer questions from The New York Times.) That flummoxed the small network of high-end dealers who rely on a mix of cooperation and competition when dealing with the biggest collectors, and who expressed utter disbelief that Mr. Manafort had spent this amount at what was basically a neighborhood store.
“I looked at that website, and the rugs shown there were mostly standard Iranian commercial goods from now or not long ago,” said Daniel Shaffer, the executive editor of Hali Magazine, a rug and textiles publication. “There was nothing collectible about them. I don’t know what he bought, but with the kind of things I saw on the website, he would have had to buy a container load to spend a million dollars.”
“I can’t believe it was kosher,” Mr. Nazmiyal said, echoing the opinions of more than half a dozen other Persian carpet experts. “If you want to buy jewelry and you’re going to spend a million dollars, you go to see Fabergé, you go to Cartier and Tiffany. When you go to a local, neighborhood store for rare and expensive rugs, in all probability that dealer is going to contact a dealer in a big metropolitan area to get it on consignment and bring it to you. That drives the price up. There’s more hands involved. People hear about it.”
Mr. Manafort wasn’t even a fixture on the auction scene, a typical stomping ground for those looking for deals on highly collectible pieces.
“He never came,” said Mary Jo Otsea, who ran the rugs department at Sotheby’s, where she worked for more than 30 years. She oversaw the 2013 sale of the most expensive carpet ever, a kaleidoscopic tapestry of leafy vines that was woven in Southeast Iran in the early 17th century and measures 9 feet by 6½ feet.
It was purchased by the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha for $33.74 million, but turned out to be an outlier.
Shortly afterward, Ms. Otsea retired and Sotheby’s shut down the American wing of its rug department. (There are still carpet specialists based in London.) “There was a time 15 or 20 years ago where if you were decorating a Fifth Avenue apartment you would buy a $100,000 antique Persian rug,” Ms. Otsea said. “But the audience for that tapered off so much.”
Blame our increasingly casual culture, one in which the perfect pair of jeans replaced the ornate Christian Lacroix gown as a status object. There has in fact been a 40-year move toward folkloric, less formal carpets. Wool is the new silk. Established imperfections are part of the sales pitch.
The film director Joel Schumacher was part of the first wave of design geeks collecting Navajo rugs, which started becoming more popular in the 1970s.
“I got to Hollywood as a costume designer, and one of the things you do as a costume designer is shop all the time,” Mr. Schumacher said. Around the time he was outfitting Diane Keaton for “Sleeper,” Mr. Schumacher walked into an antiques store and spotted a chandelier wrapped in what turned out to be a Navajo rug. “I said to the guy, ‘Could I buy the rug?’” Mr. Schumacher said. “He said, ‘No, I use that as padding.’”
It took just $50 to wear the shopkeeper down, and Mr. Schumacher got hooked (no pun intended).
He loved the way the kaleidoscopic geometrics looked with wicker furniture and books strewn all over the place. So he bought more and more Navajos, plunking the larger ones on the floor, the midsize ones on top of beds and the smallest over banisters and pool chairs.
Andy Warhol and Ralph Lauren began collecting Navajo rugs, too. Sotheby’s held auctions for them. Still, prices remained relatively close to earth, at least compared to Persian rugs.
Mr. Schumacher’s biggest splurge was on a rare chief’s blanket that he bought in the 1980s in the Southwest. “I was either in Sedona or maybe Taos,” he said.
The asking price was $20,000; he paid half that, in cash.
In the 1990s, ABC Carpet on lower Broadway ushered in its own major rug trend, selling Orientals that had been dyed in bright colors like pink, blue, red or silver. Seemingly every well-off woman who instructed her hairdresser to give her the “Jennifer Aniston” had one.
But ubiquity has a way of creating openings for new things to come along. Or as Ryan Korban, the design guru to the fashion designers Alexander Wang and Joseph Altuzarra, put it: “ABC carpet hasn’t changed substantially in 10 years. Tell me you don’t agree with me. It’s the same chairs and the same rugs as they had when I was in college. There’s only so many times you can go to the same place and look at the same kind of stuff.”
Over the last 15 years, Janis Provisor and Brad Davis, the owners of Fort Street Studio, have made plush and shiny silk-knot carpets for clients including Brad Pitt, Madonna, Amy Poehler and Will Arnett. (Although Mr. Arnett and Ms. Poehler divorced a few years ago. “Who got the carpet?” Mr. Davis wondered.)
Prices for a large living room rug typically start at about $21,000, though six-figure carpets are not unheard-of, said Ms. Provisor, showing off a 150-knot wild silk rug with metallic soumak that she once made for a client in a custom size (17 feet by 18 feet) for $147,000.
Whether these — or the shiny, envy inducing carpets of their closest competitor Joseph Carini — are good investments or merely terrific splurges is a matter of debate.
“Some of them have held their value,” Ms. Provisor said.
Today, the most obvious trend in upscale carpeting is the Moroccan Berber rug, which is not, though it may appear that way, a discovery by trust-funded Brooklyn millennials or the design firm Roman and Williams.
Jean-Michel Frank, France’s resident godfather of minimalist design, used them in the early part of the 20th century. There have also been Berber rugs in the architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Modernist Pennsylvania pièce de résistance, Fallingwater, since the 1950s.
In the early 2000s they began popping up in European design magazines. The designer Jenna Lyons plunked down a few thousand dollars at Nazmiyal for a shaggy six-foot-wide, brown-and-white, diamond-patterned Beni Ourain (named after the nomadic tribespeople of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco who make them).
It went into the Brooklyn townhouse she lived in, got photographed for Domino magazine in 2008, became one of the most repinned images of all time on Pinterest, and the rest is fuzz-story.
Unlike the best Persians, Beni Ourain Moroccan rugs (and some of their popular cousins including Boucherouites and Azilals) can be completed in a few months, so they are plentiful and relatively cheap.
They were shaggy enough to stage orgies on, but not so louche as to turn anyone into a 21st-century Austin Powers.
“For four or five thousand dollars, you could get a good one,” Mr. Korban said. “People went to Morocco and brought them back. They were on eBay and 1stdibs. With a Serge Mouille sconce and a fig tree, your house looked like the Céline showroom. Now, I think it’s a bit of a Domino magazine-Whole Foods cliché. No offense to anyone who has them, but on to the next.”
Amy Astley, the editor of Architectural Digest, said, “That’s why I don’t buy the traditional crème and brown.” Ms. Astley has a Beni in bright orange and blue at her Long Island vacation home that she purchased from Double Knot in TriBeCa for a few thousand dollars.
“The knockoffs are the worst,” she said. “But I understand the desire for a uniform. It’s easy, it’s foolproof, and it’s great for most people who don’t want to spend tons of money.”