Art | Finders Keepers

Tribal rugs

A tribal-rugs enthusiast bonds with his mentor over colour, texture and pattern. Nicole Swengley reports.

July 17 2011
Nicole Swengley

When you run out of floor space for your favourite rugs, you hang them on the walls. Then you add to the piles of rugs waiting to replace others displayed around the house. After that you create a dedicated room – as collector Tristan Hillgarth has done – where they cover pretty much every square inch, including the furniture. By then, of course, the decorative floor coverings you originally chose for a practical purpose have turned into much-loved companions.

“I reached a turning point when I realised I wanted to buy a rug for which I had no practical use,” says Hillgarth, who is Jupiter Asset Management’s group business development director. “That’s a great moment, isn’t it?”, teases Christopher Legge, an Oxford-based dealer in tribal woven rugs from whom Hillgarth has bought 80 per cent of his collection. Hillgarth grins and continues: “I got over that problem by just changing them around in the house.” Still, the teasing persists when I ask Hillgarth how many rugs he owns. “Around 40,” he admits sheepishly. “You’re blushing!” crows Legge.

This friendly banter underpins a relaxed relationship that has gone from strength to strength over the course of the past decade. It began when Hillgarth admired a rug belonging to his sister, Nigella, an Oxford academic. “It was a Tekke rug from Turkmenistan – really beautiful, with fabulous colours,” recalls Hillgarth.

“She told me she’d bought it from Christopher Legge, so I went to visit his showroom in Oxford, where I ended up buying a Tekke too. Then I started reading up about 18th- and 19th-century tribal and village rugs and realised how beautiful they can be. I went back to see Christopher a month later and he rolled out a Beshir from Afghanistan. It was a soft brick-red and the texture was wonderful. I was absolutely smitten.”

“Initially I wanted the rugs for my London house, but after buying about four or five I was running out of floor space,” he continues. “Then I realised they look very effective on the wall. To me, they are like works of art and, as we don’t have many pictures, I started using the wall space around the house. Then I decided to devote one entire room to rugs, where they could be on the floor, walls and over the furniture too.”

The rugs that fascinate Hillgarth are hand-loomed with natural dyes and mainly woven in the 19th century in Persia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. “Although I’ve read extensively, there’s a tremendous amount to learn, which means you really must trust your adviser,” he says. Authenticity can be an issue, although restorers such as Legge are able to assess age and origin from a rug’s construction. And tuning in to a client’s visual tastes takes time.

“The word ‘trust’ can’t be overstressed,” says Legge. “It’s always difficult in the early stage of a relationship with a collector. You need to tread carefully and gently suggest the possibility of phoning if you’ve got something really nice. At that point the relationship changes, and it happened very naturally with us.”

With shared aesthetic tastes, it’s evident their bond transcends a teacher-student relationship. “I can look at a rug and know Tristan will like it,” says Legge. “We share a similar emotional response. He hasn’t always bought rugs I’ve offered and he’s bought a few that have surprised me, but there is a connection between us. For Tristan, it doesn’t really matter how old they are or where they come from. He buys because he likes them – as I do.”

“I’m particularly attracted to the colours and wool quality,” explains Hillgarth, stroking a ruby-red Persian Shekarlu. “I like the patterns to be wild and prefer the more free-flowing, primitive and artistic styles. I know instantly if I want to buy, but always allow myself 24 hours to reflect.” Have any got away? “There was a yellow Caucasian rug I wish I’d bought,” he replies wistfully. “But it was early on and I didn’t trust my judgment. The designs I like are really quite rare and you have to be bold when they come up. It took me a while to realise that.”

The golden period for tribal and village weaving was the 18th and 19th centuries. Earlier examples haven’t necessarily survived because rugs were originally used for practical purposes, and supplies are dwindling as hand-weaving traditions die out. Still, the current market appears to be undervalued.

“It’s cyclical,” says Legge, who started his business in 1974. “Rarity and condition are benchmarks and you could pay £25,000 for a fine Khotan from East Turkestan, £50,000 for a Kazak from Azerbaijan or £100,000 for a rare Turkmen Salor. But you can still buy beautiful rugs from £5,000 upwards and can even get a ‘best of type’ for £10,000.”

“They’re underappreciated and good value, but I don’t buy for investment – though, in the long run, I hope I’m not losing money,” says Hillgarth. The emotional response his rugs elicit is clearly more important. “My favourite was made by the Timuri in north-west Afghanistan; I paid around £15,000. It’s very beautiful and rare – the best of type,” he enthuses. “It’s primarily dark blue and the patterns work so harmoniously – it’s beautifully done. I’m also very fond of this kilim – it’s mid-19th-century Kurdish. Look how wonderfully those soft bands of colour work so well together.”

“The dividend for me is the pleasure I get from looking at them,” he says. “Occasionally I come into my rug room after a bad day at work and feel really soothed.” To which Legge adds: “They speak to you.” And, for a moment, we all fall silent, staring at these visually engaging rugs and listening to their subtle conversation.

See also

Rugs, Collecting