Persian Rugs: The Elusive Ziegler Mahal Rug

There exists a cabal of antique rug dealers, new rug dealers, collectors, rug producers, rug writers and editors who cheerfully promote the notion that we can spot a Ziegler carpet a mile off. The truth is, we wouldn’t know an antique Ziegler Mahal rug if we tripped over it. And what sort of beast is a brand new “Ziegler?”

What is a Ziegler Carpet? If you know how to identify one, please let me know. When I began to research these carpets, I thought I knew all about them. Zieglers rugs are … well, they’re the really great-looking old Mahals that were woven by the Ziegler Company and that sell for big bucks at auction — up to 60, 80, $90,000. And, of course, Zieglers are also the new rugs that go by the same name and that are knock-offs of old Ziegler carpets. Right?

I was wrong. The truth seems to be that no one is sure which of the old Sultanabad district carpets were woven by the Ziegler Company. And, consequently, no one can say about a new carpet, “This is a rendering of an antique Ziegler rug.” What we see at auction, going for astonishingly high prices, are carpets that someone thinks or at least hopes were produced by Ph. Ziegler & Company in the last quarter of the 19th century.

Mind you, some of the carpets that are attributed to Ziegler and Company really are Ziegler rugs. We just don’t know which ones.

On the other hand, we do know quite a lot about the company that made them, largely through the account found in The Persian Carpet (Duckworth, Great Britain, 1953), written by A. Cecil Edwards in the late 1940s. Edwards was engaged in the Oriental rug business from about 1900 until 1947 and spent much of that time in the rug markets in Iran. He was present during most of the Ziegler years, and he was an astute observer.

As background to the Ziegler story, Edwards tells us that for 160 years, between 1722 (when the Afghans invaded the Persian Empire) and 1880, there was scarcely any carpet industry in Iran at all. Yes, rugs were woven in Iran, but before 1880, rug-making was what Edwards called “a small but useful handicraft…an insignificant village industry.” According to him, the great majority of rugs exported to the West before about 1880 were old pieces that had been woven originally for the domestic market. Persian families enjoyed them at home for a time and then, as the rugs began to wear, they cashed them in for the Western market. Even at that time, Western consumers had a taste for older rugs with softened colors.

By 1880 the supply of old rugs in Iran had been depleted and exports to the West had dwindled. For the first time, according Edwards, the merchants of Tabriz decided to produce new carpets expressly for export to the West. By 1875, they had established offices in Sultanabad, a small town in the northwest of Iran with a rug weaving tradition. A few years later, Ph. Ziegler & Company joined them in weaving rugs there for export to London and New York. In other words, Ziegler was present at the very birth of the carpet industry in Iran and was to become important in shaping how rugs would be produced and what rugs would be woven in Sultanabad for the next fifty years.

The Ziegler Company distinguished itself from other producers in Sultanabad in several ways, first of all by designing many of its own rugs with European taste in mind. According to Annett Ittig (Hali #80), the company even accepted designs from Western retailers who, presumably, were tuned to the demands of their end-user customers. Secondly, Ziegler maintained its own dyeing facility in Sultanabad. The Ziegler Company developed the system of providing weavers with already-dyed yarn, thereby controlling the quality of the dyes and of the dyeing. It seems that the company was innovative, too, in producing small sample rugs (wagirehs) as models from which their weavers could work.

Altogether, the company was in the business of producing rugs in Sultanabad for around fifty years: from about 1885 to 1934, and we know that at the turn of the century, Ziegler had about 2500 looms in more than one hundred villages around Sultanabad. We can surmise that during their half-a-century of production, the company wove and imported thousands of rugs to Europe and America.

By all accounts, the Ziegler Company was very successful. In England and America, where machine-loomed Wilton and Brussels carpets had been popular since about 1850, the new production of good, inexpensive Persian rugs coming from the Ziegler Company and others helped change styles of interior design. In 1880, American writer and interior designer, Clarence Cook, noted in his book, What Shall We Do With Our Walls?: “Eastern rugs were long scarce, or wholly unknown; now, however, they are to be had in abundance, even good ones are within easy reach, and those the connoisseur calls poor are, many of them, not to be despised.”

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To this point, we have been looking at the Ziegler Company. When we turn our attention to the actual rugs it produced, the record is sketchier. Much of the information we have is attributable to Annette Ittig, who, in 1995, published an article in Hali #80 entitled Ziegler’s Carpet Cartoons. In it she reported on archival material written by the first manager of Ziegler’s agency in Sultanabad. In particular, she wrote about a collection of Ziegler cartoons, or drawings from which rugs are woven. Thirteen photographs of the Ziegler cartoons are illustrated in color, though the illustrations may represent fewer than thirteen cartoons. Some are of border details and others are details of field designs and they may be details from the same drawing.

In introducing the collection of cartoons, Annette Ittig cautions us that, “Today, the term ‘Ziegler’ is used in the trade as a label of quality to describe a manufacture. However, as such rugs bear neither company logos nor inscriptions linking them to Ziegler’s production, and as similar ‘made-for-export’ pieces were woven for other firms both in Sultanabad and elsewhere, differentiating between them has been problematic.” Elsewhere in the article she tells us that Ziegler’s rugs and other Western-designed carpets were knocked off by Persian manufacturers and even by Turkish manufacturers! And finally, she adds that, “At the present time it is not known if or how the various lines produced for Zieglers differed structurally from the qualities woven for their competition.” In other words, when it comes to sorting out the Ziegler Mahals from those made by Ziegler’s contemporaries, we’re on slippery ground. In fact, rather than calling the identification of Ziegler carpets “problematic,” Ms. Ittig might well have called it impossible.

Clearly, she believed that the cartoons she reproduced in the article would help, and it does seem as if a collection of genuine Ziegler designs would give us the clues we need to pin down which of the carpets really were made by that firm and which are merely pretenders to the throne. It is fascinating to study them—cartoons drawn over a hundred years ago which may well have been woven into rugs that might even today cover our floors. They were drawn on graph paper and are colored in gouache and in watercolor. With a magnifying glass you can count the number of knots per square inch—about ten by ten, around one hundred knots per square inch. Some of the designs are extraordinary, others are nothing special. One of them is a pictorial design. Three are medallion and corner designs. Another is a repeating floral pattern of scrolling vines, and the last is of a single-plane lattice.

The trouble, again, is that as interesting as these cartoons are, they do not seem to help us identify with any certainty any existing carpets as Zieglers—with one possible exception. Ms. Ittig illustrates a medallion and corner cartoon that seems identical in design (though not in color) to an actual rug illustrated beside it on the same page. Even that seems problematical, though, because the rug (a 1’8” by 2’ 0” mat from a private collection) is said to be made of silk. A silk Ziegler? Maybe, but the literature has not revealed any other references to Ziegler carpets woven in silk.

Though Ms. Ittig is quite clear about the difficulty of identifying Ziegler carpets, her article is illustrated with photos of rugs that are captioned as…Ziegler carpets. She does not explain how she knows them to have been made by Ph. Ziegler & Company.
Today we commonly read claims like this one, which cites a carpet’s “quintessential elegance” as evidence that it is a Ziegler. I have lately read in a serious rug journal that a “real Ziegler” just sold for “$53,000,” but the writer doesn’t say how he or she knows it is a real Ziegler.

Then I began research for this article, I assumed that I was finally going to learn exactly what a “Ziegler Mahal” is and how to identify one when I saw it. It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, it seems to me now as if none of us would know a Ziegler carpet if we tripped over it.

I asked fellow rug dealers what they thought. In my neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area, Tony Kitz of Samarkand Oriental Rugs does a good business in antique decorative carpets. I asked him how to identify a genuine Ziegler. He said that he had never been at all clear to him. He thought that Zieglers might be a little finer and have blue wefts. He went on to suggest that maybe it wasn’t even possible to identify Ziegler Mahals. I had good talks with both David Amini and Jim Ffrench of Beauvais Carpets in New York City. Beauvais is a respected showroom featuring upper-end decorative and classic carpets. They agreed that what was considered to be a Ziegler carpet was “extremely arbitrary.” Jim Ffrench, who for some time ran the carpet department at Christie’s in New York and who, before that, specialized in carpets at Southeby’s, suggested that any nice Mahal with a large-scale design and soft colors was liable to be attributed to the Ziegler Company. He was quick to point out, though, that we have no way to sort out which of them may have been commissioned by Ziegler, which may have been market goods bought and sold by Ziegler, or which may have had nothing at all to do with the Ziegler Company. “At one time,” he said, “Ziegler was a useful trade term which alerted knowledgeable rug people to a really good Mahal. But it has been overused and has become meaningless.”

If there is any hope of ever being able to identify antique Ziegler carpets with certainty, it lies in a handful of carpets in famous collections. One carpet that sold for $92,000 in 2001 was said to have been owned by Sigmund Freud. I have read elsewhere about “Ziegler carpets” in the Getty collection, and about a sale at Elveden Hall that may have involved genuine Zieglers. One can hope that eventually someone will be able to examine documented Ziegler carpets and will nail down unique, signature features by which other Ziegler products can be identified. But, until then, we’re faking it.
So where does that leave us when it comes to newly woven carpets that are sold under the Ziegler handle?

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My company received two beautiful examples of new “Zieglers” just this week, sent on approval by Renaissance Carpets of New York. They are just as Jim Ffrench described the old carpets that most often are labled as Zieglers: They are woven in sparsely-drawn designs and soft colors and are lovely things.

Of course, if we can’t be certain which antique carpets are Zieglers, how can manufacturers weave new carpets that deserve the name Ziegler? The notion is preposterous.

Yet there’s another way to look at it. If antique rug dealers cannot support calling an old Sultanabad rug a Ziegler, and yet they do so every day, does that not give license to producers of new rugs to call any rug they want a Ziegler?

In any case, throughout the world, retailers and manufacturers alike call certain of their lines of new carpets Zieglers. In the 1990s, Black Mountain Looms may have broken new ground by producing “Ziegler” carpets in India, Turkey and Romania. Today, Peter Linden Oriental Rugs in Ireland offers new “Zieglers, ” setting the word in quotation marks. One of that company’s Ziegler carpets is a new Pakistani piece with a blue field and an all-over pattern of scrolling palmettes, which, an on-line ad says, has 325 knots per square inch—approximately three times as many as the original Zieglers. Jacobsen Oriental Rugs in the United States illustrates a 12’ by 18’ new Pakistani rug, calling it a Ziegler and saying about it that it is “A variant Sarouk design with deep red ground and floral sprays.” Pak Persian Oriental Rugs has a “Ziegler Mahal” collection “based on old designs that came out of that region,” an honest explanation, after all.
At least one manufacturer of machine made rugs has borrowed the Ziegler name, too. Rugs Direct offers a “Ziegler Wilton collection of runners machine woven in Egypt with an antiqued finish.”

Almost without fail, the new rugs that are called Zieglers are in patterns of repeating, latticed floral figures. Their design elements often are large in relation to their borders, and their designs have been simplified from their late 19th century prototypes. The overall effect is of rather simple rugs that are not too busy for today’s market. The majority have been woven in Pakistan by Afghan refugees, made from what appears to be hand spun wool and natural dyes. By and large they are good carpets, far more interesting and varied than the Indo-Bijars and Indo-Heratis that for many years ruled the low and middle sectors of the market. Most of the new “Zieglers” are inexpensive. They retail for as little as $35 per square foot, about the same as the mechanical-looking Indo-Kashans of the seventies and eighties.

If the new “Zieglers” are more interesting than the Indian carpets that came before them, how do they compare in terms of quality with their Ziegler prototypes? That’s a tricky question, isn’t it, since we don’t know which of the old Sultanabads were woven by Ziegler and Company. But let us ask the question a little differently. Are the carpets woven in the Pakistani refugee camps by Afghans based on old Mahals as good as the rugs they were fashioned after? Are the new Afghan/Pakistan Mahals as worthy as the old Persian Mahals?

Evidently, both productions have been fashioned from hand spun wool and a combination of natural and synthetic dyes. (Edwards wrote that Ziegler’s rugs were made with “both native and European dyes.” By this, it seems that he meant that both natural and synthetic dyes were used.) The weaves of both are usually about 100 knots per square inch. Both productions are strictly commercial in nature. That is, they are made without apology for export to the West. Their colors and designs have been responsive to Western taste, so neither production can be praised as pure or untainted by commerce. Both productions have been bargains in their times. Both have been commercially very successful. Both productions are alike in being made with sufficient body to wear well. Neither product has been clipped low and distressed so as to have the look of an antique carpet as some rugs are today.

In one other important way they are alike. While native weavers from Pakistan, India, China and some other countries tend to weave rugs that are technically good but artistically stiff and mechanical, Persian and Afghan weavers have a knack for weaving rugs that are graceful and fluid. (So do Turkish weavers have that knack.) Personally, I value this rug-weaving skill above almost all others, and both the old Persian Mahals and the new Afghan Mahals often have it.

Of course it may be said that one is the real thing and that the other is a copy—that Persian Mahal rugs were the prototypes and Afghan Mahal rugs the copies—but one rarely sees a new immigrant-camp rug that is a literal copy of its prototype. No, both productions have been cobbled together to make up something that will sell. Both have borrowed heavily from classic Sefavid designs and have copped a Mughal design here and perhaps some Arts and Crafts elements there. They are commercial products, and I find no harm in that.

But here is a real difference in the quality of the two productions: the wool. The Persian stuff is better. In my experience, even Gahzni wool, which seems to be the best and most expensive wool in wide use in the refugee camps, is not as lustrous as good Persian wool. I believe that in this one important respect, antique Persian Mahals sometimes beat their modern cousins. Except for this one difference, though, a very good case can be made that the best new Afghan/Pakistani Mahal-type carpets are every bit as good as the old Mahals, including the pieces many people would call Zieglers.

Which are more attractive, the old carpets or the new? Look at the these photographs. It’s your call.

Ziegler Photos

Ziegler Broad Border

Ziegler Broad Border. “A Ziegler Carpet, 12ft. 6in. by 11ft. 4in,” or so it was labeled in an auction catalogue. Without doubt it is a distinguished old carpet, but was it produced by Ziegler?

Ziegler Good Border

Ziegler Good Border. “A Ziegler Carpet, West Persia, 14ft by 11ft. 6 in.” From an auction catalogue. Whether it was woven by the Ziegler Company or not, in much of today’s market it may well be considered rather busy.

Burgundy Ziegler

Burgundy Ziegler. Labeled in an old auction catalogue: “Ziegler Mahal Carpet, circa 1880, 11ft. 4in. by 8ft. 10 in.”

Ziegler Renaissance Blue Gray Border

Ziegler Renaissance Blue Gray Border. A new carpet by Renaissance Carpet and Tapestries of New York City, woven in Pakistan. The company calls the carpet a Ziegler, and its label says that it is all wool and that it is made from vegetable dyes. In the author’s opinion, it is as good and as attractive as any old carpet ever labeled as a Ziegler. It is 10ft. 10in. by 13ft.10in.

Ziegler Renaissance ivory, ivory

Ziegler Renaissance ivory, ivory. A new Pakistani carpet by Renaissance Carpet and Tapestries of New York City. The company calls it a Ziegler, meaning, one assumes, that it belongs to a line of carpets of the company’s manufacture that it has named “Ziegler.” It is 9ft. 3in. by 12ft. 2in. and has a knot-count of roughly ninety per square inch.

13 Comments

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    Bill December 16, 2007

    I’m just trying to find a value of a 5X7 (near) hand woven fine wool needlwoirk by Meliki family in Afghanistan. It was purchased in 2004 in Herat

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    Julien September 16, 2009

    Very interesting article from France.

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    Denis November 22, 2009

    I have bought this carpet recently; (I suppose mahal and certainely not genuine Zigler!) I really have been attracted by the soft colors and the simplicity of the design. This large size carpet (5.5 m x 3.3 m) has been largely repaired with re-woven part, I suppose done by real expert or in orient; the wool is very soft ans the number of knots is rather low; Last point the weft is blue…I am not sure if the warp and weft are wool or cotton; attached some picture; Thanks for your comments and best regard, I really have liked you article and the doubt regarding age and origin, should all the specialist in any domain would be so prudent the world would be nicer ! Thanks again
    Denis

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    rugfan November 14, 2010

    Thank you for clearing up confusion about whether my brand new rug is Kazak, Pakistani or Ziegler. Apparently it is all of the above. More importantly, it is well made. I just wish the pile height (ie decorative life of the rug) were longer. It is cut very short. Nonetheless, it was an excellent match to the new engineered natural bamboo floor (golden brown).

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    rugfan November 14, 2010

    It is #22060583 from esalerugs.com. Of the rugs pictured above, the burgundy circa 1880 is most similar in color. My rug has a burgundy field and golden border with copper & olive details. The central figures are a puzzle though; they rather look like planters hanging on double chains.

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    rugfan January 24, 2011

    Of the 2 Pakistani runners from esalerugs.com, the first was listed as Kazak. Both arrived labeled as Zeigler. Neither resembles any geometric Kazak design, but both resemble Sultanabad designs. As for “Ziegler” they can only be reproductions at best, since they are new. But “all vegetable dyes” on “hand spun wool” sure makes for some pretty variations in madder red. Hope to find a 6 foot round rug in similar red.

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    Anonymous February 23, 2011

    We have what we thought was an Oushak but we are now being advised that it is a Zeigler Mahal. There is poetry about gardens and parties with names woven into the border. I am told the language is archaic and thus not easily read or translated. Does this detail match with what is know about true Zeiglers?

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    Trevor Samuels March 16, 2012

    Dear Sir, i have what i have been told is a very old Persian rug. I thought it was about 70-80 years old but have been told it is older than that. It does need some repairs on the outer edges but allthough you can see it has been well trodden on over many decades it is pretty much intact. There is no bleeding of colours and it looks like it has taken the test of time pretty well. I have looked at quite a few antique rugs recently but have not seen any paterns quite like this one. The article above is very interesting indeed but with only a few pictures available and the existing difficulties involved in determining whether a rug could be a special one like those mentioned how the novice could ever know what he has is beyond me. Where to look for guidance is a question i have to guess at. Where to start is the main problem. Any suggestions? Of course your web site is a begining so that is why i am writing here and will send you a photo of my rug to your email address. More pictures if possible would be of great benefit.

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    ahamd September 24, 2012

    where are these rug auctions? please email me afgfam786@gmail.com

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    maxima July 7, 2013

    I have one very unuige white back ground and white bordur probably Ziegler Mahal rug> I will post picture very soon.

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    ann April 28, 2014

    Hello, I hope you can help – difficult assignment. I’ve purchased rugs over the years that are junk (machine made, patterns don’t align) to lovely new (silk and wool) more modern styles. Is there ANYWHERE a quality resource for rugs that is not akin to buying in the bazaar in Morocco? I know very “high end” rug shops in Manhattan (I can not afford $50K rugs) and I know that the local “shops” sell counterfeit, contraband, or artificially aged rugs. I realize this is a huge question, but, I live in San Francisco and if theres’s any chance you can guide me, much obliged. PS have you ever had good feedback on erugs.com? I am pelted with their ads but it feels a bit dodgy. Thank you.

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    Carolyn Lieb March 8, 2015

    We have a 5×5 Mahal orange field rug with a tulip border. It is from the late 1800’s and is worn. Can you give me a price estimate?
    Thanks in advance !

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    Anonymous January 2, 2017

    I believe that we have a Ziegler that has been in our family for three generations…beautiful rug and has tree of live with a garden. It is an antique Persian rug…very pretty an soft with blue flowers….and same insignia in he corner…