The faking of valuable textiles is nothing new in the Middle East, where it has gone on for centuries. Thirty years ago, when I first lived in Turkey, antiquing bright new rugs was a sizeable and growing business. Back then, the forger's methods were not much more sophisticated than was the average buyer. A quick dip of a new rug in an alkaline or acid bath muted the harsh, synthetic dyes, and an even quicker torching of the back singed off the telltale loose fibers that emerge from newly spun wool. If one knew what to look for, these were easy fakes to spot. Times have changed. Today, the forger's improved and expanded arsenal has made detection difficult indeed.
Walking along the narrow back streets of Istanbul's old city on a recent trip to Turkey, I stumbled across one of the new techniques in progress, and my interest was piqued. It was an excruciatingly hot summer evening, and through a door left open for ventilation, I caught a glimpse of a curious sort of workshop, one I had never seen before. I went in and found rooms full of carpets laid out, one after another, pile side down, stapled to the wooden floors. Atop one of the rugs stood a huge, box-like metal apparatus. I was in a carpet-pressing atelier, where the pile of new rugs is flattened to produce an effect normally brought about by years of wear. (Stretching and steaming out the curls and bulges of unevenly woven rugs was another house specialty, but one not necessarily associated with forgery.)
Forgers, like grandmothers with favorite recipes, are loath to give up their secrets, but conversations with local dealers elicited several. As with any good recipe, the best results come from the best ingredients--in this case, old yarns. Instead of starting with a new rug and working backward, today's counterfeiter begins with an antique carpet, one largely intact but with severely worn pile. The knots are picked out one by one leaving a skeletal foundation ready for re-piling. Yarns for the pile are harvested from old, natural-dyed kilims and bags from the Caucasus and Anatolia. Because carpets require more wool than flat weaves of comparable size, fakes often combine yarns from multiple sources and periods. Old rugs suffer condition problems, so for added legitimacy, borders may be cut off or holes created with a deft splash of acid. These are sometimes patched or, more convincingly, infilled with intentionally clumsy reweaving and piling made to look newer than the rug itself. Pressing mud into rugs to embed grains of dirt in the yarns provides further bogus evidence of use. A sojourn on floors of stables and chicken coops softens the rugs, oxidizes the colors, produces genuine real wear and tear, and most important of all, imparts just the right patina.
Other fraudulent methods are practiced elsewhere in the rug-weaving world. And, it is not just rugs that are being counterfeited. Many a beautiful suzani is rumored to have been finished only yesterday in the hans outside Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. Let buyers beware!