Within minutes, Basmaci, one of Istanbul’s foremost carpet dealers, was tossing piece after piece onto the floor with a flourish, pausing for effect between each one. In a town where the art of carpet dealing these days too often means the peddling of new and ill-made pieces from Pakistan and China, Basmaci’s wares amounted to a most exceptional find — a collection consisting of mostly antique Turkish rugs and flat-woven kilims highlighted by well-aged natural dyes matched with the poetic textures of handspun wool.
Here, a glorious 19th-century camel bag woven for a ceremonial wedding. There, a 100-year-old, tightly knotted kilim woven by eastern Turkish nomads. The warehouse amounted to a private museum — albeit one where the art has price tags, most of them high enough to deter all but the serious collector.
But this is one of the wallet-saving truths of a joyous pastime practiced for centuries by travelers to this ancient city: When carpet shopping in Istanbul, you don’t have to buy. In fact, unless you’re a serious student of carpets and kilims and can distinguish between levels of quality, delete any notion of a bargain from your head. The carpet trade here is truly byzantine, a web of dealers and middlemen who will, if they can, sell you a piece that they have picked up for a song from a rural family on the Black Sea for 70 times the price.
You want a good deal? Go to the Bloomingdale’s Tent Sale or ABC Carpet in Manhattan. For the intrepid and linguistically gifted blessed with idle time, perhaps weeks combing distant villages might yield a once-in-a-lifetime find. But in Istanbul, Ankara and other Turkish cities, rest assured that no matter how hard you think you’ve haggled, by the time money has changed hands, your carpet dealer has managed an exceedingly tidy profit.
Still, for a certain kind of tourist — you know who you are, card-carrying member of Washington’s Textile Museum who gets an odd tingling sensation around a stack of dusty rugs — carpet shopping in Turkey is still about as close to heaven as you can get. Though negotiating price may be a blood sport, you can still walk away with a lovely memento of your trip for a markup that you can live with. Or, if your pockets are deep and you find the right dealer (there are perhaps only a dozen excellent ones in Istanbul, says Basmaci), you could score a family heirloom still imbued with the 200-year-old scent of the Anatolian earth.
Recently, my love affair with carpets drew me back to Istanbul for my third visit, this time with a group of friends on an early summer respite. My first foray into the dangerously pricey world of Oriental rugs dated to the mid-1990s, when, on a reporting trip in Santiago, Chile, of all places, I stumbled upon an Iranian family who had set up a new shop.