How to Haggle Like a Pro in Istanbul
Unearthing your very own magic carpet deals in the bazaars of Istanbul
For more than 3,000 years, splendid floor coverings made by hand in Turkey have been dazzling visitors - and Shannon E. from Flagstaff, Arizona, was no exception. Returning from a shore excursion to the resort town of Kusadasi, she cornered me on the upper deck of our delightful Orient Lines cruise, thrilled with her prize catch: a 4-by-6-foot rug with a classic "Tree of Life" pattern for only US $400. I raked my fingers over the pile: it was brittle, garishly colored, clearly poor quality. It might have sold at her local Karpet Korner for $89. As our ship sailed away from any hope of clobbering the sleaze who sold it to her, I didn't have the heart to tell Shannon she'd been had. If, like Shannon, you travel to exotic Anatolia with dreams of bringing home an exquisite memento to grace your floor, this need not happen to you. Most Turkish rug dealers are reasonably honest, and armed with the pointers below, you can acquire a unique work of art that will enhance your home, impress your friends - and even let you walk all over it. Will you save money by going to the source? The answer is usually a resounding "yes," often as much as 50 percent or more for a comparable piece in a U.S. shop (though this savings by itself wouldn't justify the cost of the trip, unless you're buying several rugs). Cutting out the middlemen, however, isn't the only source of savings: the exchange rate has plummeted in the last year ($1 now buys some 40 percent more Turkish lira than in 1999), and exaggerated fears of the now dissipating Kurdish terrorism still keep some tourists away. The result: prices are remarkably low on everything, from food to lodging to the vast array of arts and crafts for which this land is famous. True, to compensate for the devaluation of the currency, rugs are usually priced in U.S. dollars - but even so, deals abound.
Three basic pointers
The first step (unless you're a serious connoisseur of Oriental floor coverings) is to hire a professional shopping guide who knows his rugs. The cost - about $50 for a half day - is well worth it, because you'll reduce the risk of buying a turkey, as it were, and still save big-time. The key is to retain a guide you feel can be trusted, from a reputable, certified association (see box); never go into a shop with someone who approaches you on the street, as they generally get a 30 percent commission that comes right out of your pocket.
Second, brush up on your bargaining skills. Haggling - no matter how crass it may seem - is the only way to get a fair shake. Keep in mind, too, that the asking price often has less to do with the actual product than with how rich you look. If you can't pass for a refugee from Kosovo, at least don't wear jewels or fancy loafers on your shopping day.
Third, do your homework before you go. Are there quality carpet stores near your home? Go in and ask questions; feel the different materials and grades of craftsmanship. "Educate your eye and your hand," says buyer Katie McGrail of New York City's Central Carpet, one of the East Coast's top dealers, because "your eyes and your hands will tell you" if a particular piece is right for you. If it feels coarse or brittle, don't buy - it's probably inferior or even synthetic. If the colors are too bright, suspect chemical dyes (not necessarily a bad thing, but vegetal dyes will mellow over time, giving your rug that prized "aged" look). Natural dyes, in fact, are one of several factors that make a rug valuable - the others being the purity and quality of the materials (wool, cotton, or silk), number and type of knots, design, and region of origin. If you want official reassurance of quality, look for the Turkish government's DOBAG seal, which certifies the craftsmanship; such a carpet, however, will cost about 20 percent more than others of similar quality.
Talking Turkey about carpets
The classic Oriental consists of a wool pile knotted by hand onto a woof and warp of wool or cotton. A wool base, having a thicker fiber, makes for a rougher design, so wool-on-wool pieces tend to be rustic, with geometric tribal or nomadic patterns; they're generally less expensive than wool-on-cotton, running about $300-$400 for a 4'-by-6'. A cotton base, which allows more knots per square inch and thus more subtlety in the pattern (often floral or abstract), is more labor-intensive and expensive; a 7'-by-10' wool-on-cotton can start as low as $600 and go all the way up to $5,000 and beyond. You'll also see spectacular pieces in silk, but these are insanely expensive ($2,000-$3,000 a square meter - roughly ten square feet). The very best buys here are kilims, which are woven and flat rather than knotted and piled. Yes, they're rustic, but most are bold, beautiful, and unbeatably priced: as low as $80 for a 5'-by-7', up to $200 or so for larger sizes and $500 and up for antiques. Also, lighter weight and smaller sizes mean you can carry, rather than ship, a kilim home, additionally saving you as much as $100.