Trade Talk

Trade Talk     11/12/2009

by Andrew Pageby,
as seen in Avenue

After buying an ornate but well-worn seventeenth-century Ouchak carpet for close to $100,000, a Christie’s customer asked Elisabeth Poole, head of the auction house’s carpet department, to recommend someone who might be able to restore the antique Turkish rug. Poole suggested transporting it just a few blocks away to Hayko Oltaci, an Armenian born in Istanbul, whose shop is only one flight up but a world apart from the hustle and bustle of Lexington Avenue in the Sixties.

After buying an ornate but well-worn seventeenth-century Ouchak carpet for close to $100,000, a Christie’s customer asked Elisabeth Poole, head of the auction house’s carpet department, to recommend someone who might be able to restore the antique Turkish rug. Poole suggested transporting it just a few blocks away to Hayko Oltaci, an Armenian born in Istanbul, whose shop is only one flight up but a world apart from the hustle and bustle of Lexington Avenue in the Sixties.

After buying an ornate but well-worn seventeenth-century Ouchak carpet for close to $100,000, a Christie’s customer asked Elisabeth Poole, head of the auction house’s carpet department, to recommend someone who might be able to restore the antique Turkish rug. Poole suggested transporting it just a few blocks away to Hayko Oltaci, an Armenian born in Istanbul, whose shop is only one flight up but a world apart from the hustle and bustle of Lexington Avenue in the Sixties.

Poole will sometimes consult Oltaci when assessing the value of a damaged carpet, and she praised the accuracy of his estimates on restoration. But it is the quality of his work that puts him among the handful of restorers to whom poole will entrust antique textiles. “He is very good at matching colors and the type of wool,” she says. “And he takes his time, which is most important for matching colors exactly.”

Oltaci, a thoughtful 39-nine-year-old with a bushy moustache, conducts much of his business from behind a wooden desk, above which hangs a canopy made from an asmalik, a tasseled Turkish tent decoration. A prayer rug from the Mudjur region of Turkey is displayed on the wall beside the fax machine, and dozens of carpets, rolled up into richly colored bundles, stand against the exposed brick wall that runs the length of the long, narrow shop.

Though his desk faces the new carpets, which he sells, Oltaci’s main focus is the work on old and antique carpets that takes place in the brightly light room behind him and makes up 80 percent of his business. Behind a set of glass doors, three women are seated, each with a massive carpet folded before her on a long table. As they work, they carry on conversations in Armenian, speaking loudly enough to be heard across the distances that the massive carpets put between them.

A woman wearing a bright printed blouse ties new knots in an eighty-year-old Turkish carpet, a painstaking job that will take two months to complete. Unlike a Persian rug, Turkish carpets are double knotted, and the repair must match the original weaver’s technique or there will be a contrast between new and old work. On the wall behind her, there is a cascade of yarns in the range of colors that can be seen in the large rug folded on the table.

Across from her, another woman is repairing a ninety-year-old Persian carpet in which the design has been worn flat after years of use. Because all the knots are intact, the addition of new wool, once it has been carefully trimmed and blended for color will make the carpet plush once again, though the laborious work of matching colors and design will take nearly a year to complete.

Asked what is the most important attribute for a carpet restorer, Oltaci answers concisely an accent that has dimmed only slightly in his ten years in New York: “Patience.” He personally trains his employees in the techniques he learned as a teenager in Istanbul, where he first studied at a famous carpet repair shop. Oltaci was not born into the carpet business, but discovered a passion and a talent for their repair after his father sent out a carpet and it returned with shoddy workmanship. “They didn’t ruin it, but they did cheap work,” says Oltaci. “I thought it shouldn’t be like this, so, after, I learned how to repair rugs.” While studying, Oltaci became fascinated with carpet designs, especially those of Caucasian and Turkish prayer rugs. He discovered he had a talent for being able to replicate motifs that had been worn down or, in some cases, that had disappeared in places. He also discovered an ability to exactly match original weaving techniques, which vary greatly depending on the region and era in which a carpet was made.

After two years of study in Istanbul, Oltaci moved to Strasbourg, France, where he went to study economics but ended up repairing carpets at his cousin’s business; first for extra money, and then as his full-time job. He then made his way to New York in 1988, where he worked for several years for Bergi Adonian, a carpet dealer who handles important, museum-quality carpets. Six years ago, he went into business for himself, first in Chelsea, and then, two years ago, on the Upper East Side.

For Oltaci, repair work must look as good from the front as the back, even though only one side is visible. “That is the only way the carpet will be perfect,” he says. That unrelenting focus on quality has endeared him to Benjamin Aryeh, the president of Rafael Gallery, who has been a faithful client since 1992, when Oltaci worked for Andonian.

He is able to match the weave in the carpet and to replace whatever is missing with the exact color, says Aryeh. “You don’t see the restoration when he is done.” Recently, Aryeh purchased a Bessarabian carpet that had been unsuccessfully restored, so he brought it to Oltaci, who redid the work with perfect results. On another occasion, Oltaci insisted on redoing repair because it did not meet his own standards, ever though Aryeh was satisfied with it. “Above all, he is an amiable and pleasant fellow,” says Aryeh. With two decades of experience, Oltaci takes on the restoration of any handmade textiles, and works on modern and antique carpets of Oriental or European origins. For antique restorations, he keeps a collection of antique vegetable-dyed wools for exact matching, but will typically use modern chemical-dyed wools. In addition to the Oriental carpets, his shop is currently at work on a nineteenth-century Aubusson, the French equivalent of a kilim.

For this business, Oltaci says one must have the focus and dexterity of a surgeon as well as an instinctual feel for the original weaver’s intent. When he is training his employees, he tries to get them beyond the simple technique.

“Everybody uses the same knot but there can be different ways of seeing it,” he says. “I teach them how to really see the knot, and then how to do it perfectly.”

Hayko Oltaci can be reached at Hayko Restoration and Conservation Antique Rugs and Tapestry, 857 Lexington Avenue, second floor; New York, NY 10021; 212-717-5400.