Can a Jewish Instagram Dealer Revitalize the Ailing U.S. Persian Rug Trade?

Sheba Khodadad is unique among those in her antique Persian rug trade – she’s female, Jewish and conducts her business online. But will her innovation be enough to succeed in a business crippled by U.S. sanctions and the COVID pandemic?

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Sheba Khodadad with some of her wares.
Sheba Khodadad with some of her wares.

The sale of Sheba Khodadad’s first rug – an intricate Chinese art deco antique – was much more than a $2,000 transaction. Spurred on by her uncle, Joseph, the sale marked her entrance into a trade that’s been woven into the fabric of Iranian life for millennia.

Persian carpets can be traced back to 500 B.C.E., when rugs were woven out of necessity to protect the tribespeople of modern-day Iran and Central Asia from the elements. The authentic hand-knotted wool and silk rugs found draping walls and adorning floors in mansions or luxury stores can easily command six-figure price tags. Rare antique rugs are prized by collectors and can fetch millions of dollars at auction: In 2013, a 17th century, floral Persian rug woven in Isfahan – known as the Clark Sickle-Leaf Carpet – sold at Sotheby’s for a record $33 million.

Khodadad, 41, represents a new generation of antique Persian rug dealer, breathing new life into the ancient trade by selling their wares on aesthetic-centered social media platforms. Five years after her first sale, she has become one of the most successful online dealers of restored antique rugs. Her online store, Blue Parakeet Rugs, has amassed over 21,000 followers and she extends her bespoke services to celebrities – such as Ashley Tisdale and members of Maroon 5 – and young couples alike from its Beverly Hills base, rolling out carpets at homes around the United States.

She was inspired by another young female dealer, Kennedy Rose, and after her first sale, asked her uncle for the next rug, and the next. He motivated her in her new venture: “He ignited this flame in me and set me on a new path,” she says.

But just as she began to realize her passion for the Persian art that had surrounded her all her life, Joseph suddenly passed away at the age of 56. “I felt like I had arrived,” she recalls, “but I lost my backup, my foundation.” Shortly afterward, Blue Parakeet Rugs was born. The name was an homage to the colorful bird Joseph had wanted to buy with his niece before he died.

The name of the business also distinguished Sheba from the more traditional crowd, though she is unusual in more ways than one. “I’m Persian, I’m Jewish, I’m a woman and I’m selling beautiful Islamic art,” she tells Haaretz. She is just one of the women in her Instagram community making a mark on this traditionally male-dominated trade. Or, as she puts it, “You don’t see a lot of Persian-Jewish women running around with rugs over their shoulders like me.

She has also had some help along the way. Not only did she receive the initial guidance of her industry-renowned uncle Joseph, her uncle Max, along with industry giant and family friend Yosef Bolour, have been continued sources of support. One of her early sales also brought her to the attention of Emily Henderson, a celebrity designer, who helped kick-start her Instagram page.

But Khodadad’s good fortune hasn't insulated her from industry challenges. Despite over half a century of mutual U.S.-Iran hostility stemming from the 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup in Iran and later the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran was producing 400 tons of carpets a year, exporting 80 percent of them – and over a quarter went to the United States. In 2010, the United States embargoed Iranian carpets, limiting domestic sales of newly woven rugs.

The embargo was lifted as part of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, but by 2018, then-President Donald Trump had exited the deal and reimposed economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Iran-U.S. relations reached a nadir with Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Tehran. The Persian carpet industry in the United States saw unpredictable change.

Then there is the fact that she is a Jewish woman working in a predominantly male, Muslim world. “When I deal with dealers on Instagram, roughly 40 percent of them are from Turkey, Lebanon, Iran – and I never talk about religion on my Instagram,” Khodadad says. “I don’t think my buyers would care, but other onlookers – including dealers – might look twice when they see a Persian-Jewish woman selling Islamic rugs.” 

Employees hold up a Persian carpet at the Fazel Rug Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The majority of dealers today are Persian Muslims and Middle Eastern Muslims, she explains, but “the Jewish Persians who are in the game have garnered a lot of respect and are heavyweights in the game. There is a lot of mutual respect between Jewish and Muslim dealers, even if they have religious differences,” she says. 

Made in Iran

Unlike dealers who travel to Iran for new carpets, Khodadad sources antiques from owners across the United States. Before setting up her own website, she used the online craft selling platform Etsy to peddle her rugs. When the United States banned the import of Iranian goods, Etsy banned people from selling all carpets originating in Iran on their platform, even if they had been owned or sourced in the United States. Khodadad adds that eBay did the same. Their “Made in Iran” label was enough to have them outlawed. Representatives from eBay and Etsy did not respond to requests for comment.

As it did for many businesses across the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic also upended the industry. For Khodadad, the first few weeks of the pandemic were daunting. Orders were sparse and trading was stalled as in-person auctions were indefinitely disrupted.

But even before these challenges, there has been a downward trend for the Persian rug market. Business for Mort Bassiri, the retired owner of Lexington Oriental Rugs in Lexington, Kentucky, started to decline after the turn of the century. “The market was hot everywhere then, from Europe to the United States,” he says.

“You felt proud that an art form from your native country was so popular with people everywhere. But in the post 9/11 era, the industry started to decline. I’d say about two-thirds of the dealers I used to know in New York, Washington, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have since gone out of business.” He adds that eBay and the mass production of home goods have saturated the market as well. 

Mass producers of home interiors have been eager to imitate timeless Persian designs. Low-cost, synthetic Persian-style rugs can now be found in IKEA or Pottery Barn selling for $250. Machine-made rugs take hours to manufacture, but traditional woven carpets take months, years or even decades to perfect.

Hamid Kermanshah, owner of Kermanshah Oriental Rugs Gallery, has seen a similar decline around him. Students from the Parsons School of Design would regularly frequent his Fifth Avenue Store. He leveraged his decades of experience with Persian rugs to guide students through the process of designing interiors from the ground up. “When my family first started their business in New York in the late ‘70s, there were around 60 rug dealers in the area,” he said. “I have a good location for tourists, but now there are only 10 to 15 of us left in the whole city. A lot of dealers went out of business.”

This decline affects not only dealers, but the entire carpet ecosystem. Rob, who learned how to repair rugs from the age of 10 in his home village in northern Iran, is also feeling the pinch on his Georgia-based business. “The business has been in decline for many years, and people don’t want to pay that much for rugs,” he says. He requested that his identity remain anonymous for fear of his comments having a detrimental impact on his livelihood.

Khodadad says that despite other dealers’ grim forecasts, she remains optimistic. “There’s an incredible demand for carpets, even though many other dealers may tell you that it’s a depressed time. And that may be the difference between storefronts and online.”

Throughout the last year, quarantine and lockdowns kept consumers at home for extended periods of time, and browsing Instagram for inspiration became a national pastime. Khodadad and other online dealers found themselves able to capitalize on this unexpected upside.

Darius Nateghi, CEO and co-owner of Noure’s Oriental Rugs in Chicago, echoes this sentiment. “Smaller rug dealers who don’t have the digital savvy and know-how to leverage digital marketing capabilities are in trouble,” he says. The pandemic harmed dealers who hesitated to move online, but he says the industry overall has benefited as consumers stayed home and shifted their attention to home improvements. “In the past few months, we’ve seen a strong uptick in demand. People appreciate the time they spent at home and traditional Persian rugs are coming back strong.”

Elisabeth Poole Parker, the former international head of Christie’s carpet department.

“There will always be a market,” says Elisabeth Poole Parker, the former international head of Christie’s carpet department. “The industry likely won't get to the same point as it did in the early 1900s where everyone had to have a Persian carpet, but I still do see bright spots.”

Old-school dealers also worry about the supply of new rugs, not just because of sustained embargoes but because traditional rug making, which is recognized on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, is in decline in Iran.

But Khodadad is selling antique rugs, upcycling old, organic heirlooms for a younger generation that places a high value on minimizing their environmental footprint. “I hope that I can be a vessel for keeping antique rugs alive,” she said. “My dream is to have an old rug in every home.”

As you might expect, that extends to her own home too. Islamic art in rugs is dominant, but you do have Jewish Persian rugs too, she says. I collected one rare piece from Philadelphia four years ago with a Star of David. It’s symbolic to me because you don’t come across Jewish-themed rugs as much.

Jonathan Harounoff, a British analyst, is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and an alumnus of the universities of Cambridge and Harvard. Stephanie Posner is a graduate student at the Yale School of Management and the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Alen Amini is a management consultant and a Zuckerman Fellow at Harvard University.

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