by Mark Hopkins
This essay was originally published in Through the Collectors Eye, Oriental Rugs from New England Private Collections.
THE MESSAGE IS INDISPUTABLE: rug collecting is alive and well in New England. Of the rugs in this exhibition, more than two-thirds were collected during the last five years. There are many stories to tell. The pictorial Caucasian rug (no. 25) came from the attic of a Massachusetts home where an antique furniture dealer spotted it in 1990, wrapped in 1947 newspapers. The Tekke khalyk (no. 44) turned up at a New England flea market. The "candystripe" Kuba prayer rug (no. 23) was discovered hanging in the window of a penny-candy store in Maine.
As the scarcity of collectable rugs multiplies, however, the quest must range more widely. The Anatolian carpet (cover and no. 12) was collected from a tiny shop adjoining the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. The western Anatolian prayer rug (no. 7) was acquired from a dealer in Germany. The saddlebag (no. 38) came from England. And the Karachov Kazak (no. 18) was collected in New York from a dealer who had recently discovered it, surprisingly, in Morocco.
Who are these people who admit to being called collectors? For this exhibition, they include two attorneys, a public school-teacher, an advertising writer, a librarian, a retiree, two oriental rug dealers, several business executives, and the owners of a bicycle shop, an auction house and a heavy equipment cleaning company. They also include four physicians, three of whominterestinglyare radiologists. (As one of them explains it, "I seem destined to devote my vocation and my avocation to the study and appreciation of patterns.")
We posed a group of questions to many of our most active participants. Here is an amalgam of their responses.
When you are looking at a rug and considering it for acquisition, what do you look for? What is the process that leads you to a decision?
Our collectors divided themselves into two groups on this subject; the first rational and analytical, and the other introspective and intuitive. Here are examples of the analytical responses:
The otherand more prevalentresponse approached the challenge from quite a different perspective.
How do you find your pieces? Where do you look? How much traveling does the process entail?
As might be expected, New Englanders' collecting styles vary widely. The variables, of course, are time and resources... and the amount of energy available for the endeavor.
What do you feel is the most direct route for a novice to become an experienced collector?
Here there was consensus: learn, learn, learn. Becoming knowledgeable about rug designs and their origins requires learning about the history, geography and ethnography of the rug-producing regions. Understanding about the quality of rugs entails the study of dyes, fibers, weaving methods, and other technical textile matters. Most important, of course, is learning about the esthetics of the rugs themselves. The sources: books, people... and rugs.
How do you avoid making mistakes when you collect?
I don't. I've made spectacular ones. But they weren't mistakes at the beginning; they simply became mistakes as my knowledge grew. I treat each one the same way: with a measure of gratitude. It hurts, but you end up wiser. Trying to achieve error-free collecting means practicing defensive collecting, and that's probably the biggest mistake of all. The familiar adage applies here: as long as you're not making the same ones twice, you're growing.
If you're going to become an effective collector, you've got to take chances. It's how you not only learn about rugs, but about your own taste as well. If your taste is going to develop, you've got to put it on the line and test it constantly. If you make a decision and you were right, you learned. If you're willing to take reasonable risks as a collector, and to cheerfully write off any financial losses as "tuition," it's usually a win-win proposition.
What are your feelings about restoration? Should an exceptional old rug with wear and damage be left alone, or should it be restored?
This touches on one of the most controversial questions in rug collecting, and the collectors' responses confirmed that little consensus exists on the issue. If there was any agreement, it was to recognize the limitations of restorative work -- even when done by the very best restorers.
What do you think are the trends that will occur over the rest of this decade? What is the future of rug collecting?
Even the more articulate collectors spoke cautiously on this subject. Never in the mainstream, oriental rugs and other Islamic textiles have historically made slow progress in gaining recognition from a wider, more appreciative audience. None of the lenders to this show saw evidence that the pace will quicken.
Most collectors, however, had well reasoned if tentative views on the directions rug collecting might take. To summarize the general consensus:
With public taste traditionally focused on painting and sculpture as the paramount "creative" media, museums and academic curricula have historically been cautious about including Islamic weavings. In the public eye, they continue to be viewed as an obscure and unheraldedif fascinatingart form. The predictable result: many facets of rug and other textile collecting will remain accessible to the collector of modest means.
The trend away from classical and workshop carpets toward tribal weavings will continue, fueled in part by the inevitable forces of fiscal necessity, but also by today's sustained, ongoing interest in spontaneous folk art coupled with a concurrent de-emphasis of the formal decorative arts.
Good pieces will continue to appear on the open market, though less frequently than before. Fresh piecesthose entering the contemporary market for the first timewill be mostly gone by the end of the decade. But the breakup of collections and the release of inventories now being amassed by major international dealers will keep the market alive and the supply accessible.
To remain viable, the field needs an influx of new collectors. The fact that this has not yet happened creates an atmosphere of opportunity for those now entering the market.
Collectors mentioned many fields that are currently undergoing a rekindling of interest, including classical oriental rug fragments, pre-Columbian and South American textiles, weavings from North Africa and the Greek Islands, Indonesian textiles, Coptic weavings, and pile rugs from China.
Competition for virtually all kinds of oriental weavings will continue to stiffen, the natural result of sustained demand in the face of diminished supply. Pieces perceived to be "the best" will increase sharply in value, while "mediocre" pieces will linger. All, especially the less-sought-after types, will be subject to the voguish vagaries of collectors' tastes. As a result, opportunities will always remain for the collector willing to accommodate risk, develop a strong sense of esthetic values, and become a careful student of the field.
One collector concluded his comments this way:
Finally, we addressed the question that for many collectors is the most difficult one of all:
What is a great rug?
The group used words such as singular, unique, and one-of-a-kind in earnest attempts to capture the essence of its concept of greatness in an oriental weaving. The idea is elusive, implying a know-it-when-you-see-it kind of qualityone which is often the subject of disagreement even among the most experienced collectors.
There was this agreement: 99 percent of the rugs one sees as a collector are unmemorable. They are simply perfunctory copies of common design themes, some slavish, some casual, but all singularly uninspired. The sought-after rug is the one that sparkles with freshness. Far more than being simply a textile, it is a powerful visual experience that demands the return of one's attention again and again.
Freshness is born from clarity of wool, intensity of color, elegance of fiber, and harmony of weave. It is catalyzed by the presence of tension within serenity. Nearly all rugs are conceived as symmetrical, whether by centralized or repetitive design. But in most of the best, it is the subtle counterpoint of spontaneously inspired asymmetryan altered dimension, an interchanging ambiguity between positive and negative spaces, a surprising cascade of animal or floral figures, an abrupt but clearly intentional abrash, an unexpected twist of line or form just at the point of tediumthat transports a weaving to subjective pinnacles of greatness. The weavers, like artists in many other craft media, must create within the constricting confines of a rigidly observed design convention. Inside those boundaries, of course, there is still room for marvelous creative maneuvering. The superior weaver is the one who marshals the same idioms, the same techniques, the same colors, and the same materials into something wonderful and unique.
Some collectors have a special phrase. They will look at an outstanding rug and mutter, "This rug has something." What that means usually defies words. It asserts a presence. An aura. A quality that elevates it above the others of its kind and assures its endurance as a work of art. The weavings in this exhibition, in the opinions of their collectors, all have something. It is a something that is meant for everyone, from the rug scholar to the totally uninitiated newcomer to the field.