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How Good Is My Rug Collecting?
  by Mark Hopkins  
     
  This article originally appeared in Oriental Rug Review Vol 9, No. 3 (Feb/Mar, 1989). Copies of this issue may still be available for purchase - please consult the Oriental Rug Review website.   
             
 
 
                                                                  
 

Collectors, after all, are just like other normal people: they like on occasion to be told how well they are doing. Deep down in the recesses of their innermost  cerebral warps and wefts there tend to arise the hard, hard questions. Am I doing it right? Am I succeeding? How do I stack up?

And, even more basic, why am I involved in all this foolishness anyway? 

Well, perhaps right there is a good place to start.

There are a lot of curious reasons why people collect rugs, some of which make little sense to anyone not so bitten. Here are most of the good ones, compiled in no particular order of importance. People collect rugs

To Own Them. Some people, face it, are congenital pack rats. They're happiest when their lives are inundated with... stuff. They quickly discover what other rug collectors already know, that it's astonishing how many rugs you can cram into tight quarters when you want to. You can't line them up the way you can, say, Japanese netsuke, but as collectibles they're a darned sight more compact than World War II airplanes.

To Win. Collecting is an enormously competitive business. Not with Kurdish bagfaces necessarily, but in the thinner air realm of big ticket and world class pieces. Rug collectors and deer hunters have a lot in common; they endure interminable waiting until the big one trots into their sights. The best part is reveling in the thrill of pulling into the driveway with the prize stretched across the fender.

To Get Rich. Everybody knows at least one story about a guy who bought a flea market rug for $100 and sold it at auction for $40,000. Put 100 rug collectors in a closed room and then watch their faces; the unhappiest looking ones are the "Get Rich" collectors.

To Be A Collector. Everyone has a right to lay claim to his or her own niche. And surely there are rug buffs who on occasion puff themselves up in front of the Saturday morning mirror, snort a little flame out their nostrils, and growl, "O.K., McCoy Jones, up and at 'em, and all those freefloating Arabatchi juvals out there had better watch out today."

To Get Famous. More likely are the types who aren't kidding around when they growl, "Move over, McCoy Jones, and I'll show you what collecting is all about." Most likely they've drafted their own personal New York Times obituaries in their heads many times.

To Be A Benefactor. There's a lot of merit to this one, because there are still some wonderful old rugs skidding around upstairs hallways or harboring vermin in grandfathers' barns, and you can't help but laud the self-appointed savior who lives to ferret them out and preserve them for the world to enjoy.

To Learn. This is a biggy, as anyone who has tried to tell the difference between Saryk and Salor well knows. The learning cycle is long and tortuous. And the road diverts quickly to geography. History. Chemistry. Aesthetics. Architecture. Craft methodology. Ethnography. And just about anywhere else a curious mind cares to be nudged.

To Have Fun. You wouldn't guess it when you see them stonefacing the podium at auctions, or sneezing over rag piles at flea markets, or arm-waving through violent bargaining sessions with dealers, or soberly persuading the customs officer that it's just an old used rug of no historic merit whatever. But if the truth be known, for most collectors this is the most prevalent reason of all. And happily so.

 

 
 

"It was a perfect condition Chantae just this big!"

We skidded all too quickly past some other important questions. The key one, of course, is how am I doing? What that translates to is, am I doing it right? Will I regret these decisions later on? Is all this achieving something important and worthwhile? Or what?

 
 

 

I'd like to have a Deutschmark's credit at Herrmann's for every time an expert has said to a beginner, "Buy what you like, but just make it the best." What happens if you don't, the neophyte asks. Well, one of two things. Either you'll get sick of it before long and, when you try to sell it, you'll find out how many other people don't like it either. Or you'll will it to your descendants and leave them giggling about where your head was when you bought it.

So you buy only the best. It's an easy rule to remember. But take it on a rug buying quest and your good intentions can easily turn to jelly.

 The problem is, what are we talking about when we say "best"? Assemble 20 excellent rugs and then ask 20 excellent collectors or dealers to pick the best one. Very quickly the fingers begin pointing every which way, including at each other.

So you pick the best of a category, right? It depends. One expert, a dealer, was recently quoted on these pages saying he only recommended No. 1 rugs to his customers, never anything less. Well, unless you're secured by an endowment the size of Harvard's or you prefer to collect by jimmying the safes of the world's great museums, your chances of having much success under such a rule are slim.

Clearly what we're all saying is, whatever category you happen to like, scorn the mediocre and track down only the great stuff. But to that I'm going to add a qualifier. Whatever you think is great stuff becomes, by your definition, great stuff.

I do not hang my head to admit that most of the pieces I have owned were not great pieces. In fact, a few of them have been embarrassingly awful. And many others were singularly mediocre. Nor am I ashamed to add that I thought each of them was great truthfully, really great at the time that I became its owner. Each of my "dogs" has played its own special role in teaching me what a great rug really is. Once, just before I bought a little Kurdish piece, a dealer friend said, "You'll regret it later if you buy that." He was right. But I came to disdain the piece not because an expert said I should, but because I subsequently experienced its shortcomings. Now, if I'm careful, I won't be sidetracked again onto another of its ilk.

Besides, it's a whole lot more fun to go out and buy rugs than it is to cautiously lurk by the edges of auctions and dealer showrooms and watch the great ones roll by. It costs a ton more, of course. But when I fall out of love with a rug and sell it for less than I paid for it, I don't call that a loss; I call it tuition. It's surprising how much that takes the pain away! The other question that falls into the Am-I-Doing-Things-Right category raises the issue of what to collect. This is far too huge a subject to more than breathe upon here. But I'd like to postscript a thought before leaving it.

The golden rule is, collect all you can afford of the best of what you enjoy. To that I would add, keep an eye out for the unusual opportunity. The oldtime collectors were paying peanuts for what today are world class treasures. Surely today there are some interesting alternatives to the Big Leagues of the Caucasians, the Turkomans, the Persians, the Chinese, and the Anatolians. But it takes a special nose to sniff them out.

I remember back in the '60s when antique dealers used to joke about American country furniture becoming so scarce that they'd soon have to start switching to "Early Plywood." It was always good for a chuckle, but the ones who are still chuckling are the ones who were quietly tucking away plywoody things like Eames chairs that now rack up surprisingly tidy sums.

Today you hear similar tunes echoing throughout rugdom. Baluch and Kurdish rugs and Turkish kilims are no longer the penny ante games they once were. But how about Kirghiz? Moroccan? Uzbek? Iraqi tribals? How do we know early DOBAG rugs won't be big ticket items someday? I don't know the answers. But I do know that right now someone is out there busily building a collection I'll someday wish I'd thought of while the rest of us more conventional souls anguish at 19th century Caucasian rugs breaking the $150,000 barrier and wonder if we can afford to do this much longer.

A somewhat different way to answer the question "How am I doing?" is to address it from the oblique angle of one's own mortality. Suppose that at the very acme of your collecting career the unthinkable happens and you are flattened by the proverbial runaway truck. Your grieving loved ones, none of them harboring your predilection for rugs and bagfaces, invite in a dispassionate expert to pass judgment on the value of "The Collection."  The expert, being wise and tactful, will not speak as we are about to, but in his or her mind dwell just four broad categories into which a collection will fall. They even have names. Tact aside, one of these will probably contain the message your survivors will hear:

1. The Crown Jewels. "This," the expert may say, "is the finest collection of rugs I have seen in a long, long time. It belongs in a museum, and whichever one you donate it to will thereafter stand tall among its peers."

2. The Royal Leftovers. "Every piece in this collection," he/she may rule on the other hand, "represents a category of rug that is in wide demand by collectors. Unhappily, these are all rather mediocre examples. I'd suggest you either offer the lot to an auction house or consider offers from a local dealer or two."

3. The Road Less Traveled. "This is a unique and unusual collection. It focuses on a field where few collectors have specialized to date. And it contains some real gems. Perhaps no museum will yet recognize its value, but surely another collector would. It deserves to be both exhibited and preserved."

4. The Rummage Sale. "Clearly the owner loved and cherished every last piece, but the chances are dim that we can find another with parallel affinity for rags like this. If the local church isn't interested, start calling the Yellow Page numbers

 
   

Naturally each of these categories is one of four distinct points on the collector's compass. Most people will take up residence somewhere in between. But the point is, the real objective merit of your collection is defined by what they'll say about it once you've left for the final yayla and relinquished your treasures to the candor of a hard, cruel world. Finally, there is the question that few dare to address with a great deal of openness: have I really succeeded in making sense out of the collectible rug business?

 
       
 

The answer, in those dark and secret moments when you're admitting all to yourself, is or at least should be no, you probably haven't. But then, neither has anyone else. It requires attending only a single rug auction to understand that. A Kerman you paid $1,000 for years ago that the dealer told you would double in value every few years goes on the block and fails to make its $3,000 reserve. Another Kerman you wouldn't have in your living room sells for $12,000.

A nice Kazak goes for $7,000. Another Kazak, not as interesting but having the first name of Pinwheel, brings $35,000.

A Shahsavan sumakh bag, creating quite a flurry, is gaveled at $4,500. Not to be outclassed, a pretty Afshar bag, actually in better shape and with great design and colors, struts out next. It fizzles at $750.

A large Baluch rug and a Yomud main carpet, both with the same lustrous wool and palette and not-unsimilar repetitive designs in the field, come up back to back. The Baluch brings $4,500; its Turkoman cousin makes $25,000.

What's more, if you ever start thinking that any of this does make sense, just remind yourself that if the same auction happened in a different town in a different month, it could all be a different story.

There is a secret buried here. It is this: the principal way to make sense out of rug collecting is to periodically remind yourself that a large part of the time, a lot of things just plain aren't going to make much sense. You can usually learn the what, but spare yourself from too much worry about the why.

Most experts seem to agree that getting in at the ground floor as a canny rug collector is largely a matter of spotting trends. And being there at the right time. Personally, like most collectors, I think, I just bumble along. If I were really talented at such matters, I wouldn't have a moment for rugs because I'd be busy making a fortune in pork bellies. Or thriving as the new Oracle of Wall Street by selling people the exact date of the next Bloody Monday.

As it is, I'm content to settle for cherishing the excitement of the quest for pieces even though few ever come into my sights, being patient with myself for not spotting a great one when I sit on it, enjoying the ones I own, and trying to maintain a high degree of both humor and reverence over the realization of how little I and the rest of us really understand about these matters.

Perhaps the soundest outlook on collecting I've ever encountered was that of a 10-year-old boy who, at two years younger than me, happened to be my brother. He was a passionate collector of more things than a pair of patient parents ever dreamed could be harbored in a single household. Butterflies. Coins. Cartridges. Keys, seashells, and much more ... including a writhing array of local snakes that at the peak of each summer season numbered around 250.

One day, tripping over his sea of boxes and side-skipping a large, hostile blacksnake that had just discovered a hole in its cage, I said to him in perplexity, "Why the hell do you collect all this stuff anyway?"

"I collect it," he replied with finality, "because I want to."

He is still a collector of many things, plying his hobbies quietly and with seldom a thought about the process in which he indulges on a daily basis. And to this day, no one I've ever met knows how to relish the joy of collecting quite the way he does.

MH

 

 

     
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