An Interview with Dr. Ulrich
by Lawrence Kearney
article originally appeared in Oriental Rug Review Vol II, No. 7
(October, 1982). Copies of this issue may still be available for
purchase - please consult the
Oriental Rug Review
A day after the Armenian Rug Symposium in New York, Dr. Ulrich
Schurmann, the author of the classic text on Oriental rugs,
Caucasian Rugs and Central Asian Rugs, was gracious enough to
spend a few hours talking with us about his career as a dealer and
collector of rugs. We got together at the apartment of Posie
Benedict, of RUG NEWS Magazine. Posie and I had decided that rather
than subject Dr. Schurmann to two separate, and probably redundant,
interviews, we would interview him together. Annie, Dr. Schurmann's
wife, joined us and often joined in - so that this was more a
four-way conversation than an interview. Unfortunately, there are at
least three things about our conversation that can't be conveyed in
a written form. One is the sheer chaos of getting four rug fanatics
together in the same room: there were often moments when all four of
us would be talking at once. A second impossibility is trying to
capture Dr. Schurmann's mischievous, often visual, humor on paper.
In reading the words that follow, you need to imagine him giving a
sly nod of his head or winking or rolling his eyes as he says
something particularly outrageous. And finally, one needs to imagine
the tremendous affection that flowed between Dr. and Mrs. Schurmann,
an affection nourished not only by their respect for and
friendliness towards each other, but also by their shared love of
oriental rugs. So, we sat down, started the tape recorders running,
and just began talking . . .
Annie Schurmann Dr. Ulrich Schurmann
BENED - Well, let's start with an obvious
question - how did your interest in rugs begin?
SCHUR - As far as I remember, I was once hit by
my mother with one of those old fashioned carpet beaters, and that,
I think was when it began. I was four or five. And then I said,
"Rugs! That's it!"
BENED - Well, let me ask again: when did you
first become interested in rugs?
SCHUR – The second time was in 1926, when I was
still in school. My father said to me one day, “I want you to come
with me to London. I want to give you some idea what rugs are
about." I remember we went to the Port of London Authority - a huge
old building of red brick walls and wooden floors - and there were
the most beautiful old rugs you could imagine. I made the
acquaintance of the various dealers who were all sitting in one
room, either twiddling their thumbs or counting their prayer beads,
and when a customer came in they all got very excited.
KEAR- Sounds like 245 Fifth Avenue.
SCHUR - You are right. And then they would
follow you and pester you to visit their office and see what they
had. I think that's when my interest in rugs started.
KEAR - How old were you then?
SCHUR - About seventeen or eighteen.
BENED - Why did your father take you to London?
SCHUR - Because he liked oysters very much.
BENED - But what did he do, your father?
SCHUR - He ate oysters a lot.
BENED - When he wasn't eating oysters?
SCHUR - My father and his three brothers ran a
store devoted to interior decorations, furniture, textiles, that
sort of thing. And my father loved oriental rugs, and he was the
one to go out and find them for the company. And we were
also connected with Perez of Amsterdam. And they were our agents with
the Russians: they would go to Leningrad and Moscow and buy the old
and antique Caucasian and Turkoman rugs and export them to
London and the U.S. and also to Berlin. Perez was an excellent man
to buy from because he had a great knowledge of rugs and excellent taste. I remember in those days an old soumak 7x10 or 6x9 was
ridiculously cheap, far cheaper than a machine made rug - 10 marks
per square meter. And in London there were stacks of very fine old
Belouch rugs that they were asking 9 pence per foot for. But that
was a bit too much. We bargained them down to
8 1/2 pence. Not
shillings, but pence! Ridiculous!
BENED - Did you actually live in Cologne?
SCHUR - No, I grew up in Essen, which is the
center of the Ruhr region. I went to school there, and afterward
studied law in Munich and Berlin and finally Cologne, where I got
BENED - Were you trained to go into the family
SCHUR - Yes, but in the end I didn't. In 1936 I had my own company
in Cologne, importing rugs, and on one journey to London I stayed
there and did not return. It was the time of Adolf the Great and I
didn't like it very much in Germany, so I remained in London. I
stayed in London before the War, during the War, and after the
War. And then in 1950, I opened and office in Cologne again. And in
Cologne I met a young girl who is now my daughter ... I mean my
wife, and we worked together for many years trying to bring about a
revival of the oriental rug as a work of art. In those days,
immediately after the war, no one wanted oriental rugs, and the rug
trade was considered a thief's trade. And I tried to create a new
kind of rug dealer - someone with a feeling for art, someone who
wanted to give his clients not only a good value, but also
something that would deepen his customer's love for the art of
rug-making And I think that I not only succeeded in that for my own
company, but I helped instigate a revival in interest in old rugs-
when I first came to the U.S., in 1957 and 1958, for example, there
seemed to be no interest at all in oriental rugs; when I would go to
the various rug buildings on 5th Avenue at 28th and 30th Streets in
New York They were surprised that anyone wanted the old pieces - an
old Kazak or Shirvan or old Tabriz - and I paid them a retail price.
At about the same time a man came from Italy named Von Tremuli. He
had the same idea as me. And since then, of course, the revival
turned into an avalanche. And in the end , as you know yourself,
prices have risen so high that it is nearly impossible to keep
pace with them. But now, of course, both dealers and collectors are
holding back Only the best rugs are bringing really good prices. And
that is how it should be. But for the person who bought rugs for
investment - it’s finished. And I think that's good. Because a rug
should give pleasure should convey some of the magic of the orient,
and should not be like a share of Sears Roebuck stock that you put
on the wall. Sears Roebuck stock for all we know might also look
quite nice on the wall You see my approach to oriental rugs has
always been with my heart. When I go through 200 or 300 rugs and
want to select some, the ones I choose are the rugs that make my
heart beat faster. They eye sees and works on your mind and conveys
the beauty, the colors, and when you have sharpened your eye from
years of looking at rugs, your heart starts to beat The rug speaks
to you: it shouts "Buy me! I am here!" But if you buy only because
it's a nice rug, if you buy half-heartedly - you can see that the phrase
"half-hearted" expresses this lack of feeling quite accurately -
then you might find that you have bought something
you don't really want
"When you go into your living room in the
morning, after you've gotten up and brushed your teeth, you go into
the room and you see the rug. You don't turn it over and count
the knots - you see its beauty, and it makes the day." Century
Magazine, c. 1888||
KEAR - But as rug dealers we can't deal only in
the very best. There simply isn't enough of it around.
SCHUR - Exactly. And therefore the clientele I
had you couldn't count in the thousands; you could only count it
in the hundreds. And likewise with my stock of rugs. But I found I
would rather have one rug that was exceptional than 20 that were
unexceptional. And I was quite aware that I was not a carpet dealer
in the conventional sense.
KEAR - You weren't dealing in floor coverings.
SCHUR -1 was an antique dealer in textiles. I
was not a carpet dealer. I am somebody who fell in love with
oriental rugs, and out of that love I built a business.
in 1961 we opened an exhibition of Caucasian rugs at the Miseum in
Hamburg - and it was a tremendous success in that nobody came to see
it. But it was a beginning. The Catalogue was a little book out of
which the Caucasian Rug book later developed - it was very well
printed and cost 47 marks. And I remember one of the porters of the
exhibition stopped at the table where the catalogues were kept
and he was astonished. "47 marks!" he said. "For a book!" But in the
end all the books were sold. And then the next year the
exhibition went to Frankfurt. It was a few years later that I met one of the
most astonishing characters in the oriental rug world - McMullan. I
remember getting to know him over a half a dozen martinis. The room
was like a den and he was curled up on the sofa with his martini,
and I got his permission to show his magnificent collection in
Frankfurt - the first time his rugs had been seen in Europe. That
was in 1968. Unfortunately, we didn't have much exhibition space of
our own, so we started as early as 1955 setting up exhibitions of
rugs for sale at them major antiques shows in Germany. We did three
major antique shows every year, which was quite a lot, because one
wanted different rugs for each show.
KEAR - So you had to go out and find a new batch
of superior antique rugs three times a
SCHUR - Yes. Because in the beginning the crowd
that was really interested in antique rugs was very small - and they
wouldn't want to see the same rugs show after show. They would say,
"You still have that lousy rug hanging around!" So, in consequence, I
had to come to the States quite often, first to New York and
gradually to California. But over the years
more and more people were going to-California and Boston and
elsewhere looking for rugs; in the end it was more rug "hunting"
rather than rug collecting. And for me that became the end of it.
KEAR - You mean looking for rugs lost its
SCHUR - Not quite - it just became senseless to
go to New England or the West if every
other dealer in 245 or 276 [5th Avenue] had been
there the week before. It was easier just to come to New York
and buy the rugs from
BENED - There was a definite pattern, wasn't
there? The Brimfield market. Then the pickers after that. Going to
the various rug dealers after that. Then to
Abajian. And then from Abajian to various European dealers like
you. You could follow a rug's progress toward Europe.
KEAR - And the superior rugs would rise higher
in the pyramid.
SCHUR - And also fashions changed. You have to
realize that the antique business is very subject to fashion. If you
stick to only one line of rug, you will soon be out of business. You
have to go with fashions, and the fashion changes sometimes very
rapidly. One day it's Caucasian rugs, the next day it may be Herizes,
a day later Chinese rugs, and so on. And you sometimes get stuck with
beautiful pieces simply because the fashion changes. For instance, I
had bought a huge stock of the finest Turkoman rugs you could
imagine. They didn't move at all. And then one day they sold like
hot cakes - it was as if people got so taken by the "bloody" red of
Turkoman rugs that they got an illness, a madness - anything that was
red and looked like a Turkoman rug sold easily. If you really look at
those rugs you can see that they are as "bloody" red as the lives of
the people who made them. The Turkomans were murderers; there was
nothing they were not capable of. And yet they made these wonderful
rugs. I suppose the girls had nothing to do while the Turkoman men
were out raping someone else's girls, and so they wove rugs, and
the rugs came out red.
BENED - They liked red.
SCHUR - But why not yellow? Why not a lighter
BENED - But they have poems addressed to the
SCHUR - Anyway, it's a question that still
KEAR - One of the things I like about your books
is that they are written from the
collector's point of view - you insist that the rug should speak
to the person who collects it. And you've written that the
collecting of rugs is "an incurable
disease" - what is it about rugs, do you think, that
obsesses us in a way that painting, for example, or ceramics
does not? Is it the sensual quality of
SCHUR - Yes, I think so. You have to realize
that an oriental rug is one of the few forms of art that one is
meant to feel. They are in fact three-dimensional, because of the
pile. A painting can be very beautiful, and speak to you, but you
don't touch it. Whereas, the real rug lover will usually feel a rug.
KEAR - Out of this comes a related question: I'm
interested in the stages you went through
in your own collecting. What kind of rugs grew in their
appeal to you, and which seemed to fade?
SCHUR - The first thing to strike my eye were
Anatolian rugs. Kulas, Ghiordes, that kind of thing. Caucasian rugs
came later for me. Later on came Persian rugs and Turkoman rugs.
And, at the end, Chinese rugs. I bought my first Chinese rugs, here
in America, in the late 1960's - beautiful Ning-Hsia rugs that nobody
wanted. And now, if you go to Edelmann's, you have to pay big prices
KEAR - But he is one of the few people to
promote them as an art form - he's taken real pains to set up
auctions devoted largely to antique Chinese rugs.
BENED - But that was mainly when he started - I
think you're right about Edelmann's appreciation of Chinese rugs. When he
started, he had access to quite a few great
old Chinese rugs, mostly from the Michaelian collection,
I believe, but there were only enough for two auctions. He
hasn't been able to find so many rugs of
that quality since then.
KEAR - So, Chinese rugs were your "last love".
SCHUR -I was speaking in general, of course, of
the evolution of my affection.
KEAR - A friend and I were talking once about
the aesthetic of Caucasian rugs as compared to that of Turkish
village rugs; and I made the point that a good Caucasian rug, a
Kazak, for instance, tends to be more "aggressive" than a Konya of
SCHUR -I would say a
good Caucasian rug is the most "abstract" kind of rug. Anatolian
rugs tend to have more in them than just abstraction. For me, a good
Caucasian rug has very little design and very strong colors. There's
one page in Caucasian Rugs where I've grouped four great rugs
together - page 35 - that illustrate what I mean.
KEAR -I notice one of the four is the rug on the
cover of the book. Tell me about it.
SCHUR - At first I called it "a cow with eight
feet". The head up the top and the eight legs following behind. I
imagine that a cow somewhere in the South Caucasus had a miscarriage
and the fetus had eight legs and the event was so extraordinary that
they wove it into a carpet. It could also be an insect, with eight
legs and the "antlers" at the top. But I don't think so... This piece
was hanging in the first floor window of a gallery on Madison Avenue
- you could see it from the street. When I came in June, I tried to
buy it, but it was so expensive that I didn't. When I returned, in
November, to my amazement it was still there! And I bought it. This
was 1960 or so.
The "eight legged cow".||
BENED - How many
of the rugs in Caucasian Rugs did you buy in America? I'm interested
partly because even now, if you look at Herrmann’s annual exhibits,
many of those rugs are still coming in from the United States.
SCHUR - I'll tell you why. Before 1900, the U.S.
was the biggest buyer of oriental rugs in the world. There was a
terrific market for rugs partly because you had fantastic people,
like Benguiat, here, and the Armenians of the time who brought the
rugs here from Russia and Central Asia by the hundreds. And then the
second influx was in 1927 and 1931, when the Russians needed money -
they not only sold rugs, but silver and
paintings as well. Any work of art they thought would bring them the
gold they needed for foreign exchange.
BENED - Of this proportion of rugs, did you find
there was a concentration in particular areas where you found better
SCHUR - Oh, definitely. You found them in New
York, you found them in Boston, in Chicago.
And then a great gap until you got to Los Angeles
and San Francisco and Portland. I remember I went to Florida
one time - but there was nothing much
there. The South was very poor for rugs, in
KEAR - It might have something to do with the
SCHUR - It has to do, I think, with where people
lived who had taste and money. There you found rugs.
KEAR - There's something I'd like to follow up
on. You mention the first time you met McMullan. Did you get to know
him in the years that followed?
SCHUR - Well, soon afterwards he became ill and
died. He came to Frankfurt for the opening of the exhibition of his
rugs. I met him here off and on. Once we went to a meeting of young
collectors in New Jersey. But that is about the extent of it. I
remember the time his rugs were stolen - and later found at the
bottom of an elevator shaft. And then we heard he had died.
MRS. SCHUR - And what happened to his
SCHUR -Mostly they went to the Metropolitan.
KEAR - Some of it went to the Textile Museum, a
few pieces to the Fogg.
BENED - But there are some pieces that are still
tied up in an estate, and nobody knows what's going to happen to
them. On another topic, though, I wanted to ask Dr. Schurmann about
the renewed interest in Classical carpets. Last year, for instance,
at Christie's in N.Y., a nice medallion Ushak didn't even bring
$2,000. But this year, I don't think that would have happened.
SCHUR - Well, Classical carpets are very subject
to fashion. In the old days, before the depression, genuine
Classical pieces brought tremendous prices. But then "Black Friday"
came along, and for many years after that nobody was willing to pay
for them. Even as late as the early 70's, for instance, when
Sotheby's sold the Kervokian collection, there were some phenomenal
pieces but they didn't fetch good prices. I still regret that I
didn't buy the whole ruddy lot of them.
KEAR - The world's greatest yard sale.
SCHUR - Yes, yes. There was one huge Turkish
carpet that consisted of five carpets together, 16th century, without
doubt a carpet that had lain in one of the Sultan's palaces - and it
brought only L 4000. Unbelievable! But let me say this: I think that
genuine first class condition Classical rugs will always bring a good
price. But the ones that are cut or worn or whatever will not bring
a good price.
KEAR - You mean the price they deserve.
SCHUR - Yes. Because if you were to buy a 15th
century wooden sculpture, for example, the paint could be flaking, it
could have an arm missing, but it would
still fetch a good price.
KEAR - In other words, such a piece would be
selling for its artistic merit rather than
its condition. Why isn't this true for rugs?
BENED -And how about Anatolian rugs? In the past
few years there's been some very nice Turkish carpets on the
market that should have sold but didn't sell.
I'm very surprised every time it happens. What do you think,
KEAR - Turkish Rugs seem to hold steady in good
times and bad. Even in bad times, a good Turkish rug will bring 3,
4, 5 thousand dollars. But even in good times the same rug will not
bring much more.
SCHUR - But there are very few really good antique
ones available. Even good 18th century Turkish rugs are hard to
find, and the 15th, 16th, 17th century ones are quite rare.
KEAR - But there are wonderful early to
mid-nineteenth century Turkish village rugs
that just don't bring the prices they should.
BENED - Ones with stunning designs and clear,
KEAR - I'll give you an example; Recently an
early 19th century "Box" Bergama in very good condition, with crazy
proportions - it was wider than it was tall - came up at Edelmann's
and failed to reach its $4000 reserve. Despite the fact that it was
an $8,000 to $10,000 rug.
BENED -I remember it. I kept thinking, "Why is
nobody buying this rug?"
SCHUR - Was it a green field rug?
KEAR - No, it was the typical old Yagcibedir/Balikesir
palette - a deep "bloody" red, dark blue,
an intense sea green.
SCHUR- But that could be the point. There are
many people who don't like blue. There are
fashions in color as much as in design. Even in art
there are fashions in color. And maybe this rug just didn't
have the currently fashionable colors.
BENED - We've just come from the Armenian Rug
Conference, and ten years ago it never would have happened - the
Armenians seem to have become aware of their artistic contribution
to the rug world. And this realization has helped them look at the
rest of their culture. And this was where Dr. Schurmann gave
them this wonderful present: his paper in which he confirmed that
there was considerable evidence that the Pazyryk rug was made by proto-Armenian people. And it was very moving.
SCHUR -I not only felt
highly honored to be invited, but I felt quite touched as well that they had invited me,
a non-Armenian, to speak to them at this kind of convention.
Because I know the closed-thinking of some of their ideas and the
limitations of those ideas. And the importance of the Church in
Armenian culture and the Armenian, family - they were the first
culture to accept Christianity as a state religion, and
furthermore, their existence as Armenians is closely related to their
attitude for the Church. If you had taken away their Church, no
Armenian would have been left. So, for me as a non-Armenian and a
non-believer to be invited to speak about Armenian rugs was really
BENED - How do you feel about the present state
of scholarship, especially in Caucasian rugs? Has it gone along the
lines you like?
SCHUR -1 would have to say "no comment' to that.
KEAR - Well, I have a related question. If you
were to write your Caucasian Rug book again, is there anything in.the
book you would change - attribution, that kind of thing?
SCHUR -We built a house at the Cote d'Azur about
12 years ago. And if I had to build it today, I would not change
one brick. That's the best thing you can say about a house. And in
the same way, I would not change a single line -- though I can't
remember anything I wrote in it.
KEAR - Thank you very much.