The Collectors Speak

by Mark Hopkins

This essay was originally published in Through the Collector’s Eye, Oriental Rugs from New England Private Collections.


Eye Home


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 whom—interestingly—are 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:

I look for quality. Does it have superb wool? Does it have good age? Are its dyes intense and brilliant? How fine is the weave?

I judge a piece from a combination of standpoints: age, color, drawing, and condition. Then I ask myself; how does it compare to others in its category? It's a process of discrimination, determining what it is and where it falls among the other pieces of its type. If it scores high, then I'm interested. If its score goes off the top of the chart, then I buy without reservation.

The other—and more prevalent—response approached the challenge from quite a different perspective.

The first thing I want to know is: does the rug speak to me? Does it make my heart bear a little faster? Even more importantly, does it keep speaking to me? It's the same as with people. Some dazzle you at the beginning, but you soon discover that's all there is to them, and they begin to bore you. Others impress you at first, and then the relationship grows and grows. Great rugs are like that: whenever you go back to them you experience a dimension of warmth or rhythm or esthetic renewal.

I put most of my faith in the intuitive approach, and I work hard to assess my emotional response to each rug's graphic power. But there is one danger sign to look out for. It happens when I consider a piece that my emotional side has mixed feelings about, and I hear my intellect whispering, "Go for it. You may never get another chance like this. It's a bargain. Your collection needs it. Don't let this one go by." It was a long time before I learned to distrust those little voices. Now, I know it's a signal to leave the piece alone. If you have to work at liking something, it's not for you.

When I first look at a new piece, I usually know within a few seconds whether I want it or not. I can't define precisely what the specific qualities are; perhaps I'm reacting to a "look" that I recognize from having studied thousands of rugs. It has to do with color, with use of space, with purity of design. But mainly it's the overall impact of the piece as a work of graphic art that I'm reacting to. After that comes the rational part. Does it fit into my collection? Does the condition pose any risk? Is it a sound investment? Sometimes your common sense has to make a disciplined "no" override your intuitive "yes." But in general, I place the bulk of my confidence in heeding my inner feelings.


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.

It's a three-step process for me. First, identify the dealers with the most astute eye and the reputation for finding the best things. Next, get to know them and communicate exactly what I'm looking for. And finally, convince them of my serious intent as a collector. Traveling is not important to me; I don't have the time. Nor do I need to. Proven intention has a gravitational effect; when the word is out, you don't have to go looking for things. Things come to you.

Traveling is absolutely vital. How else can you meet the people who become your sources? And you've got to stay in touch with places like Germany, Austria, Italy, Turkey and the UK, because that's where a lot of the action is. Granted you can always find something exciting close to home. But even that means being on the road, staying in touch with the market. Keeping yourself visible is absolutely vital.

The key ingredients are time and patience. Good pieces just don't appear very often; you have to look at hundreds of rugs for every outstanding one you find. It takes mobility. It takes going to auctions and dealer exhibitions, and meeting other collectors. You have to be where the great rugs are and it helps if you get there first. Timing and presence are everything.

The days of making fabulous finds in flea markets are pretty much over. Great things still crop up, but there are so many dealers and pickers who specialize in finding them that your chances of being the lucky one are astronomically slim. The trick is to get to know those people, and to be at the top of their list when they do find something great.


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.

The most important part of learning about rugs is seeing and handling thousands of them. To understand a particular weaving, you must see it in relationship to all the others that are both like it, and unlike it. You accomplish that by seizing every chance you can get to look at rugs. Go to museums, rug society meetings, auction previews and dealer exhibitions. Get to know dealers and collectors. And when you can't look at actual rugs, look at them in books. The best books have color reproductions of great pieces you'd otherwise never find in one place. Lastly, of course, start acquiring your own. There's no better way to get to know rugs than living with them day and night.

While you're studying and seeing and talking about rugs, you've also got to assert your own personal tastes. Some people make the mistake of collecting what they think they ought to because what they really like isn't as fashionable. For example, 20 years ago you were considered a bit mad to collect Baluch rugs. Today they've come into their own, and people recognize it wasn't such a dumb thing to do after all. It's very important to follow your own esthetic instincts, because it's the only way you'll be fulfilled as a collector.

Start acquiring rugs right from the beginning. They don't have to be great rugs. But it's important to experience the process of collecting—mistakes and all—while you're learning about it.


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.

The hardest thing to decide is when to restore, and when to leave it alone. Sometimes there are small holes, low spots and tears that don't affect the rug's graphic power at all. Those should be left untouched. But if the rug's visual integrity is compromised, then I seriously consider reweaving and repiling. It's a judgment call.

Whenever I'm tempted to have a big hole rewoven or a worn area repiled, I try to imagine what Venus de Milo would look like after a restorer added new arms. If the essence of the piece's beauty is still there, leave it be. We don't have any business interfering.

I think that if a rug can be "touched up" to eliminate holes and areas of wear, it should be done. Holes and worn areas bother my eye and interfere with the integrity of the design, and I want them fixed.

The problem with restoration work, and I'm talking about the very best work, is that it always remains visible to the practiced eye. When I see signs of it I think, "This piece has been restored; it's not all original," and that makes me uncomfortable. This is especially true of pieces that come from the European market, because when a valuable rug emerges there, it's frequently restored from top to bottom. I think we are seriously degrading an important legacy of the past by doing this.

It seems that the more a collector experiences the results of restoration, the less he or she resorts to it. I've seen expert restorers wreck some wonderful pieces. The reweaving and knotting wasn't the problem; it was excellent. But too often it's virtually impossible to match all the variables: the integrity of the wool, the character of the dye, the texture of the weave, the luminescence of the pile—all those magical things that make old rugs unique and irreproducible. Besides, even if the work is perfect now, what's it going to look like 20 or so years from now when the new wool undergoes wear and the dyes react to light? I used to have pieces restored. Now, for the most part, I avoid it.


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 unheralded—if fascinating—art 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 pieces—those entering the contemporary market for the first time—will 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:

Collecting great textile art is synonymous with collecting art of any kind: as long as opportunities abound, there is room to participate. The key thing, especially for the collector of modest means, is to move off the beaten path, discover an exciting area, and begin building a collection. There are still many relatively unexplored tribal weaving areas; the Central Asian weavings of the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs and others, for example. Northwest Persian tribal rugs are, in my opinion, some of the most interesting folk art the region has ever generated, but they are still surprisingly unrecognized. This is abstract art at one of its most interesting and, in some cases, most sophisticated levels. Most of today's collectors are absorbed in their own chosen pursuits, so the future is wide open to new collectors willing to take the plunge.


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 quality—one 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 asymmetry—an 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 tedium—that 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.

A great rug delivers a sensuous experience that gets repeated every time you revisit it. I think a lot of people miss that because they're so used to seeing rugs simply as home furnishings to be walked on. But a great rug is a one-of-a-kind creation that the weaver poured her soul into. All those emotions are still right there, waiting to share themselves with you whenever you open yourself up to its message.

I think it's best to look at specific rugs as examples. Take the Tekke carpet in this exhibition (no. 42), for instance. At a quick glance it is simply a repetitive- design rug with no variation from top to bottom. At a deeper level, it is an entire environment, a kindly, orderly enclosure where there is depth and richness and a feeling of well-being. Compare that with the Anatolian rug (cover and no. 12). This one is based on a repetitive design too. But here you have a sense of wild exuberance that is happy, humorous, even slightly crazy. The Tekke is a Bach cantata; the Anatolian is improvisational jazz. A lot of other rugs in the exhibit do this too; they reach out and leave you with a mood, a feeling, even an understanding that you didn't have before.

There aren't any words to describe a great rug with much accuracy. Many times I've had dealers call me and give a glowing description of a rug over the phone. I can picture it. But I still have no idea of its actual merits. It only takes one look at the real thing to tell the story, though. Its greatness, if it has any, comes from its spirit. It's like any kind of graphic art. If it's really wonderful, words are irrelevant.

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.