How Good Is My Rug Collecting?
by Mark Hopkins
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
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
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?
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,
neophyte asks. Well, one of two things. Either you'll get
of it before long and, when you try to sell it, you'll find
how many other people don't like it either. Or you'll will it
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
But take it on a rug buying quest and your good intentions
easily turn to jelly.
The problem is, what are we talking about when
"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
So you pick the best of a category,
right? It depends. One
expert, a dealer, was recently quoted on these pages saying
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
happen to like, scorn the mediocre and track down only the
great stuff. But to that I'm going to add a qualifier.
you think is great stuff becomes, by your definition, great
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
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
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
A nice Kazak goes for $7,000. Another Kazak, not as
interesting but having the first name of Pinwheel, brings
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
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