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An Interview with Dr. Ulrich Schurmann
by Lawrence Kearney

 
     
  This 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 website.   
     
 
 
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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 stuck.

BENED - Were you trained to go into the family store?

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.  And then 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 year.

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 pleasure.

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 there.                    '

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 color?

BENED - But they have poems addressed to the color red.

SCHUR - Anyway, it's a question that still interests me.

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 rugs?

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 for them.

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 comparable merit.

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 ones?

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 general.

KEAR - It might have something to do with the weather.

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 collection?

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, Lawrence.

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, beautiful colors.

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 very moving.

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.

 
    
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