Whoever Has The Most Rugs
When He Dies Wins --
The Dangers of Rug Collecting
by Lawrence Kearney

  This article originally appeared in Oriental Rug Review Vol VI, No. 10 (January, 1987).  Copies of this issue may still be available for purchase - please consult the Oriental Rug Review website.   
  First of all, when I say dangers, I'm not speaking of the obvious injuries that rug collecting can inflict upon one's bank account. Nor am I referring to the havoc that rugophilia can create in one's relationship with one's nearest-and-dearest. (I imagine that every rug collector's spouse, at one time or another, has said to him or her: "You care more about your damned rugs than you do about me!")


Daddy, please don't spend
 Christmas Eve at the rug  auction!

  No, the types of dangers that interest me, that seem to be inherent in nearly any passionate pursuit of objects of artistic significance, are dangers of a more existential nature. That is, risks to the collector's emotional and spiritual well-being. I think of these risks as forming a hierarchy of challenges — as you overcome one challenge, a different and more difficult challenge has to be faced — somewhat in the same way that Don Juan, in Casteneda's The Teachings of Don Juan, postulates four "enemies" that a Man of Knowledge has to face in order to progress along "the path with heart."

 So, in ascending order of difficulty, my hypothetical list of the dangers of rug collecting would include:

1. Miserliness.   And its handmaidens Greed, Envy and Covetousness (the Three Furies that drive the rug business). Most rug collectors have too many rugs.

To illustrate the point, let's imagine an Everyman Rug Collector, Bob from Peoria, Illinois. Bob keeps too many rugs and knows it, and his wife Madge is always there to remind him should he ever forget. One evening, Bob and Madge sit down at the kitchen table for a heart to heart talk. It's the evening after a big rug sale and Bob has bought, as indiscriminately as usual, 10 mediocre rugs to join the 250 he already owns. "Great," Madge tells him, "ten more rugs. Now the rugs under the bed will have some new playmates." Bob just looks sheepish. "Honey," she tells him, "this is crazy. You've got to stop buying so many rugs, or you're going to end up being the Imelda Marcos of rug collecting."

What Bob's wife doesn't understand, what no one but another rug collector would understand, is that it doesn't matter that three quarters of Bobs collection is under the bed or in the closet. What matters is the difficulty Bob has in letting go of a rug, any rug, once he’s declared to himself and the world that "It is mine, all mine, and nobody else can have it!" For Bob to prune his collection, he would have to confront his own acquisitiveness, which might require years of psychotherapy; so Bob figures, "Why waste all that money on uncovering my insecurities, when I can spend it catering to my insecurities by buying rugs?" And so Bob remains what most of us remain, more a rug hoarder than a collector.

But so what? What's the big deal if most of our "collection" is under the guest room bed at the homes of our mothers-in-law? What's the harm in having more rugs than we can possibly use, look at, enjoy, or even remember?

The ways in which hoarding can harm us are twofold, I think. First, it can lead to a kind of emotional constipation — an unwillingness to face the fact that my rugs are only mine temporarily. I know, it's a New Age cliche to insist that we don't really own anything, but I mean it in a less glibly philosophical sense. From a personal point of view, the more I've been able to relate to my rugs as a curator rather than an owner, the less emotional wear and tear I've felt, the more objective (ha!) I can be about the merits and limitations of my collection. Second, keeping too much usually means that one's collection has no real shape to it, but is merely a grab-bag of whatever the cat dragged home. And without form, without selection and the clarity that comes from letting go, an essential creative element is missing from a person's collecting. And what might have been a genuine collection of rugs ends up being a glorified rummage sale.

2. Certainty. There is a rule of thumb in rug collecting circles that the more you understand about rugs, the less you know. That's why it is usually only the novice collector who speaks with any assurance about rugs (and, of course, there's a bit of the novice in each of us). 

Let's see how Bob, our Everyman, is functioning at this stage in his collecting career. Unfortunately, Bob has started to read rug books. What this means is that he knows just enough to pontificate, but not enough to shut up. And so, because Bob has read Ulrich Schurmann's Caucasian Rugs cover to cover, he feels compelled to make pronouncements on every aesthetic and ethnographic nuance of every Caucasian rug ever made (and he even has a few things to say about rugs that were never made at all). He can talk for hours, with eye-glazing enthusiasm, about the structural diversity of late 19th century Kazaks or the design origin of the "Lesghi Star" device. And if you give him half a chance, Bob will show you a photo album of his collection. And of what is Bob's collection composed? Late 19th century Kazaks and rugs with the "Lesghi Star" design, of course.

The problem with thinking that you really know a subject as fraught with uncertainty and conjecture as the study of Oriental rugs is that it imposes severe limitations on your ability to learn anything new, or to confront the unknown. The intellectual and emotional limitations of certainty are reflected in the limitations of Bob's collection: that is, the type of rugs he collects are 1) safe, and 2) have names, and 3) are easily understandable. He is what the rug trade calls a "Postage Stamp" collector; that is, he wants the kinds of rugs that he has seen pictured in rug books. And he would like one of each type, thank you.

However, for rug collecting to become a genuinely creative activity (as opposed to filling out a stamp album), the collector must make aesthetic and monetary decisions despite his insecurities, and this requires that he develop some kind of workable relationship with the unknown. This is especially true of collecting early tribal and village rugs, where many of the fundamental questions — where and when was this rug made? By whom? And in what context? Does a particular motif have a sacred or tribal significance, or is it merely a pretty doodad that the weaver liked the looks of? And so on — have no certain answers, only informed guesses. One consequence of this generic uncertainty is to make the field of rug studies both appallingly and wonderfully democratic. In other words, my speculations (e.g., that the Pazyryk carpet was really made by an ancient Irish tribe of rug worshippers) are, superficially, as valid as yours. There's some comfort in that, and I think that's why rug studies, like parapsychology, remains one of the last bastions of the intellectually inept. Everyone, even Bob from Peoria, is an expert.

3. Flash. There is an idea common among collectors and dealers of American folk art that graphic power is what distinguishes the great from the merely pleasing. As one dealer puts it, "Great folk art has to read well from 20 feet away."  Yes, maybe.... "Does it read well?" is a useful aesthetic criteria, but its usefulness is restricted to those rugs in which the graphic element predominates (Caucasian and northwest Persian rugs, or central Anatolian kelims, for example). The complication is that Oriental rugs are capable of a variety of aesthetic effects in addition to graphic power. And so a rug whose beauty depends upon finesse of drawing, or wool quality, or subtle color harmony, or all of the above (a fine old Senneh, or Qashqa'i, or Tekke, for instance) is likely to be dismissed as second-rate on purely graphic terms.

The danger inherent in this prejudice toward rugs that look great from 20 feet away (or in photos) is that too often rug collectors end up collecting the sizzle instead of the steak. Let's face it; when we look through a pile of rugs at Honest Abdul's local rug emporium, 90 percent of what we see is junk, because most Oriental rugs were produced solely as a commercial enterprise, with little or no artistic intent. As a consequence, when one comes across a rug that has some real visual impact, it's all too easy to pull out the old checkbook and start spending. In a collecting field as filled with dreck as Oriental rugs, it is understandably easy to be seduced by flash – and most of us have been, whether we’re Bob from Peoria or one of the big-time European dealers who puts out a glitsy color catalog every year.

When you look at the photo album of Bob's collection, what you see are late 19th century Caucasian rugs. That's because Bob, like most of us, is attracted to rugs with pretty colors and full pile and obvious, easily understandable graphics:  Kazaks and "Daghestan" prayer rugs and 1920's Afshari rugs with open fields. If you ask him what he thinks of 19th century Anatolian village rugs, for example, Bob says that they are alright but that he prefers the more intense colors of a Lori-Pembak Kazak and that he finds the designs of Turkish rugs "too complicated." And anyway, he notes Turkish rugs are usually worn out and who wants' to own a rug that looks like it got run over by a lawnmower when you can own a Kazak that has more fur than a English sheepdog.

But as I suggested above, Bob from Peoria isn't the only one subject to the allure of flash: even Eberhard Herrmann, the well known Munich art rug dealer, occasionally falters in his rug selections. In each of Herrmann's resplendent rug catalogs, there are at least 10 pieces whose chief virtue is that they are photogenic - rugs that take wonderful photographs, but when examined in terms of handle, wool quality, the age of the back, and various other nuances of a great rug are second rate. This kind of rug, the Playboy Centerfold of the textile world, just takes a good photo and looks striking in a catalog; that's all. You wouldn't necessarily want to own it. Which makes me think that the most effective antidote against being taken in by flashy rugs, and ending up with a costume jewelry type of rug collection, is to stop taking photographs of rugs. Take photos of your mate or your cat or your unmade bed or even the sunset. But, for our own aesthetic well-being, each of us should declare a one-year moratorium on making photos of rugs! I know, a certain amount of painful Photo Withdrawal is bound to occur. However, only by kicking the rug photo habit can we get back to experiencing rugs as sensual and emotional totalities — and not simply as Abstract Paintings made of wool.

4. Good taste. Good taste as a danger? How can it be of any harm, except when it comes to affording it? What was the point of all those years of rooting around in dingy rug shops, like a pig after truffles; risking brown lung disease from the dust and terminal boredom from the rug dealers' stories about the good old days? What was the point of nearly bankrupting yourself by buying every rug book you could lay your hands on (Oriental Rugs from Latvian Private Collections, etc.), no matter how arcane the text or unrecognizable the illustrations? The danger of having evolved to the point where you can actually trust your own eye is similar to Danger No. 2, Certainty. In the same way that intellectual certainty can prove to be an impediment to one's curiosity and openness of inquiry, good taste can breed a complacency of aesthetic inquiry — in other words, Snobbery.

Let's see how Bob from Peoria has progressed. By this point in his evolution, he has 1) gotten over his Kazak craziness, 2) disposed of his more egregious rug purchases, and 3) given his collection a new shape and direction — in short, Bob now considers himself an Art Collector. And, in his exalted status as an art collector, he feels nothing but contempt for most rugs, which he dismisses with a wave of his little finger, as "mere floor-covering."

The problem with this kind of attitude is that it is predicated on a form of myopia.  It fails to take into account the fact that even the best rugs have to be appreciated in relation to the entire continuum of artistic excellence. Great Oriental rugs are only the best because they stand on the shoulders of rugs that are note quite as good.

In the Gospel According to Bob, however, an Oriental rug is either great or it is garbage. He has, in other words, pulled a classic 180 degree reversal: he has gone from hoarding stacks of mediocre rugs to a dismissal of any rug less than extraordinary, thereby robbing himself of the pleasures of the ordinary. Ordinary rugs with good wool and good vegetable dyes — Hamadans, Kurds, even 1890's Kazaks — can be interesting and pleasant rugs to live with. After all, even a rug snob has to put something on his floors. Better a Kurdish village rug than broadloom. (This seems as good a place as any to put forward a pet theory, which perhaps makes up in cynicism what it lacks in originality: namely, that in most forms of intense human endeavor Narcissism must never be overlooked as a ferocious motivational force. This is as true of rug collecting as it is of politics or business or the pursuit of the opposite sex. In rug terms, Narcissism usually takes the form of an unstated but powerful equation: "I have a collection of world-class rugs, therefore I am a world-class person." Or, to give Descartes a slight twist, "I collect, therefore I am.")

Assuredly, even aesthetic certainty can too easily become small-mindedness, and small-mindedness can only limit the richness of our experiences. Obviously, most of our lives are limited enough as is, without wearing blinders. And besides, how boring it must be to be so sophisticated that none of the rugs you encounter in your rug searching quite measure up. And how isolating.

5. Obsession. Perhaps the most isolated among us are the insane, and Lord knows rugs can make you crazy. Obsession, in my opinion, is the most powerful danger we face as rug collectors, and the one we probably never completely overcome. Sometimes it seems that all one has to do to become obsessed with Oriental rugs is look at them: these soulful objects that can combine intense but wonderfully harmonized colors with sensually pleasing materials, that combine two-dimensional graphic power with three-dimensional depth, that you can hold in your hands and fondle without getting arrested (except in Boston), that interact with light in such a way that the quality of the light in which they are viewed is intrinsic to their visual effects. The rug which you see in the golden morning light when you are barely awake is not the same rug that you see at night, when there's only a few lamps lit and the rug reflecting back the diffused glow from here and there seems to be a source of light itself....

Somewhere in his work, the German psychiatrist Hanns Sacks has written:  “The difficulty is not how to understand beauty, but how to be able to stand it." Ah, yes...how to stand it. How to live with it, especially in our increasingly materialistic culture, without wanting more and more of it.  How to avoid going crazy from the lunatic pursuit of it.

 The main problem with an obsessive pursuit of the beautiful, I believe, is that it cuts us off from the real source of aesthetic appreciation, which is delight. The sad fact is, obsession is not delight. Obsession is more like torment.

When Bob goes home to Peoria from the Sotheby's, Skinner's or Christie's fall rug sale, having spent the down-payment for the new house and the tuition money for his kid's first year of college on three sublimely funky Anatolian village rugs, his wife knows what Bob doesn't know — that he's in the throes of Rug Madness. That Bob is just the chump who pays for the rugs, it's his obsession which is doing the bidding.

Or to state the case in a slightly different fashion, as much as Bob loves Oriental rugs, as much as his life has been enriched emotionally and intellectually by collecting them, his life has to some extent been diminished by his obsession with owning them.

The operative word here is owning. People who appreciate Oriental rugs but don't necessarily have to own them — for example,, scholars, museum goers, burned-out rug dealers — do not seem nearly as desperate or as driven as the true "white-knuckle collector." It's as if these non-obsessed rugophiles have come to the conclusion that Oriental rugs, no matter how exquisite, are just Stuff. They are not the ultimate point of evolution, or the handiwork of the gods, or the gateways to Eternal Life; they are just beautiful Stuff.

I don't think that it is any accident that the most profound injunction in the Hebraic tradition is, "Thou shall have no other gods before me." The Talmudic commentators point out that this injunction is not for God's sake — as if God might get cosmically annoyed if he caught us worshipping a golden calf or a giant Egg McMuffin instead of Him, the Creator of the Universe — but rather the injunction is for mankind's sake, because worshipping an idol, a tiny piece of the cosmos, when one could be worshipping the Creator of the cosmos, is just plain dumb. Idolatry, in the Hebraic view, is a form of stupidity and can only lead to disappointment and unhappiness. And I suspect that what we are doing when we become obsessed with owning rugs is to turn them into idols. Which is sad, because both the initial impulse and the grand purpose of rug collecting (and I think the old Talmudic scholars would back me up on this) is delight and celebration.

But I don’t want to end on this rather glum finger-wagging note (Repent, o ye Rug Heathen, for the day of Aesthetic Atonement is at hand!). What I'd like to suggest in closing is that all the dangers I've mentioned above have one thing in common. Namely, each of them represents a shutting down of some aspect of awareness, a limiting of one's responsiveness (Good Taste), for example, or trust (Miserliness), or learning potential (Certainty). This, however, is only the dark side (in Jungian terms) of rug collecting, which suggests that each of these forms of closing down, if confronted and learned from, offers a corresponding possibility of opening up. And it is that potential for opening up that we will consider in a later article, which will be on "The Rewards of Rug Collecting."




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