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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

Why do Rug Collectors Collect the Rugs they Collect? by Steven Price

We've had some lively discussions in recent weeks about aesthetics, attributions, whether rugs are works of art, and a bunch of other topics that bear on the matter of why rug collectors do what they do with such fervor. But none has come directly to grips with the matter, and I would like to introduce some thoughts that might help us to understand ourselves and each other a little better. Why would otherwise more or less sane people invest so much time, energy and money in looking at, touching and acquiring textiles?

Obviously, I can't answer for everyone. On the other hand, as a member of what we might call the contemporary mainstream group of rug collectors, I have some understanding of the things that motivate this group. I believe that the major criteria by which we judge a rug (or other textile) to be passion-worthy are:

1. Aesthetic. A rug that's beautiful or artistically moving in some sense is much more desirable than one lacking a full measure of these qualities.

2. Age. We find older rugs more desirable than younger ones, even though we know that age attributions carry a high degree of uncertainty.

3. Rarity. Rug collectors, like collectors of anything else, consider rarity to be a highly desirable characteristic.

4. Ethnographic elements. We find rugs more attractive if they convey some sense of a culture different than our own.

5. Investment. We find a rug more desirable (for purchase purposes) if it appears to cost less than we expect on the current market.

Different collectors weigh these factors differently, but every mainstream collector probably includes all five (and not many others) in his decisions. And, it is important to note, all five of them interact. To most collectors, a contemporary knockoff of an old rug is not only less desirable, it is actually less beautiful. Make of this whatever you will, I believe it to be a general (albeit illogical) fact. Then again, collecting is not a terribly logical thing to do.

Let me start by disposing of criterion number 5 (Investment) as a topic for discussion. The future price of a particular rug is so unpredictable that anybody who buys rugs with investment as a high priority consideration ought to be ready to be disappointed. We can reasonably expect a decent rug to hold its value better than, say, a sofa, and perhaps it will even appreciate over time. But nobody should bet more than he can afford to lose on the prospect of appreciation. Let me direct the reader to an article on TurkoTek for more on that subject.

Before we get to the images of the rugs, I must apologize for their very poor color reproductions. They are scans of 35 mm transparencies, and I guess I am just not enough of a photo editor to make the colors come out right.

Here is a rug that I think is very beautiful. It is a silk and gold Hereke prayer rug, probably made around 1960, not very old. It was made in a factory, designed to be sold to western buyers, so the ethnographic elements are not spontaneous cultural expressions. The inscription in the cartouche in the mihrab translates approximately as "Duruder Co., trademark registered", not very romantic. So if this rug has any appeal to a collector, it is almost entirely aesthetic. The colors and composition are extremely harmonious (unlike the impression you get from the posted image), and the elegance of the drawing is characteristically Hereke. The rug looks beautiful enough to the eye of this beholder to overshadow the weaknesses in the other criteria.

Here's a rug (not mine) whose major appeal is probably related to its age. It has no particular ethnographic significance and, in my opinion, not much aesthetic appeal (but more than the JPG image suggests). But, in rug parlance, it "has real good age", and brought what I think of as serious money at a major east coast auction several years ago. It's a Kuba prayer rug with a field that was originally done in a corrosive black. The corrosion had proceeded to the point at which there was essentially nothing but the foundation left in the field, and the beginning of repiling had begun in a rather random fashion.

Finally, a rug that fulfills all of my criteria with room to spare. This is one that I find beautiful, it probably dates to the mid-19th century or earlier, and was used as a camel trapping in wedding processions. It's a Yomud asmalyk with a wonderful dark blue-green border and pile with a lustrous patina from years of being handled. It is as collectible as a rug gets, particularly in the current climate of Turkmen worship. It was in the "Show and Tell" session at last October's Textile Museum Rug Convention, and drew audible gasps from the audience.

This more or less summarizes the criteria this collector applies to rugs and textiles. They absolutely must appeal to the aesthetic or artistic sense, because my wife and I really don't care to live around things that we think are unattractive. They become more desirable if they are old, and I don't know why that is so, although I suspect that the mysterious appeal that rarity has to all collectors enters into this (rarity increases with the age of the piece, for obvious reasons). Perhaps there is a subconscious belief that anything old that is still in presentable condition must have been valued by others, thus affirming my own aesthetic judgment. Perhaps it is simply comforting to know that something older than me still looks good. They become more desirable if they communicate something about some culture that is alien, and to this extent there is clearly an intellectual component to a collector's appreciation of textiles.

What are your criteria for what makes a rug wonderful and interesting? It would be especially interesting to compare responses from people who consider themselves to be mainstream collectors, newcomers, dealers of various stripe, decorators, and so forth, as our bases for judgement are surely different. If you would like to include an image in a posting, please send me a copy of the image before posting your message, and I'll get back to you with simple instructions that will let you include it in your message.

Steve Price

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