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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.

Good, Better, Best: An Analogous Salon

by R. John Howe

In 1950, a dealer and expert on early American furniture, one Albert Sack, published a book in which he attempted to educate the interested “public” about how to recognize quality pieces of such furniture. This book has been very influential. My own copy is from its 12th printing in 1969.  Sack’s scheme it to present black and white pictures of similar items of early American furniture, each group from the same approximate time period and then to give them ratings in terms of a three-point scale: Good, Better, Best. Sack’s interpretation of this scale requires a little explaining.

He says that his Good refers to “worst to mediocre, or average.”   His Better refers to “items by good or fine craftsmen but with some definite weakness, either in proportion, design or workmanship.  He says that his Best is self-explanatory, but that it does not mean that even more outstanding instances could not be found. “It does mean that it was made by a superior craftsman and that it is worthy of the most discriminating collection, assuming that it is well-preserved.”

Note that Sack is not making any judgments in this book about color, patina or age. His is working from black and white photos and controlling for age by comparing items he feels were made in the same approximate period (usually about 20 or 30 years in width).  Here is one such set of examples Sack presents together with his assessments of them. The items being compared are Chippendale style chairs made from 1750-1770.  The item below is Sack’s Good example in this set.

He comments: "An average chair of too delicate proportions. The most desirable characteristics of a chair of this type are strength and boldness…”   Here is his Better chair in this set.

About this example he says: “For some inexplicable reason this craftsman left the bottom portion of the splat solid. The resulting incompleteness is evident when compared with the chair shown below. Note how the ankle of this chair sags where it meets the claw and ball foot.”  Here is his example of a Best chair of this type (he, in fact provides six Best examples in this section).

His comment about this one is, “A choice chair of fine proportion and beauty of detail.” (ed. His comments on other Best examples of this sort show that his “beauty of detail” comment is praise for the carving visible in this example.)

Now come to the world of rugs.  Mark Hopkins, head of the New England Rug Society, has designed and given in many sessions, a program inviting evaluation of similar sets of rugs, that may be at least inspired by Sack’s book.  In Hopkins’ design, images of similar rugs are projected side-by-side, and the audience is invited to rate them in a numerical scale provided. A panel of experts is also asked to assess the sets of rugs and to hold up (all at the same time) the numbers that indicate their respective ratings. The experts are then asked to explain their ratings. The audience can compare their own ratings privately and ask questions of the experts if they are so moved.

It is a great crowd pleaser, since the experts sometimes disagree and because it is fun to see them (sometimes) struggling to put their visual assessments into mere words. And, of course, participants can go home with their own rating sheets hugged tightly to their chests in their certainty that they know better than the experts.  But in truth, not a little learning goes on in such sessions, even if it is sometimes only that the experts, in their disagreements, have publicly demonstrated that they are fallible.

This is a salon in which we propose to do something similar. We will not have information about handle nor will we even be able to see the back of the pieces we are comparing. We will have color, but its accuracy is open to question. We will not deliberately pick pieces that seem greatly different in age, but estimates about seeming differences in this area are not barred.

Let’s use a rating scale that retains some of Sack’s distinctions; a 1 to 9 scale with 1 being the lowest score.  Let’s further divide this scale into three sections.  If you see a piece as “average” you must rate it within the 1-3 range. It cannot be given more than 3 and if it truly earns Sack’s “worst,” you must give it a 1.  A piece seen to be “better” must be rated within the 4-6 range.  “Best” pieces must be scored with in the top range of 7-9.

The virtue of having three numerical levels within three categories is that it permits within category distinctions. It will not be sufficient for example to rate something “best.” One must indicate what level of “best” you think is justified.  A second requirement is that you must justify your rating with reasons.

I have engaged an anonymous expert to provide what we might call “book” ratings and rationales for each set I have selected. At some point I will disclose this expert’s ratings. That will, no doubt, be an occasion for some further discussion.  I will present six sets of weavings that I have chosen. I will try to move around a bit, to provide a variety of things to rate. I have not selected these pieces with any prior sense of my own of what their proper ratings should be (it was difficult enough to find close examples). This means that there could well be three “Bests” in a given set and since all of the pieces I have selected have been published, someone likely thought all of them have merits. But don’t let that stop you. If a piece seems “average,” rate it down and say why. Some might find bases for rating down all the pieces in a given set. They just have to say why.  It may also be that as you rate these pieces and give reasons for your ratings it will occur to you that some better examples could have been selected.

In this salon, you are not confined to the comparisons I have selected. If you have others you think better or potentially more instructive, select three instances and start a new thread inviting comparisons of them.    If you select three pieces of your own and present them in a separate thread, you are also responsible for providing the associated “expert” book answers. You may either engage an expert of your choosing or appoint yourself in that role. In either case, ratings and reasons for them must be provided at some point.

OK, let’s begin. I will present the six sets of three pieces each that I have selected for rating in five separate threads (this to keep comments at least somewhat focused by set).  Go to a thread that interests you and examine and rate (with rationales) the three examples there, then post your ratings and rationales in that thread.  Then move to another thread that interests you and repeat this sequence, and so on.

If you are moved to present a set of your own for rating, you are free to do that at any point.  Just be sure to put it in a new thread.


R. John Howe

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