Hunting Rugs on The World Wide Web

by Detlev Fischer, 3 October 2005Jozan Magazine has asked Detlev Fischer, a German rug collector and frequent Internet user, about his personal view on seeking rug information and interesting rugs for sale on Internet and about his hobby – Oriental rugs – in general. 

My kids holding up an anatolian kurdish prayer rug to be photographed.When we moved to a new flat, we found that we had a wooden floor to cover. I went to the rug department of a department store, had enough sense to dislike the colourful monstrosities, and went instead for a simple red-and-black Afghan carpet with a gul pattern (of course I had no notion of guls at the time). I lugged the carpet home, on my way secretly relishing the stares at the plastic-wrapped tube.

There it was, unrolled. I fondled it, lay down on it, looked at its back, looked at the octagonal things that make up the pattern, the things that I later heard a dealer call with authority ‘elephant foot’, the things that I would later learn to have been the subject of endless controversies. The first scent of endemic uncertainty, the can of worms opened. The rug’s colour scheme was quite dark. There was admittedly little life in the colours; they looked dull and unvaried. The carpet was firm and stiff, the wool sort of bristly – the whole thing appeared supremely utilitarian. It could not be called a luscious carpet by any means.

A simple home decoration task had failed (not admittedly so, at first), and had given birth to something else, an interest that was at first still faint and feeble, perhaps still squashable with sufficient resolution. Two weeks later, I chanced upon a rug store in Hamburg’s Altstaetter Strasse (the place now hosts a copy shop), a shop filled with floral garishly coloured stuff that did not attract me at all. After I described what I wanted, the rug dealer disappeared to the basement and returned with a Persian Baluch rug with a thick pile, soft shiny wool, and wonderful shifts of colour in the red field, “all colours vegetal”. The orange details he claimed to be saffron-based. I was suspicious about his claims but I was hooked; I had never seen anything like this before. For 300 Euro it was mine. When I came home and put this new rug across my Afghan rug, the dullness of the latter was painfully highlighted. I felt I had to get rid of it, and fortunately, the department store took it back, weeks after the purchase, for a full refund.

This was the start of my career as a rug addict. The next rug I bought on a business trip to Palermo, a newish rather well made Teke Ensi lacking the horizontal bar of the cross. At the time, the pattern reminded me of the design of a deranged counting machine.

This is what I believe to be a southern Persian gabbeh. I got it a while ago relatively for about €50 on ebay, and it is one of the pieces which I do not regret buying. (It is now in Paris, and I hope the rabbit won't eat it.)Only then did I begin to explore what was offered on the Internet. I had no idea that such a huge number of rugs was sold over Ebay. I don’t know why I fell for a rug with a cream-coloured field and a rigid diagonally-repeating pattern showing an angular maze of branches and flowers. The moment I took it out of the box I knew I had to get rid of it. The seller refused to take it back, but assured me I would be able to sell it at the same or a better price (the offer had been backed up by what I would call the grandmother claim: “bought by Grandma in the seventies for 3800 Deutschmark, and as good as new”). I used the same strategy for selling it on, and took the time to research, via the email addresses, the identity of the two main bidders who were fortunately both keen on getting this piece: a trade union representative and a Bavarian local CSU politician. The piece went to the politician, indeed for just slightly more than I had paid for it. I think this was the only time I ever made a profit in an Ebay resale.

This set the pattern for a number of purchases: I would buy over Ebay, place the purchase on the floor, attempt to convince myself that it was fine and likable, and finally put it up on Ebay myself. Once I returned a piece that was sold with the affirmation “condition: fine” but was indeed quite worn; another time, a huge, boring, busy and worn Shiraz made me sneeze badly, so I concluded that its former owner must have had a cat (I have a cat hair allergy). At least, since the price range of what I bought was usually somewhere between 10 and 100 Euro, the losses I made were not too painful.

Around that time I also chanced upon the first interesting rug shop, run by Mohammed Tehrani at Neue Gröningerstr. 10 in Hamburg. I walked in, said I would like to see what was on offer, and Mr Tehrani and his wife calmly unfolded rug after rug for me. I mainly remember a few bold and shaggy Gabbehs that I could not appreciate at the time: compared to the densely packed pile of the rugs I owned, they looked somewhat ragged. When a Qashqai came up, I asked for the price, and immediately realized that I was in an entirely different ball game: after all, these were all antiques, as the Tehranis patiently explained. Mr Tehrani took the trouble to identify a similar Qashqai rug in a glossy book he took from his shelf, and to point out on a map the area where the Qashqai live and used to migrate. He recommended I should read and learn a bit before buying. I ordered my first rug books, Jenny Housego’s Tribal rugs and P. R. J. Fords Oriental Rug Design. Finding out from somewhere that Freud had had a Shekarlu Qashqai over his couch, I briefly thought I had found my niche. Unsuccessfully I tried to obtain Lois Beck’s anthropological account “Nomad: A Year in the Life of a Qashqa’I Tribesman in Iran”.

Besides reading the rug books, I checked out information on the Internet. Barry O’Connell’s Oriental rug notes and Jozan provided endless resources for browsing and learning more about rugs. Entering rug discussion lists such as Yahoo: Orientalrug and Yahoo: rug fanatics allowed me to post questions on Ebay items before the auction ended – risking of course that the added exposure to a group of rug aficionados might increase competition and drive up the price. So I usually asked only about items that I had no intention to buy, or asking after the auction had ended and the rug was mine. Some of my requests started a veritable war of attribution, which was a good learning experience and another proof of the endemic uncertainty surrounding old rugs. With so many claims and counter-claims, with experts plainly contradicting each other, where were the grounds for sound evidence? And did it matter so much?

I became fascinated by what may be called the epistemology of rugs – the construction of “evidence” from various and often competing forms of knowledge ranging from ethnological research to hearsay, intuitions and rampant speculation. I like the never-ending stream of cautious assumptions, bold attributions, learned references, acerbic asides, blunt objections and painstaking refutations. I like to imagine how the acquired positions and stakes in this fuzzy field of knowledge relate to personal stories and histories of those engaged in these arguments. Even those with years of first-hand expericence in rug-producing countries that may have broadly settled for particular attributions of, say, “Baluch” rugs (that is, rugs formerly lumped together as Baluch, but actually often made by other tribes) may suddenly be confronted with starkly contrasting attributions by someone who has gone ‘native’ (read, for example, an interview with Jerry Anderson, From the Horses Mouth-Talking ‘Baluch’ , originally published in HALI 76, © 1994, and the reply by Andrew Hale). It is this struggle for knowledge that I find more fascinating than any “truth” about any particular rug.

From time to time, I returned to the Tehrani store, looked at the beautiful rugs with the eyes of a hungry dog, accepted a cup of tea, chatted a bit, and extracted Mr Tehrani’s opinion on some items I had identified as potentially interesting on Ebay. He took this with great patience, explaining why most of the things I had bookmarked weren’t any good. The free advice I had on potential purchases added to a bad conscience: I felt that sooner or later I should buy something from Mr Tehrani, or stop bothering him. I felt that I fell into the most despicable category of customer, the one that takes up valuable time, wants good advice, but goes elsewhere for purchases. The truth is that the things I fancied I could not afford, while those bag faces that I could afford I did not really fancy. In the mean time, I had taken a liking for Afshar weavings because I thought of them as interestingly eclectic and at the same time powerful. I fondled an old Afshar bag face with beautifully executed botehs for a considerable time; an item for sale on commission. I contemplated whether I should spend 800 Euro for something that would have to go to a wall. I was closer than ever to go for it, driven by an unfortunate mix of acute tactile and visual pleasure and a nagging bad conscience. I marvelled at length to what extent dealers might be aware of, exploit, or deliberately ignore the hidden mental states and feelings of guilt of their potential customers. The old phrase of “have to think it over, will decide the next day” saved me from purchasing this admittedly beautiful item. I just did not return. I felt so bad that I avoided the shop for almost a year.

Today, I no longer attempt to deny that I am somewhat obsessed with rugs. Collectors of all sorts of things like to joke about their obsession, justifying it that way. If I think soberly about it, there is little to justify. For me, it is mainly a pre-sales game: regularly scanning the antique textiles sections of ebay.de and ebay.com, returning to the “new items” section of cloudband.com, checking out certain dealers at the rug sales section of jozan.com, checking online catalogues of auction houses such as Rippon & Boswell, Bonhams, Christies or Sothebys; then, returning to various specific rug dealer sites. The same way as some people take a detour to walk past a particular spot they like, I visit these sites and repeatedly look for considerable time at particular cherished items that I cannot justify buying. For some time, I was attracted to a quirky highly irregular small Kurdish or maybe Genje rug with diagonal stripes that was listed in the Persian Tribal section of Haliden.com. One day, it was gone, and I regretted not having had the courage to buy it it time.

There are moments of desperation when the typical line “price on request” (yes, I prefer to see prices next to the items) triggers a mail to the vendor, sent out in the knowledge that the price quoted will most likely be far too high for me to afford. I may variously request close-up photos, ask about condition and materials, or bother repair people like Walter Brew of Harlequin Thunderstrand in order to get a quote on the restoration of a distressed but beautiful rug. This can go on and on for hours, accompanied by a feeling of numbness and disorientation, of lost purpose, and an aching back. The moment of acquisition (ambivalent like an ill-constructed vanishing point in a painting) is habitually put off (because there is only so much to spend, and because there isn’t really enough floor space for new acquisitions anyway, at least not in areas with little traffic.) The endless stalking, gazing and drooling must be put into relation to the moment when a rug that I have actually acquired in an internet auction (without ever touching it) arrives at the doorstep. I tear open the parcel, I am shocked by the contrast between my anticipation and the reality of the rug – even when the rug is fine. The truth of the rug needs time to sink in, and I feel dizzy, nauseous. The moment that should be the fulfilment of the desire is actually hollow, stale, tainted by a nagging feeling that my obsession is exposed as misdirected and the money foolishly spent. Not because I might never be able to sell the rug without a loss (which is probably true, at least in the short and medium term), but because there is so little actual use of the rug. I might actually put aside the parcel unopened, neglect it as if to reprimand it for my folly of buying it. One flatweave fragment, wrapped tightly in a grey bin bag, has been sitting on my shelf for several weeks before I got around opening it.

kurdish long rugOnce, after a string of Ebay rugs that I put up again for sale or passed on to friends, I felt I had landed a coup. I had set the alarm clock to three o’ clock in the morning to bid for a damaged unusual Kurdish long rug offered by Antiqueaday. I won the auction, and soon got emailed requests from two people, one of them a well known Turkmen expert and internet rug dealer. Both had missed the end of the auction and asked me whether I would sell the rug to them. This only strengthended my resolve to hang on to it and get it restored. I asked the vendor to send the rug to Walter Brew in the UK, and months later collected it expertly restored outside London’s Kentish town tube station.

I know that many people think the internet is a poor medium for appreciating rugs, digital photographs (especially at low resolution) being a bad substitute for the real thing. For sure, digital images often cannot accurately reproduce the colours and texture of a rug, let alone the tactile quality of the wool and the weight and handle of a rug. On the other hand, experience can “fill in” information, especially for particular types of rug that one has seen and handled before. Good close-ups of a rug, a hand opening the pile, or an image of a rug draped over a chair can provide approximations of tactile qualities. Ebay vendor Antiqueaday is a paragon for consistently excellent rug images. In most cases, ebay vendors will be willing to send images at higher resolution and answer questions about the condition. Finally, the “high-end” vendors on Ebay as well as on other platforms such as Cloudband are prepared to send out rugs on approval, which allows the buyer to inspect and handle the rug at leisure, and to return it with no questions asked. The only risk is having to cover the shipping cost.

Much has been said about the risks of buying on Ebay, the fraudulent offers, the scams, so I think I can pass that over. A search for “Ebay” at the Yahoo:Orientalrug mailing list will provide more information on this topic than you will be willing to digest. I simply keep returning to a few Ebay vendors that I have bookmarked and whom I trust – some because they are on Barry O’Connell’s trusted resource list, some because they also sell on professional sites such as Cloudband and seem to have a consistently attractive inventory, some others because of the good things others have said about them in some group mail or on some web site.

Some instinct has always told me that hanging rugs will be a decisive and fateful state change in my collecting career. I have till today backed away from putting rugs on the wall. As long as there is empty floor space, it may still be possible to justify a purchase from a mainly utilitarian perspective (at least for any rug that is not too fragile to serve on the floor). It is comforting to believe that one does not yet fall into the category of the mad collector who collects beyond his actual needs, someone who (as stories have it) puts rugs into cardboard tubes and stores them underneath his bed, someone who permanently worries about moth damage to items in storage, someone always in fear of, or in stoic opposition to scathing remarks from his wife. The Xanthippean dimension of collecting that is occasionally hinted at seems the saddest aspect of all. In any case, I had decided I should not buy more rugs than I can put on the floor, and I still think of it as a useful rule of thumb to reign in the collector’s bug.

“Hanging rugs” is the clearest departure from a utilitarian justification of rug purchases. Hanging rugs would mean accepting that I buy items mainly for purposes of interior decoration, something that I profess to abhor. Behind this may be a romantic or Gibsonian ideal that the natural habits of some (human) animal produce the suitable interfaces of its habitat, and that the looks of these interfaces are strictly a side effect, not to be tampered with. “Hanging rugs” is also a clear negation of the use value of the item, a departure from the context for which is was made. I feel as if I owe it to the weaver to use the rug as originally intended (or close to that intention), even if it might over time suffer further damage under my feet. But then, do I really think much about the actual weaver of the piece? To be honest, I do not – at least not often. Perhaps the wear that I cause as I tread on a delicate rug is meant to erase from my mind the stigma of market-driven appreciation, of the hyped-up commodity value (sorry for the crude Marxist vocabulary). And finally, a complacent little moral seems to be surfacing. The way the history of a piece (faded repairs included) has left its mark touches and pleases me. Is it not the rule of all things that they get used and eventually fall apart? Is not the acceptance of such decay a token way of teaching myself a little lesson in mortality (the lesson of a bigot, to be sure)?

Which leads us to perhaps the most uncomfortable reflection of this relatively innocent habit. Is it not necessary to scrutinize a bit why on earth your typical educated westerner, your guy in his forties with a profession and a family, suddenly takes such an interest in the supposedly primitive or authentic or archaic art of rug weavers that lived several generations before our time? Where are the motives, the incentives, the rewards? (Sally Price has written an interesting book on the relation between the Western art lover and the primitive artist: “Primitive Art in Civilized Places“) And what does this habit lead to? Is there not something unsightly and wretched about a guy spending his precious lifetime slumped over a PC for hours on end, gazing at small images of rugs that, like distressed phantoms, appear for a brief span of time in auction listings before some remote hammer soundlessly relegates them into the inaccessible darkness of some private floor or collection? What else could have been savoured, understood or achieved instead? Is this not a rejection of the vital possibilities of immersed experience, a “no, thank you” hurled at life itself? Or is this a sweet unmeasured realm, the blossoming of a space where nothing must be achieved, where no relation demands or exerts? Where links are leisurely followed and searches made, where rug discoveries lead to spurious activities (tracking items, saving images, sending price requests), activities that slowly sink to the bottom of the browser history, leaving no trace other than the growing cob web of diffuse rug-related notions? An cob-web then pointlessly getting better at catching (or rather, letting go of) the visual information on thumb-nail sized images of rugs as they scroll upwards at considerable speed?

These questions shall remain rhetorical. Being an artist by training (and still practicing art besides paid work), one way to explore my obsession with rugs was to start weaving – not on a proper loom, but with a paint program, slowly composing lines pixel by pixel (each pixel a knot). After more than a year, I am still slaving on my first rug which I hope to complete soon.

Detlev Fischer, 3 October 2005

 




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