I thought I knew something about Oriental rugs. You know, the usual — that a rug is judged by the number of knots per square inch, that more knots are better, that they make the piece more valuable. Or that certain colors, like green, are significant and desirable. Or even that all Oriental rugs are expensive. And while I never thought I was an expert, I fancied I knew enough not to embarrass myself. But I was wrong. Repeatedly.
The Rug Society of San Diego was founded in 1991. It has grown and dwindled over the years as member interest and frustration levels have risen and diminished. New people join excited about learning from advanced members; knowledgeable members fall away because they don’t gain much for the time spent and because the same ground keeps being covered to bring the less experienced up to speed. It’s a cycle you can count on in any society of people with a complex interest.
I first call the president and cofounder of the rug society. He can’t see me, but he directs me to Val Arbab. I call her, but she is also busy. I call another member of the club, who directs me back to Arbab. I make a fourth call, this time to a retail rug dealer, and am again redirected to Arbab. I decide it’s a sign. I will wait until Arbab can see me, and while I’m waiting I’ll reread my rug books.
When I finally make the call to set up the interview, I want to let Arbab know she won’t be wasting her time talking to a novice. I share with her some of the titles of the books I’ve been reading.
“Throw them all out,” she tells me calmly on the phone.
“What?” I stammer. I ask if there is any reference she recommends. Only George O’Bannen’s Oriental Rugs makes the grade in Arbab’s eyes. Of course it is one I don’t have.
A few weeks later I drive north to La Jolla. Val Arbab answers the door within seconds of the bell. She is slim and delicate but not at all fragile. A dark-haired woman with glasses, approximately mid-50s, she has an intense but gracious manner. As the afternoon wears on I am more and more impressed by her energy.
We walk through a small entryway into a large combined living room and dining room. The house is neat and spare, not fussy. The furnishings are an exotic mix of Middle Eastern accents and antiques with clean Sheraton lines. Heavy window treatments allow only a sliver of natural light.
The living room is set up in a U-shape, with two sofas and a settee. The front feet of each piece sit on a beautiful oriental carpet.
Arbab was once a head surgical nurse. Dealing with the details and difficulties of employees helped her decide to change careers. She pursued her interest in old rugs to become an authority on the subject.
“How many people in this country have your level of expertise?” I begin.
“People with my credentials as an appraiser, I think there is only… Well, ASA” — American Society of Appraisers — “there’s now only six. And ISA” — International Society of Appraisers — “there’s only two of us. I have top credentials from both appraisal societies.”
An appraiser is an accredited authority who identifies, evaluates, and then puts a value on a piece. Appraisers are called in to make educated judgments for a variety of reasons — divorce, insurance claims, or donation. If I am a probate attorney whose fee is based on the value of an estate, I want the appraisal to mirror replacement costs at full market value. If I am a spouse in a divorce settlement, I may want a low value, because it will affect how much I have to pay my ex-spouse. If I’m the ex to be paid, you can bet I want to know exactly what something is worth.
“There were a lot of smuggled rugs because of the embargo with Iran,” Arbab says, “and I do tons of appraisals for customs. Sometimes I testify in federal trials. I do a lot of work for insurance companies, moving companies that have damage claims, all that stuff all over the country. Things happen, like Hurricane Andrew, and then further down the line people lock horns about the value of a rug. It somehow filters down to me.
“There is fraud of all kinds. I know prices of things in Iran, for example. I know all of the restrictions that are imposed by other countries — when you could or couldn’t have taken a rug out of Iran. So if you tell me you brought it in at such a time from your home in Iran, I’ll know if you did or didn’t. One has to know exactly when the embargo was put in place, when it was modified and stuff.
“But it’s not enough to know what a rug is; you need to know how it compares to all of its brothers and sisters. Is it in the condition that most of these types of rugs of this vintage are found in? Details are very important toward evaluation. Everyone wants to know how much he or she should pay. Everybody needs to somehow get a handle on market value.”
“When were you bitten by the rug bug?” I ask. “Do you remember?”
She laughs. “Not really. I think I just always liked texture and the textile. In Ukraine, I remember carpets just hanging on the wall, usually by the bed, because the walls are very cold. I remember having scarlet fever one night and throwing up all over my grandmother’s oriental rug that was hanging by the bed.
“I mostly have a visual memory. I remember exactly the colors, the rugs, even rugs that the clients don’t remember having. I will remind them that 15 years ago I was at their house and they had this blue camel-hair Hamadan runner, and so on. And they say, ‘No, no, we never had that.’ And I say, ‘Yes, you did. It ran along the sofa.’ I think, for those reasons, I like textiles in general.”