I clarify that Arbab is talking about the sculpted Chinese wool rugs with dramatic solid-color fields and pale accents and borders.
“Yes,” she says, “sort of Aubussoni-Frenchie-looking, oval or circular medallion on an open ivory field and the borders that go into the field and the design. It’s mostly pastels: light blue, light green, that sort of thing. You can find them in some place like Home Depot or Expo. At one time, rug stores were loaded to the ceiling with them, and now, unless they have some leftover merchandise, there aren’t any there. That’s what ‘decorative’ means, and once you comprehend what ‘decorative’ means, then everybody should be more or less an expert. If you leaf through Architectural Digest, the rugs that you see there are what’s hot. The rest is what’s not.”
I ask Arbab how often she works with people who want to buy a good rug.
“Many people who collect today are very busy and hire people like myself as advisors,” she says. “They’ll send a photo or they’ll send the piece and say, ‘The seller wants a ton for this,’ and they want to know what I think.”
“If you got a call and someone said, ‘You have got to see this,’ would you get on a plane and go?”
“Well, first of all,” Arbab says, “I have a hard time imagining any auction house would have a piece of that quality. Skinner’s is a very good auction house for collectors. They struggle very hard to accept pieces only from private parties and to accept very little from dealers.”
Skinner is a fine art and antique auction house in Boston. One of its specialties is oriental rugs that are new to the marketplace, not out of a dealer’s back room. At a Skinner auction, you are more likely to see something a collector is letting go of, rather than something that hasn’t sold in someone’s shop.
Butterfields, in San Francisco and Los Angeles, was acquired in August 2002 by Bonhams of London, one of the oldest firms in art and antique auctions. Bonhams was established in 1793, and the acquisition has given them their first permanent presence in the United States. The auction house is now called Bonhams and Butterfields.
“But as I’m sure you are aware,” Arbab says, “no auction house can have the 500 or 600 rug pieces lying around without there being a large percentage of dealer’s rugs. That’s what they have to rely on. So I admire Skinner’s for trying to encourage local or private parties to bring their pieces to them.
“At the same time, if someone had an $80,000 piece, it just seems foolish that they would take it to Butterfield & Butterfield or Skinner’s. It would have to be Sotheby’s or Christie’s. Then you would have to decide if it should be auctioned in the U.S. or the Continent.
“If I am going to preview the auction anyway, I will take one or two clients with me. I’ll spend an hour or so with each individual explaining and walking through the rugs, getting a feeling for what it is they are looking for. For that kind of service I charge $150, maybe $200 a piece.
“I haven’t gone with someone for years, as far as auctions go. I have gone to dealers and picked something out. But auctions,” she shakes her head, “I haven’t gone because I think most people that need your help to that extent are not mature enough to actually buy a rug and own it.
“This business of people bringing four, five, or six rugs, looking at them, taking them back, and still ‘can’t make up my mind.’ It just sort of goes on with some people, and those are the kind of people that say, ‘I’ll buy something at auction. These dealers just don’t have what I want.’ But they don’t know what they want. So for them to end up with a rug that they are not going to like seems like a disservice. Because I know they can’t run it back through auction and get their money back out of it.”
“When you say they aren’t mature enough to buy and to own a rug,” I say, “are you talking about the care required, or the possibility that it might end up in a garage sale?”
“Oh, no,” Arbab says. “I’m saying they might come home, lay it down, and see that it doesn’t go well. But if they bought it at the auction, they bought it. And now, three weeks from the time they saw it for an hour, it’s arrived in their home. It’s theirs.”
“The responsibility comes back on your doorstep,” I say.
“Yes,” Arbab says, “they get it home and say, ‘I can’t live with this rug. Why didn’t I see these streaks of that color I detest?’ But I didn’t know that they don’t like that color. They chose the rug. I just suggested where the bidding should stop. Then people are unhappy, and they want to know what to do with it.
“So I just don’t do that, really. There are other people who are knowledgeable, who build their homes, who have three stories to cover. People who not only have their own strong color and design sense but also delegate a good deal to a decorator. I just went with a decorator and an owner like that to New York. We bought six or seven pieces at two auctions, and another half a dozen in private stores. Now the house is filled, but that’s very rare.
“When you preview a lot of auctions,” Arbab continues, “you get to be more knowledgeable about whether something is unique or rare or not. You become familiar with a particular design that may appear in 55 percent of these pieces, but this one is exceptional, and exceptional in a positive way. But these nuances are hardly of interest to the general public. The general public is not into seeking a hobby. Especially a time-consuming, money-consuming hobby that requires a constant explanation.