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San Diego's rug experts

Val Arbab in La Jolla is one of top two in U.S.

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.”

Becoming an expert requires years of tactile experience. Your senses communicate physical details in a way no book can. To know about great, collectible rugs, you have to see them and feel them over and over. And you need to have people around to put the things you see in perspective.

“There could be some wonderful pieces,” Arbab says, “but they may be quite plentiful. For that reason their value will be lower. And there are some pieces that are so rare and so unique and so great, but for most people, it just goes right over their heads.”

Hamadan, Sarouk, Soumak, Tabriz, Qashqais, Khamseh, kilim: rugs get their names from areas, cultures, tribes, or peoples. The names were given to the patterns, color combinations, and weaves by Westerners, to help them identify and classify the pieces so they could communicate among themselves.

The trick to reading a rug is speaking the language. For me, it is easiest to think of some of the elements as other things: a boteh (pronounced BO-teh) looks like a paisley; the quasi-circular design called a gul reminds me of a Chinese good-luck symbol; and the way I recognize the Herati element in borders is to think of a cross section of the female reproductive system. Each element of a pattern is a reflection of a culture, an artist, a tribe, a time, a change in the material process, or a change in fashion.

The way a knot is made, the number of knots per square inch, the materials used for warp and weft, even the size of a rug are clues to solving the mystery of who made it and when. Depending on your expertise, or the way you learned to “speak rug,” you may identify a piece by the colors or pattern, the fineness of the weave, the thickness of the pile, or the dyestuff, or mordant, used.

Rug nomenclature can be misleading. When a rug is identified as “Persian,” you know only that Persian is one possibility. Too often that name is used synonymously with “oriental.” To be Persian, a rug must come from Persia, now called Iran.

Someone who speaks rug well will be able to classify an oriental rug by the area where it was made — Anatolia, the Caucasus Mountains, China, etc. Someone who is really good can nail down the exact area in the country. But only someone fluent in rugspeak can look at all of the elements and pinpoint the tribe, the time, and even the artist, if the artist is famous.

“I’ve made several trips to Iran,” Arbab says. “I was sort of amazed. Before I went, I thought rug-making was a dead art. Then I went to Iran and saw what different people made in different bazaars, and the different merchandise, and I saw the people that were still at it.

“That greatly contributed to my thinking that it was financially feasible to actually have a rug shop, that the merchandise was available. But as it turns out, I decided it’s really only old rugs that I am interested in. Presently that serves me well too. There are fewer and fewer people who know much about the older rugs.

“Rugs break down into two categories — decorative and collectible,” Arbab says. “One can say that all modern production, post–World War II, those are all what I call ‘new rugs.’ New rugs are decorative, and one doesn’t need to concern themselves with any other classification.

“One really needs to distinguish between the decorative classification and the collectible classification, because if there’s one definition of a decorative rug, it’s what’s hot is hot and what’s not is not. In the most modern times, we in the West, when we are through with something, we are just through with something.

“For example, between 1924-25 and World War II, we just couldn’t get enough of the burgundy color. We wanted things plush. We wanted lots of velvets around. Couches of that period were covered with burgundy velvets, and so on. We dictated that in rugs. Americans said, ‘We don’t want thin-pile rugs; we want thick rugs. And we don’t want rugs in these nice peach tones; we want everything to be burgundy.’ So the so-called American Sarouk was born.”

“It was born just for our market?” I ask.

“Yes,” Arbab says. “Not one went to Europe; not until the 1970s did American Sarouks go from the U.S. to Germany. They were the most expensive rugs of their time because of all of the changes dictating the design. That’s the whole idea of ‘decorative.’ ”

Arbab’s voice drops scornfully. “We might be into the Southwestern thing for the next lifetime. If we would go into jewel tones and stay there for a while, there are so many wonderful rugs in those tones.

“Recently, the fashion was these thick Chinese rugs that are embossed and way overtreated chemically. They were so popular; we couldn’t get enough of them. There were rugs that people paid as much as $30 and $35 per square foot for, meaning they paid $3500 for a 9 by 12.

“Now they can’t get a dime on their dollar, because about six or seven years back, we decided we were through with them. There were way too many of them. They had problems with cleaning; all the sharp embossing was just fuzzed out. Half the pale colors would just disappear, and stains… Anything spilled on it would just stain because of the chemicals left in the wool. For all of those reasons, but mostly because of oversupply, we turned off. And when we are finished…

“People call me all the time and ask, ‘Can I consign it to anybody?’ My only suggestion is to donate it and take some kind of tax write-off, because even if you paid $3000 for it, you can’t sell it for $300. There isn’t a market. We seem to have lost the medium used-furniture stores that were very nice for that kind of thing.”

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.

“It’s very difficult to suggest where people can go if they develop an interest beyond just a floor covering. We have a wonderful network of textile and rug societies. I lecture to a number of them. Arizona has an incredible group called AORTA [Arizona Oriental Rug and Textile Association] out of Tucson. I’ve never seen so many committed people. There are easily 20 rug groups throughout the country, maybe more.”

When your world is limited to what is on hand, you get creative. For instance, the tiny green part of the end of some bush may produce a soft purple dye when you mash it and boil the pulp. At one time, learning what substance would produce what color and the process of producing the color was part of a girl’s education. Passed down from generation to generation, that knowledge was vital to the well-being of an industry, which in turn might have benefited an entire village or tribe. Natural dyes are made from all kinds of plants, and even from insects.

“At the last AORTA conference in Tucson,” Arbab says, “cochineal was demonstrated with cactus, where the cochineal bug lives. They demonstrated dying fabric with it. Cochineal is a lovely burgundy, very clear pinky-red. It’s used in a lot of places, and it’s actually used in the food industry because the synthetic reds are not so good. It grows in Arizona on cactus, and it grows in New Mexico.”

“What is cochineal?” I ask. Arbab has to correct my pronunciation: coach-a-NEEL.

“It’s a little bug,” she says. “But only the female is used. It’s an incredible thing. The male and female are not too different when they are hatched — they both even have some of the cochineal in them — but the male continues to be rather slender as it matures. The female, however, loses her definition. She loses her little legs. And then she is filled with eggs. All the eggs have a lot of cochineal in them. Pretty soon she is just this blob, legless and headless — or you can’t tell there’s a head. It’s when the female is killed, dried, and ground that you can extract the red dyestuff.

“The natives of the New World were more than happy to share the secret with the Spaniards and continued to produce the dye for the Spaniards. It was the Spaniards who took it to Europe and charged a fortune for it, while keeping the source secret.

“Not until the microscope was invented and they examined it did they see that it was animal, not vegetable. When Europeans found out that the dried dye was actually little bugs, they attempted to grow their own.”

Since we are touching on expensive luxuries, I ask about the values of oriental rugs.

“The rare, collectible rugs can have six-figure or better values,” Arbab says. “A type of rug may be one of only 15 to 30 known — that’s what I mean by rare. Because of targeted thefts, almost every piece in an exhibition is loaned anonymously. It may be listed as just an example of a size, a region, a type, etcetera, and it won’t have an owner’s name attached to it.”

“Tell me about targeted thefts,” I say.

Arbab sighs, thinking about how to handle a difficult topic. “The more expensive things are, the more there is somebody trying to take what you have. In a way, I think the world is growing smaller, so that if someone came and took the unique pieces which a collector might have, they could only sell them to someone who would keep it in a closet.

“It’s like having a stolen Van Gogh. Someone will ask questions. It can’t be altered and retain its value, and each is truly unique, almost like a fingerprint. That’s a good part of what makes them valuable. There are international magazines: if it were ever exhibited, it would show up in the photographs. We used to say, ‘Well, if you put it in a trunk for five years, people will forget — and then sell it.’ That’s not true anymore.

“A friend of mine that I gathered a collection for when I still had the shop had her first burglary. They were very selective. The thief either knew which pieces to take, or else he had the pieces pointed out to him. You always dread the first time that anything happens, because it’s bound to happen again.

“I don’t know how much of all this will interest people. Sure, the treasure hunt for collectible rugs is fun. But most people just want to buy floor covering. They begin hunting for rugs and decide to look for older pieces, which is very difficult. Because in San Diego, where would you look?

“The people you need to talk to about collectible rugs are the collectors. Jay Adams has a great deal of interest in Caucasian rugs. That is his main interest, and he knows quite a lot about the type of things that he collects. There are a lot of collectors who have a deep enough knowledge in the narrow segment of what they collect to teach or write books.”

“Are you going to write a book?”

“No. There are enough books.”


Pulling up outside Jay Adams’s Craftsman bungalow in the Midtown district, I can see a large white cat lying on the porch roof. By the time I reach the front door, I can tell the cat is one of several.

Jay Adams (not his real name) answers the door. He is somewhere between 35 and 45. His beard is neatly trimmed. His voice is deep and well modulated, a good broadcast voice, except that he is too long in the mental-editing process to be sound-bite fluent.

Inside Adams’s home the proportions are linear and perfect. The artwork, rugs, and furniture look right for the Craftsman-period exterior, and nothing looks fussy or “decorated.”

Adams tells me he made some of the furniture himself but that he no longer has the time. While we tour the house, two more cats make appearances. He tells me the dogs are outside but that they too share his bungalow and his collection of rugs. I say something about the nice rugs on the floor and the many potential opportunities for accidents.

“The deal about collecting rugs,” Adams says, “or collecting anything when you have a lot of pets, you have to remember pets have first priority. A lot of stuff has gotten whacked over the years.”

“Val told me yesterday that you have greater knowledge in your focus of interest…,” I start.

“Yes.”

“…than probably anyone else in the city. Are you comfortable with that?”

“Ummm.” He’s thinking. “Yeah, I’m sort of a different generation of collector than a lot of people. I started early enough, when you could buy rugs as furnishings and put them on the floor. The big run-up in prices was during the ’70s, until about 1982. A lot of people got interested in this stuff, and then because of high inflation, there was a lot of money being poured into every type of collectible — stamps, silver, rugs, furniture, all that stuff. And when the interest rates dropped and people pulled their money out of it, the prices came back down. So there are a lot of rugs that the definitive value realization was in the early ’80s, and they haven’t come back up.

“There’s been a problem in developing the next generation of rug collectors,” Adams continues, “because people my age who started had trouble adapting to the incredible rise in prices. Their income didn’t keep up fast enough with the rise in prices. Those who have stayed in the field or who are avid collectors have gotten very specialized and very esoteric. The people who were attracted to Caucasian rugs, like this,” he indicates the rug under the coffee table, “in the beginning have since gone on and are collecting, say, Turkish village rugs that you could only get from the bottom-most level of the compost pile of the mosque, that were smuggled out of Turkey — the 16th- or 17th-century Turkish village rugs.”

“Why is it that they had to be smuggled out?” I ask. “Is it illegal in Turkey to export the rugs produced in that era?” Many countries try to protect and preserve their heritage by making the exportation of artifacts illegal.

“Well, they are a little bit…,” Adams hesitates, looking for the right word, “loose now. Like, there’s been a lot of interest in this country in pre-Columbian kilims of Peru.”

“Amazing. Are people buying rugs from grave robbers?”

“Yeah.”

“Your interest is in Caucasian rugs?”

“Right,” Adams says. “That refers to the Caucasus Mountains, which are the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Muslim territory. Next door to that is Armenia, which is an ancient Christian nation. The Armenians look at and believe that their people wove a lot of these rugs, but the Armenians were more the merchants, the rug dealers.

“When I started collecting, I was going to school in Boston, which has a huge Armenian population, and the Armenians who came here after the Turkish massacre of 1916, a lot of them went into the rug business. So there were lots and lots of rugs in the Boston area. The Armenian rug dealers appreciated Caucasian rugs in particular, but they wouldn’t handle Turkish rugs, because the Turks were their archenemies.

“When I got interested in rugs in the late ’60s, there had been a long, long period when they were out of fashion. People had furnished their new, modern houses with wall-to-wall carpeting. When I was growing up as a teenager, I thought it was strange that my parents’ house was full of all these old oriental rugs; we didn’t have wall-to-wall carpeting. So in the 1960s there were lots of these old rugs piled in the backs of stores across the country.

“I knew a lady here in San Diego who started the first rug gallery devoted specifically to antique carpets. She would drive around the country back in the late ’60s and go to rug stores and just say, ‘I want to see the three rugs on the bottom of every pile,’ assuming them to be the oldest. Some fabulous, fabulous rugs. And these rugs sold for nothing; these rugs were imported at the turn of the last century, so anybody could afford it. They were coarsely woven and sold for about $25 to $30 apiece.”

“What would something like that be worth now, providing you could find it?” I ask.

“Six thousand dollars.”

“What are my chances of finding something like that?” I ask.

“Finding it for a steal?” Adams says.

“Yes,” I say. “Could I stumble onto one at a garage sale?”

“There’s going to be a rare, rare, rare incidence,” Adams says. “You might be able to buy a rare old carpet like that — perhaps damaged or it’s very, very dirty — if the person doesn’t know anything about it. But generally in the West there aren’t the old, old houses. Estate sales here are not selling off things that have been in a house for 100 years. All of that stuff got sold before they moved out here. So if a house sale here is going to have rugs, they usually aren’t very good ones. There are more people chasing them; the demand far exceeds the supply. I’ve been here since ’74, and I never go to estate sales. Never. It’s not worth it. On the East Coast 25 years ago, you could go into antique shops, you could go to house sales, and there were a lot of great old rugs.

“Generally, in this country, if they turn up, it’s at a country auction or something, and there are dealers from New York who go out and scout those things. The days of stealing a rug for nothing are long gone.

“There was once a huge inventory of these rugs in this country,” Adams says. “Some of them were bought by collectors and kept in American collections. But a lot of them were bought by dealers in New York who would sell them to German dealers. They would then sell them to German collectors.

“The German collectors are more advanced. A book was published in the mid-’60s by a dealer named Ulrich Schürmann about Caucasian rugs, and for the first time names were put on individual patterns, and this was a reference for people to say, ‘Gee, that’s what you call this design; this is what you call this design,’ ” he slaps his hands as if putting a label on something. “ ‘This is by this tribe.’ ”

“Until then it didn’t exist?” I ask.

“Yeah,” Adams says, “the research was terrible. The research had been done on classical carpets that are mainly rugs woven up until the 1600s. The best rugs ever made were court carpets, classical carpets. The purist would say that everything done since that time has been a degeneration.

“At the time that people started getting interested in tribal rugs, we were told a whole bunch of romantic nonsense about ‘there’s this little town in a mountainous area where each little tribe has its own design. There are certain totemic elements in it’ — that these were made to be used in tents and stuff, and somehow they ended up in this country and now we can buy them. Since then, we have discovered that all of these rugs from 1875 to 1900 were commercially made to be sold in Europe or to be sold in this country. And they were made in huge numbers.”

“By commercially made,” I say, “you mean the intent in making them was always to sell them?”

“Yes,” Adams says. “Certain very primitive things that you find in this country now and then are truly tribal pieces that were made as decorations for the tent or as part of the bridal dowry or something. But the vast majority of the stuff was commercially inspired.

“A rug is considered collectible if it meets two criteria: One, that it be handwoven and that it be colored with vegetable dyes. And two, it has oriental designs, or motifs — that it not be corrupted by Western influences. The idea being, if a weaver used a design or a color palette to suit Western furnishings and to appeal to that taste, the piece is less desirable. Most people — Americans — who see that stuff are not interested. But it appeals to us.

“This is where interior decorators have problems with oriental rugs, because the color palette of the really good rugs is very limited. The average decorator that goes out and buys oriental rugs to use as furnishings is liable to buy rugs that collectors consider very ugly and very debased. The colors that the vegetable dyes produce — the true, strong vegetable dyes — are too strong for the sensibilities of most decorators. So they like things that are more washed out, more palatable. And you’re liable to get that from rugs that all collectors despise, rugs made with aniline dyes, or fugitive chromium dyes that bled out and left you with a rug that’s kind of beige or gray or something.

“The thing collectors like about vegetable dyes is that the wool takes each dye lot in a slightly different way. So you get what you see in this rug,” he indicates the rug on his living room floor. “In the red field, you get this variation in the red that is called ‘abrash’ [rhymes with a-WASH]. Chemical dyes don’t do that; they’re always uniform.

“There is a built-in limitation to the colors they could make based on what the dyestuffs were that were available to them. Caucasians had a rich palette, and a rug might have eight to ten colors in it.

“There are certain colors that they couldn’t make. They couldn’t make a strong orange; they couldn’t make a strong purple. When aniline dyes were introduced around 1860, in the beginning they were more expensive, so the weavers would buy only small quantities of dyes and use vivid oranges and purples as highlights. What’s happened in the last 20 years is that if someone finds a terrific rug from the 19th Century that has aniline-dye highlights in it but is otherwise a beautiful rug, they will pay someone to pluck them all out and replace them with something else.”

“Really?” I am genuinely surprised.

“Oh, yeah,” Adams says. “A person who is knowledgeable who looks at that just associates chemical dyes with a debasement of a tradition. That will be the one standard that they won’t go beyond. I will not,” he is emphatic, “buy a rug with chemical dyes. The most important thing to most collectors — if you analyze what makes a rug good or desirable — is color.”

“What’s the second most important thing?” I ask.

“The fineness of the weave,” Adams says. “It’s the drawing of the design. The quality of the wool is much less important. And people who collect tribal rugs are looking for spontaneity. The idea that when a weaver sat down at her loom, she had a design in her mind, an idea of what borders she was going to use and how the field was going to lay out. But every knot wasn’t preprogrammed.

“Oriental rugs are woven in the sense that you take two separate pieces of textile yarn and wrap them around each other in such a way that the union becomes stable,” Adams explains. “Cotton or wool threads are strung up and down on a pole frame or loom to create the rug’s foundation. The side-to-side weft threads cross the long warp threads. It’s through the junction where the warp and the weft threads meet that the pile yarn is knotted or woven.

“The foundation threads are reflected in the fringe at the ends. It is easy to tell if a rug was woven on wool or cotton just by looking at the fringe. When a weaver finishes a piece, the threads of the foundation are knotted in a way that stabilizes the entire piece. The warp threads continue past the pile yarn for three to six inches, creating the decorative fringe at both ends. Many people get a rug home, discover the fringe makes the rug just a hair too big, and cut it to size. Huge mistake. The fringe is what keeps the whole piece from unraveling.

“Imagine a very tight fisherman’s net and then taking long strands of colored yarn and tying them through every hole. If the net was tight enough, when you finished you could cut all of the long strands of colored yarn to a uniform length and have a loosely woven rug. If the strands of yarn you used were multicolored, you would have a pattern reflected by the change of color.

“The pile yarn is long when the weaver is knotting it into the foundation. When a weaver finishes, the pile is cut to a uniform length and the pattern is revealed. The clip is determined by the size of the design. A rug is clipped shorter and shorter until the design is very clear. If you make a tiny design but leave the pile long, you just have a shaggy, muddled appearance.

“That gives you an idea of the process,” Adams continues. “The scale is something else again. A rug is limited in its size to the size of the loom on which it was made. One quick way to tell if a rug is a city rug or a village rug is the size. Looms used to create city rugs are larger because they are stationary in workshops.

“The great classical carpets, and almost all Persian carpets, are woven from a cartoon — a piece of graph paper where each knot is specified. So in a court factory, where they were making those kinds of rugs, there would be someone who held the cartoon and chanted to the weavers, ‘Two blues, two reds.’ ”

“Chanting?” I say. “Like somebody in the back of a boat beating a drum so everyone rows together?”

“Yeah,” Adams says. “The weaver wouldn’t be looking at a diagram, because these rugs have to be woven row by row by row from the bottom up. You can’t draw the figures in there. You have to keep it in your mind and figure out what you’re doing as you go along. And the wool is shaggy, so you can’t even see the design as you’re making it. So the most efficient way to weave a perfect rug is to have someone diagram it all out and then call out each knot to the weaver, and then she puts it in. And maybe you’re weaving a pair of carpets, or maybe five carpets that you are going to sell, so you have a little factory set up of five looms and somebody chanting.”

“So you have five weavers?”

“Right.”

“All weaving the same rug?”

“Right.”

“When you say ‘court factory,’ you mean what?”

“The great carpets from Iran made before 1600 were woven for the palaces and the court of the shah,” Adams says. “Tribal rugs, which we had long thought of as being ethnic, were made on portable looms that traveled with the nomads from the winter grazing grounds to the summer grazing grounds and back. Some of them were woven in a workshop, and some of them were made as a cottage industry in which they were woven at home, but they were made for export. Still, what we like about these rugs is the spontaneity; they just had to start in weaving, so borders may not turn the corners properly.”

“And you call that ‘unreconciled’?” I ask.

“Yeah,” Adams says. “So you get little mistakes like that. A lot of times you’ll find a rug in which you’ll find a first border that they may have decided didn’t work for them — they didn’t like — and they’ll change the design as they work their way up. You’ll see adjustments like this,” he points out a jag in the design of the carpet. “ ‘Oops, I got this too high. I’ll stagger over a couple of knots and get back on track.’

“A lot of times at the top of a rug when they are finishing it, they’ll find that they ran out of room. Here this whole thing is balanced. See, a row of stars and a row of stars. This rug is not the greatest in terms of spontaneity — you see the animals and the little people put in there.” He’s pointing out each feature. “This is part of the peasant aesthetic. There is a Latin phrase I like — horror vacui, the fear of empty spaces.”

While listening to Adams, I am distracted by the white cat outside. It jumps down, and only after it comes inside through the cat door do I notice it has three legs, two in front and one in back. Through years of use, the back leg now looks as if it is positioned in the center of her lower back.

“What is this cat’s name?” I ask.

“Tripod.”

Of course.

Tripod jumps up behind Adams and walks the back of the couch like a balance beam.

“You would almost never know she only has three legs,” Adams says. “She clamors up the bougainvillea and spends most the day on the trellis, and then she’ll bound down on the pillar and come into the house. She was much more adventurous when she was younger. She caught a few birds, but now she has recognized her limitations, and she doesn’t want to be on the ground anymore. She’s 11. She was a wild cat, born in the canyon. She sneaked into someone’s garage that had a wire birdcage in it, and she got her back leg caught in the birdcage. Someone found her and took her to the vet, where they cast the broken leg. But when they took the cast off they found gangrene, so they had to take the leg. She couldn’t be returned to the wild, so I brought her here.”

Adams has a number of throw pillows made from bag faces. Bag faces are the fronts of bags originally woven to transport bedding, clothes, grain, and other items on pack animals. Exporters cut off the plain back of the bag and sold the fancier front.

“What you will see mostly in this house is Caucasian and some Turkomans,” Adams says. “These are a pair of bag faces. These are finely woven, but there are some slight problems with the dyes. They are not considered the best. I have a couple of very good Turkomans.

“These were made by individual tribes, and each tribe had its own gul. This is what you call a ‘gul.’ You can identify the tribe by the gul. They truly were nomadic tribes. They had a limited palette of dyestuff, so everything is in this sort of brown-red family, with sparing use of blues.”

“The brown and the black colors are made with a corrosive substance, right?” I ask.

“Right,” Adams says, “except this brown is a natural brown [as opposed to being made with iron ochre]. You can see that there was a silk highlight here that has completely corroded away.”

To get the colors brown and black, sometimes the dye is made with iron ochre. Because iron ochre is a mineral, crystals are present in the dye, and over time and with wear, these crystals literally cut off the wool. You’ll know when you see an old or antique oriental rug with strands missing in the black and brown areas of the design that iron ochre was used. That can be a yardstick for determining age.

When Adams and I finish talking, he recommends that I speak with another collector he knows. He gives Ray Rosenberg a call and sets up the interview.


The first thing I notice inside Ray Rosenberg’s condo is that every surface is covered with beautiful weavings and artwork. The strong colors of bag faces, banners, small rugs, and not-so-small rugs radiate wherever the eye lands. Weavings are attached to, draped over, or placed on almost every surface, from the chair pads to the kitchen soffit.

Rosenberg used to make his living as an elementary-school teacher, but now he is a collector and a dealer of oriental rugs.

“Do you have a store?” I ask.

“No,” he says, “the way I came to sell was in order to feed my habit.” We laugh. “I bought and sold rugs so I could buy the ones I wanted to collect. A lot of rug people are like that: they become dealers by evolving.

“I’ve been back a week today from the East Coast,” he says. “This week I’ve been running around every day buying rugs that people have been hanging on to for me. They know that I pay a fair price and they can trust what I say.”

“They trust you enough to identify and put a value on what they’re holding to sell you?” I ask.

“Yes.”

“You must have a very good reputation.”

“I think I do,” he says. “I pride myself on that. And these aren’t just private people that call me; they are dealers and pickers. If I weren’t honest, I would lose them.”

Rosenberg also has the reputation of being a good, qualified restorer of rugs.

“I took up restoring for financial reasons,” he says. “I took one rug to a restorer when I was just starting to collect. I bought a Caucasian rug in Coronado. It was a beautiful long runner that had long rips along the warps and side cuts. I knew nothing, nothing, nothing about restoring, but I knew it was a good rug. So I asked around. Everyone I took it to that said they did repairing talked about putting tape or glue on the back of it. But I said I wanted it restored. I talked to the people at the art museum, and they agreed to give me the name of a woman in Pasadena who restored rugs. The long and the short of this story is, I paid $3 for the rug and spent $2000 restoring it. At the end of that episode, I thought, ‘I cannot afford to do this. She’s a human being with two hands — I must be able to do the same thing she does.’ ”

“I hope the rug was worth all that,” I say.

“Oh, yes, it was,” Rosenberg says. “I didn’t have any place to display it because it was very long, so I eventually sold it and got my money back plus some. It was a worthwhile experience.”

I ask Rosenberg about one of the pieces hung on the walls. It is beautiful but rather simple. “Would you call the center decoration a medallion?”

“You could.” He is just cautious enough in agreeing that I know that isn’t the correct term. He has a better explanation. “It doesn’t have a proper name. A lot of times that kind of thing is identified by the number of sides in the figure. That one has one, two…,” he counts out loud and we decide it has to be a deca something.

“That particular rug is one of our oldest and most rare,” he says. “It is one of nine known examples of that particular pattern.”

“What is that pattern called?” I ask.

“It doesn’t have a name,” he says, “other than the fact that the arrangement is called a ‘two-one-two.’ See the two white octagons up in the corner, then the large center one, and two below it? The other things are just kind of filler. Most people who look at this rug, even rug people, look at this and think it’s Caucasian because of the geometry.

“The man that I bought it from is one of the earliest collectors in San Diego. He used to call this his brown Kazak. Kazaks are a type of Caucasian rug that is very desirable, very coarse, large and bold and geometric.

“I fell in love with it the first time he showed it to me, but then I did some research on it and found out it wasn’t a Kazak at all — it’s Anatolian, east Anatolian, or Turkey. When he finally agreed to part with it, he sent it to Skinner’s auction house in Boston with a very high estimate, and it didn’t sell there. So when he started to sell off his collection here he gave me first choice. But I did tell him, ‘This isn’t a brown Kazak, it’s Anatolian.’ ” Rosenberg chuckles.

“How did he take it?”

“Well,” Rosenberg says, “he was pretty good about it. Usually he was hard to correct, but at that time he liked me, and he said something like, ‘Well, I appreciate your knowledge,’ or something like that.” Rosenberg laughs. “God knows what he thought.”

“What do you estimate its value at?” I ask.

“At the time it was sent to Skinner’s, in 1991, it was just at the time the Gulf War was starting, and the European buyers weren’t coming into the rug sales because of the war. And in my mind, that is the reason it didn’t sell. It had a $12,000-to-$15,000 estimate, and it did not sell. I think that its retail value is somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000.”

I am taken with the center of the center medallion and remark that the motif has a Chinese feel.

“Yes, it’s very simple and very striking,” he says. “It’s early 19th Century.”

Some of the elements right around it, on the red field, also have a Chinese feel.

“I collect things that appeal to me,” Rosenberg says. “If I had a focus at all, it would be Caucasian, mostly tribal. I have very few of what we call ‘city rugs,’ like that little Sarouk there. That one is not part of my collection. I just bought that this weekend. I put it there waiting to be washed.”

“So you bought it to sell it?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says. “We’ve been selling things like that on eBay, and I would guess that it would go for about $250.”

“How do you wash an oriental rug?”

“Well,” Rosenberg smiles broadly, “I wash them by hand. That’s what I have been doing all day today. I have four new rugs, much bigger, that I have been washing, and after you leave, I’m going to have to go and pull them in if they’re dry.”

“Oh, they are outside?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says, “not here, but, yes, they are outside. I have a studio with a large back yard. That’s where I do any business that I do. If I have to meet someone to show them a rug, or to buy a rug, I meet them there. I rarely have anyone come to my house.”

Rosenberg tells me about the only targeted break-in that he knows of. He says the collector was well known to antique dealers because he was buying rugs in the ’50s and ’60s, when no one else was. This man had some very valuable rugs at one point, and everyone knew where he lived. One evening when he was out and his wife and son were at home, two men came to the door and asked to see him. They forced their way in, pistol-whipped the woman and boy, and stole the expensive rugs. “That has always sort of lurked in the back of my mind,” Rosenberg says. “I don’t bring someone in unless I know them.”

“What possessed you to buy your first rug,” I ask, “and when was that?”

“In 1976 my partner and I bought a house overlooking the bay,” he says. “It turned out that under these horrible gold shag carpets was a hardwood floor. I had been aware of and had been collecting antiques. I worked with a decorator, but I knew nothing about rugs.

“When I lived in Philadelphia, I used to watch people at Freeman’s auction looking at the rug racks and wonder what they were looking for. It was a mystery to me. I knew nothing about them at all. But when we found our wonderful oak floors, I just decided we were going to have an oriental rug.

“The only word that I knew was ‘Bokhara.’ ” He smiles, remembering. “We went to a little place that used to be on Reynard Way. It has since closed. Two old Armenian men ran it. We told them that we wanted to look at a Bokhara rug. He had a wonderful piece that we fell in love with. I forget the price — maybe $1900. He said it needed a wash, so we gave him a $200 deposit. And we were to come back in two weeks to pick up the rug.

“When we came back he had coated the back with a kind of spray rubber cement to keep it from slipping. We were stunned. I knew enough to know that we didn’t want that. So I told him that we didn’t expect that, we didn’t want that on there, and he got absolutely livid. Livid. He would not give us back the $200, and,” Rosenberg is laughing, “he literally threw us out of the shop.”

“He ruined his own rug?” I ask.

“He didn’t consider it ruined,” Rosenberg says. “Because at that time people were regularly putting rubber on the backs of rugs. It did stop the rug from traveling on a wood floor.

“It was primarily a rug-cleaning establishment, and he was there for years and years. I even offered to buy another one and put the $200 towards it. He would have none of it. I don’t think I have ever been thrown out of an establishment before. He told us to leave, and he would have nothing to do with us.

“I decided maybe that wasn’t such a good idea anyway. I figured I had better learn something about rugs. So I went to the library and checked out books and just started reading about them. I became more knowledgeable, and I got hooked on it, but that was my first rug experience.”

“Do you go to garage sales?” I ask.

“I used to go,” he says. “When I first became interested in rugs; this was 1976. So it’s been 23 years that I have been actively buying and selling rugs. I used to do all my running around myself. I was up every day — Friday, Saturday, Sunday — going to swap meets, garage sales, and estate sales. I found a lot of stuff, but I have discovered in the last several years that I have established kind of a network of people — dealers and pickers — that know I will pay a fair price and tell them what it is.

“If I don’t buy it, at least I will tell them what it is and what to expect to get for it. So I have gotten to the point now where I don’t have to do that sort of thing anymore. I’d rather pay more money and give them their profit than have to get up early in the morning and run around. I’ve gotten lazy. But I still get a lot of rugs.”

I ask Rosenberg how he decides something is Caucasian.

“Well, it’s hard to make a generality,” he says. “When I look at rugs, I look at the structure. I guess that goes along with the fact that I restore.

“When you restore,” he explains, “you become acutely aware of how a thing is made. I try not to pay too much attention to pattern but more about how the thing is made. There were a lot of copies made: things that sold well would be copied in different parts of the rug world. You can get something that you think must be Turkish because of the pattern, but when you look at the way it’s made, it’s not. One thing that rarely changed was the tradition of how something was woven. The structure is very important.

“I’ve never visited the Middle East,” Rosenberg says. “I would assume once the women got their household chores done, they spent the rest of the day weaving, just sitting at the loom and knotting. That’s after they have gotten the wool from whatever source they get it from, whether it’s their own dyed-and-carded wool or — there are a lot of weavers that have wool supplied to them by the larger firms that farm out the work to the small weavers in the villages.”

“Is restoring tedious?” I ask.

“Yes and no,” Rosenberg says. “I find it very relaxing. But I don’t spend the whole day at it. I may work on one piece for a whole year, but that isn’t every day. It’s very time-consuming, very slow. That’s one reason I won’t work for other people. If you are particular about matching colors — and I think that is one of my skills, because I paint, so I feel like I know how to mix wools to get the color right. If I figured how much I was making an hour, I think I would be making about a quarter an hour.” Rosenberg laughs again. “When people ask me if I will do a project for them, I just say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t work for other people.’ ”

I ask Rosenberg about the rug under the coffee table. It has a large dark field.

“This is a Bijar [pronounced BEE-djar], technically a city rug. Bijars occupy a special niche for rug collectors. People who collect rugs generally don’t consider collecting city rugs, because they are too mechanical.

“For some reason, a Bijar rug has always occupied a special place because of the dyes that were used, because of the designs, because of the way that they are constructed, which is different than the way a lot of city rugs are made.

“Most of my rugs come with wonderful stories,” Rosenberg says. “This rug is from an estate sale in La Jolla. The people having the sale were moving into a condo. This piece was rolled up in the back of the house. It was not part of the sale. I asked him, ‘Are you selling this one?’

“He said, ‘No, we are keeping only one, this one.’ I told him, ‘If you ever decide to sell it, I would make an offer.’ And I told him what I would pay for it, hoping to be generous because I really wanted it. Several months later I got a call from him saying they had the rug in the condo, but the condo has deep, plush wall-to-wall carpeting, and the rug keeps moving. How does he keep it in place? It has a large coffee table on it.”

“Just feeling the back,” I say, picking up the corner of it and looking at both sides, “it would be very hard to tell which is the face of it.”

“Yes, it’s very, very worn.”

“Did it have a short pile to begin with?” I ask.

“It probably had a medium pile,” Rosenberg says. “It was closely clipped, as many fine rugs are, but I think that corner that you were just holding is pretty close to what it originally was. It was never a high-pile rug. But as it wears, it gets that feeling like you get with a kilim: which is the front and which is the back?”

Rosenberg mentions the San Diego rug society that he and another rug collector founded. Val Arbab has been a guest speaker at society meetings many times. “Val’s strength is the appraisal for valuation and evaluation using the structural method.”

“Has the rare-and-collectible rug availability in San Diego dried up?” I ask.

“I think it is much more dried up than it used to be,” he says. “A lot of the pickers will tell you they just don’t show up that often.”

Rosenberg offers to give me a tour of the house. He points out a rug with a large white field, rather coarsely woven, hanging on a wall.

“This is a rug that I treasure,” he says. “There are very few known and published examples, particularly with a white ground. It’s Caucasian.”

Interpreting the motifs of the various borders and designs can be an amateur’s Rorschach test. One element looks like fire demons to me. To Rosenberg, they look like little owls.

“I think it is actually a two-handled urn of some kind,” he explains.

The design seems to go up the rug only so far before it changes into another design, as if another artist finished it.

“Isn’t this a big boo-boo?” I ask.

He smiles. “These are the things that people like me love to see. It’s an indication that whoever wove this was just weaving the design out of her head. At one point she decided, ‘I don’t want to continue this.’ So she just stopped. I love it when they just stop in the middle of doing something and just change their mind. I think she saw that she was going to run into problems if she wanted to take this design on around, so…”

“She bailed.”

“Yes.”

“So she did this for her own use?” I ask. “She didn’t intend for this piece to be sold?”

“The current thinking is that most of these 19th-century rugs were made for Western export,” he says. “Maybe some of them were made for their own use. But they brought in so many thousands of these Caucasian rugs of this era that the feeling is that they were made because there was a market for them.”

I ask about the legend of the color green. Is it symbolic or just difficult to produce?

“It does involve blending two different colors. That makes it more difficult. But that is not to say that green doesn’t have special significance in some Islamic cultures. It is believed to be a sacred color, and a follower of the Muslim faith would not feel comfortable having that color walked upon.”

I move to another rug, also hanging on the wall.

“I waited eight years to get that rug,” Rosenberg says. “The couple that owned that rug was using it in their entryway. They called me to buy a different rug, and when I saw this piece being used as a doormat, I was appalled. I made them an offer, but the man kept saying, ‘No, I’m not ready to part with it.’ I put it on my calendar, and every six months I would call and ask them if they were ready to sell it.” He laughs. “It wasn’t until the man passed away that his wife sold it.

“Unfortunately, she didn’t sell it to me.” Rosenberg is grinning. “She sold it to a friend of mine, a dealer, who then put an enormous price on it because he knew that I was waiting for it. So I finally wound up with it.” He chuckles.

“I hope you didn’t pay an enormous price,” I say.

“I did, I did,” he says. “But I got what I wanted.”

I run my hand across another rug that has an interesting texture.

“This is a rug that I just bought this summer,” he says. “That is all moth damage that I will restore. I will put back the wool that should be there. The moths have done something interesting.”

“This is a beautiful little prayer rug,” I notice. So-called because it is used by Muslims to kneel on during prayer. A prayer rug is easy to identify. It’s a small rug with a directional motif sometimes described as the outline of a mosque.

“Now, is this the orange color?” I ask. “Or is this a faded red?”

“No, that is a typical Baluch coloring,” Rosenberg says.

“So this is not the orange that repels collectors?” It’s a salmon pink, or soft coral.

“No, no.” Rosenberg is horrified. He bursts out laughing. “I am very happy to say I don’t have anything here like that, but if you came to my studio I could show it to you. No, that is very harsh. This is a nice soft color, and it’s the same color front and back, allowing for the difference of knot twist. Yeah, it’s a good color, as opposed to the,” his voice drops deeper, “synthetic bad color.”

I try another term I think I know, “interlocking motif,” and he corrects me again.

“Well, that would probably be called a ‘ram’s horn’ design.”

He points out a Kazak with a selvage edge, as opposed to an overcast edge. Using the structural method, rug identification sometimes comes down to the process of elimination. “Structurally, I think you have got to be flexible,” he says. “And maybe by the process of elimination you say, ‘Well, this can’t be anything else, so it’s got to be…’ ”

“Who did the ladybugs?” I ask, focusing on another rug.

“Well, these are butterflies,” he says.

I guess I can’t even identify insects correctly when they are interpreted in wool.

“This is an old Chinese,” he says. “This is before the 1930s-type solid-field-with-a-medallion kind of rug. I found this downtown in an antique mall just rolled up and put into a basket. I find my best rugs just thrown into baskets. I don’t know that it has a lot of value, but I know it is early, and I just think it’s lovely.

“This is a rug that I love to tell the story about,” he says, pointing to another example. “This is a Caucasian rug. It’s called a Lesghi [pronounced LES-chee] because of this motif here.”

“It almost looks Navajo,” I say.

“Yes, well,” Rosenberg says, “people say that a lot, because in the late 19th Century a lot of Caucasian rugs were brought across and given to the Navajo Indians to copy the designs. So, many of the Navajo rugs have this kind of a look, because the motifs were copied from the Caucasian.

“Anyway,” he continues, “very early in my collecting days there used to be a swap meet out at the stadium. One of the days we were out there, my partner and I saw this rug spread on the ground with a whole bunch of pots and pans on it that these two young guys were selling. I knew instantly what it was, and I asked them if it was for sale. One of the guys said, ‘I don’t know if we want to sell it.’ I told my partner what it was and said we should try to get it for a couple of hundred dollars. It had wonderful colors. So one of the guys said, ‘Okay, if you really want it.’ I asked him what he wanted for it. He says, ‘Two.’ I said two what? He says, ‘Two dollars.’ ”

I start laughing. “What did you say? ‘Can you break a five?’ ”

“After I bought it I asked them where it came from,” Rosenberg says. “The guy said, ‘I think it came from the basement.’ So we always call it our two-dollar basement rug.”

I spot a rug worthy of being the carpet Cleopatra had herself wrapped in for delivery to Marc Anthony.

Rosenberg agrees. “Yes, it’s very velvety. This is a Turkoman rug with silk highlights. The wool is so beautiful, and it is very finely woven. It’s made by the Tekke tribe.”

I ask him about another rug. “This isn’t a Bokhara, is it?”

“Well,” he says, “ ‘Bokhara’ is a word that isn’t used anymore.”

Now I’m wrong and passé.

“That was the word most people used, including myself,” he explains, “because that was the only word I knew. Actually, Bokhara was a trading station where rugs were picked up. That name is really obsolete. These rugs are called Turkoman rugs, in general. And then after the specific tribe, the Tekke. There are six or eight very prominent tribal groups that weave rugs. They all have their own distinctive style and structure that you can identify.”

I comment on a small piece that seems to have a variety of borders and fields.

“This is what they call a Vagera, which is a sampler. They would make examples of patterns in different sizes and with different motifs. They would send these to the rug dealers so they could pretty much say, ‘Well, I can give you this border with that at each end with the Herati pattern, big or small.’ They would give you a choice when you ordered your rug. Now they have become collectors’ items.”

I see a beautiful but small mat just outside of the bathroom. “How much would something like this cost?”

“I paid $1000 for it,” he says. “It is unusual to find a Bijar mat this finely done with such beautiful dyes. They are one of the longer-lasting rugs. With proper care, one would last a good 100 to 150 years.

“When these rugs were new they were inexpensive. You could get a nice Caucasian rug for about $50. They were considered almost disposable. You use it for a couple of years and then get rid of it.

“This is a Turkoman. Basically, anything largely red is a Turkoman.”

“And the pattern, is it called an elephant foot?” I ask.

“They have made up a lot of names to explain different patterns,” Rosenberg explains. “Those things they call elephant-foot motifs are really guls, which is the Turkoman name for flower. They are stylized flower blooms. Particular tribes had an individual way of interpreting them. For instance, the Tekkes had this one that was divided into quarters with a blue line. That is almost a trademark — not the only one, but at least one of them.

“Sometimes you can identify a rug by the colors of the dye used. The dyes in many areas were made right there; the colors are very distinctive to the area or tribe.

“I am not upset too much by condition,” Rosenberg continues. “I can enjoy a rug that is a bit tattered, worn, or has a few holes in it. It still may be very desirable to me. Many collectors won’t look at something unless it’s in perfect condition. I would rather it be perfect, but I won’t turn it down because it happens to have a hole in it. You almost expect some kind of wear if it has any age to it at all. In fact, I get kind of suspicious when a rug is in perfect condition. That can be an indication that it is a new piece.”

I ask about what I think is a signature. Wrong again. It is a date.

“According to the Islamic calendar,” Rosenberg says, “it corresponds to the year 1860. But you have to remember, most of these weavers were illiterate. They might have been copying something and they didn’t get it right. You can never be sure of what an inscription means unless it is done in a city rug, where they knew exactly what they were doing. They may have just had a quirky sense of humor. A lot of them did really funny things.”

That human element that crosses all cultures. It is a factor more desirable than technical knowledge. Being able to see the hands behind the creation, across the miles and years — that’s the spark that inspires collectors who, figuratively speaking, worship the carpet they walk upon.

-- Patricia Boynton

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A 41-minute Night Parade of One Hundred Demons

Earthless, Heather Nation, Donna Larsen, X-Offenders, Stone Temple Pilots

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.”

Becoming an expert requires years of tactile experience. Your senses communicate physical details in a way no book can. To know about great, collectible rugs, you have to see them and feel them over and over. And you need to have people around to put the things you see in perspective.

“There could be some wonderful pieces,” Arbab says, “but they may be quite plentiful. For that reason their value will be lower. And there are some pieces that are so rare and so unique and so great, but for most people, it just goes right over their heads.”

Hamadan, Sarouk, Soumak, Tabriz, Qashqais, Khamseh, kilim: rugs get their names from areas, cultures, tribes, or peoples. The names were given to the patterns, color combinations, and weaves by Westerners, to help them identify and classify the pieces so they could communicate among themselves.

The trick to reading a rug is speaking the language. For me, it is easiest to think of some of the elements as other things: a boteh (pronounced BO-teh) looks like a paisley; the quasi-circular design called a gul reminds me of a Chinese good-luck symbol; and the way I recognize the Herati element in borders is to think of a cross section of the female reproductive system. Each element of a pattern is a reflection of a culture, an artist, a tribe, a time, a change in the material process, or a change in fashion.

The way a knot is made, the number of knots per square inch, the materials used for warp and weft, even the size of a rug are clues to solving the mystery of who made it and when. Depending on your expertise, or the way you learned to “speak rug,” you may identify a piece by the colors or pattern, the fineness of the weave, the thickness of the pile, or the dyestuff, or mordant, used.

Rug nomenclature can be misleading. When a rug is identified as “Persian,” you know only that Persian is one possibility. Too often that name is used synonymously with “oriental.” To be Persian, a rug must come from Persia, now called Iran.

Someone who speaks rug well will be able to classify an oriental rug by the area where it was made — Anatolia, the Caucasus Mountains, China, etc. Someone who is really good can nail down the exact area in the country. But only someone fluent in rugspeak can look at all of the elements and pinpoint the tribe, the time, and even the artist, if the artist is famous.

“I’ve made several trips to Iran,” Arbab says. “I was sort of amazed. Before I went, I thought rug-making was a dead art. Then I went to Iran and saw what different people made in different bazaars, and the different merchandise, and I saw the people that were still at it.

“That greatly contributed to my thinking that it was financially feasible to actually have a rug shop, that the merchandise was available. But as it turns out, I decided it’s really only old rugs that I am interested in. Presently that serves me well too. There are fewer and fewer people who know much about the older rugs.

“Rugs break down into two categories — decorative and collectible,” Arbab says. “One can say that all modern production, post–World War II, those are all what I call ‘new rugs.’ New rugs are decorative, and one doesn’t need to concern themselves with any other classification.

“One really needs to distinguish between the decorative classification and the collectible classification, because if there’s one definition of a decorative rug, it’s what’s hot is hot and what’s not is not. In the most modern times, we in the West, when we are through with something, we are just through with something.

“For example, between 1924-25 and World War II, we just couldn’t get enough of the burgundy color. We wanted things plush. We wanted lots of velvets around. Couches of that period were covered with burgundy velvets, and so on. We dictated that in rugs. Americans said, ‘We don’t want thin-pile rugs; we want thick rugs. And we don’t want rugs in these nice peach tones; we want everything to be burgundy.’ So the so-called American Sarouk was born.”

“It was born just for our market?” I ask.

“Yes,” Arbab says. “Not one went to Europe; not until the 1970s did American Sarouks go from the U.S. to Germany. They were the most expensive rugs of their time because of all of the changes dictating the design. That’s the whole idea of ‘decorative.’ ”

Arbab’s voice drops scornfully. “We might be into the Southwestern thing for the next lifetime. If we would go into jewel tones and stay there for a while, there are so many wonderful rugs in those tones.

“Recently, the fashion was these thick Chinese rugs that are embossed and way overtreated chemically. They were so popular; we couldn’t get enough of them. There were rugs that people paid as much as $30 and $35 per square foot for, meaning they paid $3500 for a 9 by 12.

“Now they can’t get a dime on their dollar, because about six or seven years back, we decided we were through with them. There were way too many of them. They had problems with cleaning; all the sharp embossing was just fuzzed out. Half the pale colors would just disappear, and stains… Anything spilled on it would just stain because of the chemicals left in the wool. For all of those reasons, but mostly because of oversupply, we turned off. And when we are finished…

“People call me all the time and ask, ‘Can I consign it to anybody?’ My only suggestion is to donate it and take some kind of tax write-off, because even if you paid $3000 for it, you can’t sell it for $300. There isn’t a market. We seem to have lost the medium used-furniture stores that were very nice for that kind of thing.”

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.

“It’s very difficult to suggest where people can go if they develop an interest beyond just a floor covering. We have a wonderful network of textile and rug societies. I lecture to a number of them. Arizona has an incredible group called AORTA [Arizona Oriental Rug and Textile Association] out of Tucson. I’ve never seen so many committed people. There are easily 20 rug groups throughout the country, maybe more.”

When your world is limited to what is on hand, you get creative. For instance, the tiny green part of the end of some bush may produce a soft purple dye when you mash it and boil the pulp. At one time, learning what substance would produce what color and the process of producing the color was part of a girl’s education. Passed down from generation to generation, that knowledge was vital to the well-being of an industry, which in turn might have benefited an entire village or tribe. Natural dyes are made from all kinds of plants, and even from insects.

“At the last AORTA conference in Tucson,” Arbab says, “cochineal was demonstrated with cactus, where the cochineal bug lives. They demonstrated dying fabric with it. Cochineal is a lovely burgundy, very clear pinky-red. It’s used in a lot of places, and it’s actually used in the food industry because the synthetic reds are not so good. It grows in Arizona on cactus, and it grows in New Mexico.”

“What is cochineal?” I ask. Arbab has to correct my pronunciation: coach-a-NEEL.

“It’s a little bug,” she says. “But only the female is used. It’s an incredible thing. The male and female are not too different when they are hatched — they both even have some of the cochineal in them — but the male continues to be rather slender as it matures. The female, however, loses her definition. She loses her little legs. And then she is filled with eggs. All the eggs have a lot of cochineal in them. Pretty soon she is just this blob, legless and headless — or you can’t tell there’s a head. It’s when the female is killed, dried, and ground that you can extract the red dyestuff.

“The natives of the New World were more than happy to share the secret with the Spaniards and continued to produce the dye for the Spaniards. It was the Spaniards who took it to Europe and charged a fortune for it, while keeping the source secret.

“Not until the microscope was invented and they examined it did they see that it was animal, not vegetable. When Europeans found out that the dried dye was actually little bugs, they attempted to grow their own.”

Since we are touching on expensive luxuries, I ask about the values of oriental rugs.

“The rare, collectible rugs can have six-figure or better values,” Arbab says. “A type of rug may be one of only 15 to 30 known — that’s what I mean by rare. Because of targeted thefts, almost every piece in an exhibition is loaned anonymously. It may be listed as just an example of a size, a region, a type, etcetera, and it won’t have an owner’s name attached to it.”

“Tell me about targeted thefts,” I say.

Arbab sighs, thinking about how to handle a difficult topic. “The more expensive things are, the more there is somebody trying to take what you have. In a way, I think the world is growing smaller, so that if someone came and took the unique pieces which a collector might have, they could only sell them to someone who would keep it in a closet.

“It’s like having a stolen Van Gogh. Someone will ask questions. It can’t be altered and retain its value, and each is truly unique, almost like a fingerprint. That’s a good part of what makes them valuable. There are international magazines: if it were ever exhibited, it would show up in the photographs. We used to say, ‘Well, if you put it in a trunk for five years, people will forget — and then sell it.’ That’s not true anymore.

“A friend of mine that I gathered a collection for when I still had the shop had her first burglary. They were very selective. The thief either knew which pieces to take, or else he had the pieces pointed out to him. You always dread the first time that anything happens, because it’s bound to happen again.

“I don’t know how much of all this will interest people. Sure, the treasure hunt for collectible rugs is fun. But most people just want to buy floor covering. They begin hunting for rugs and decide to look for older pieces, which is very difficult. Because in San Diego, where would you look?

“The people you need to talk to about collectible rugs are the collectors. Jay Adams has a great deal of interest in Caucasian rugs. That is his main interest, and he knows quite a lot about the type of things that he collects. There are a lot of collectors who have a deep enough knowledge in the narrow segment of what they collect to teach or write books.”

“Are you going to write a book?”

“No. There are enough books.”


Pulling up outside Jay Adams’s Craftsman bungalow in the Midtown district, I can see a large white cat lying on the porch roof. By the time I reach the front door, I can tell the cat is one of several.

Jay Adams (not his real name) answers the door. He is somewhere between 35 and 45. His beard is neatly trimmed. His voice is deep and well modulated, a good broadcast voice, except that he is too long in the mental-editing process to be sound-bite fluent.

Inside Adams’s home the proportions are linear and perfect. The artwork, rugs, and furniture look right for the Craftsman-period exterior, and nothing looks fussy or “decorated.”

Adams tells me he made some of the furniture himself but that he no longer has the time. While we tour the house, two more cats make appearances. He tells me the dogs are outside but that they too share his bungalow and his collection of rugs. I say something about the nice rugs on the floor and the many potential opportunities for accidents.

“The deal about collecting rugs,” Adams says, “or collecting anything when you have a lot of pets, you have to remember pets have first priority. A lot of stuff has gotten whacked over the years.”

“Val told me yesterday that you have greater knowledge in your focus of interest…,” I start.

“Yes.”

“…than probably anyone else in the city. Are you comfortable with that?”

“Ummm.” He’s thinking. “Yeah, I’m sort of a different generation of collector than a lot of people. I started early enough, when you could buy rugs as furnishings and put them on the floor. The big run-up in prices was during the ’70s, until about 1982. A lot of people got interested in this stuff, and then because of high inflation, there was a lot of money being poured into every type of collectible — stamps, silver, rugs, furniture, all that stuff. And when the interest rates dropped and people pulled their money out of it, the prices came back down. So there are a lot of rugs that the definitive value realization was in the early ’80s, and they haven’t come back up.

“There’s been a problem in developing the next generation of rug collectors,” Adams continues, “because people my age who started had trouble adapting to the incredible rise in prices. Their income didn’t keep up fast enough with the rise in prices. Those who have stayed in the field or who are avid collectors have gotten very specialized and very esoteric. The people who were attracted to Caucasian rugs, like this,” he indicates the rug under the coffee table, “in the beginning have since gone on and are collecting, say, Turkish village rugs that you could only get from the bottom-most level of the compost pile of the mosque, that were smuggled out of Turkey — the 16th- or 17th-century Turkish village rugs.”

“Why is it that they had to be smuggled out?” I ask. “Is it illegal in Turkey to export the rugs produced in that era?” Many countries try to protect and preserve their heritage by making the exportation of artifacts illegal.

“Well, they are a little bit…,” Adams hesitates, looking for the right word, “loose now. Like, there’s been a lot of interest in this country in pre-Columbian kilims of Peru.”

“Amazing. Are people buying rugs from grave robbers?”

“Yeah.”

“Your interest is in Caucasian rugs?”

“Right,” Adams says. “That refers to the Caucasus Mountains, which are the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Muslim territory. Next door to that is Armenia, which is an ancient Christian nation. The Armenians look at and believe that their people wove a lot of these rugs, but the Armenians were more the merchants, the rug dealers.

“When I started collecting, I was going to school in Boston, which has a huge Armenian population, and the Armenians who came here after the Turkish massacre of 1916, a lot of them went into the rug business. So there were lots and lots of rugs in the Boston area. The Armenian rug dealers appreciated Caucasian rugs in particular, but they wouldn’t handle Turkish rugs, because the Turks were their archenemies.

“When I got interested in rugs in the late ’60s, there had been a long, long period when they were out of fashion. People had furnished their new, modern houses with wall-to-wall carpeting. When I was growing up as a teenager, I thought it was strange that my parents’ house was full of all these old oriental rugs; we didn’t have wall-to-wall carpeting. So in the 1960s there were lots of these old rugs piled in the backs of stores across the country.

“I knew a lady here in San Diego who started the first rug gallery devoted specifically to antique carpets. She would drive around the country back in the late ’60s and go to rug stores and just say, ‘I want to see the three rugs on the bottom of every pile,’ assuming them to be the oldest. Some fabulous, fabulous rugs. And these rugs sold for nothing; these rugs were imported at the turn of the last century, so anybody could afford it. They were coarsely woven and sold for about $25 to $30 apiece.”

“What would something like that be worth now, providing you could find it?” I ask.

“Six thousand dollars.”

“What are my chances of finding something like that?” I ask.

“Finding it for a steal?” Adams says.

“Yes,” I say. “Could I stumble onto one at a garage sale?”

“There’s going to be a rare, rare, rare incidence,” Adams says. “You might be able to buy a rare old carpet like that — perhaps damaged or it’s very, very dirty — if the person doesn’t know anything about it. But generally in the West there aren’t the old, old houses. Estate sales here are not selling off things that have been in a house for 100 years. All of that stuff got sold before they moved out here. So if a house sale here is going to have rugs, they usually aren’t very good ones. There are more people chasing them; the demand far exceeds the supply. I’ve been here since ’74, and I never go to estate sales. Never. It’s not worth it. On the East Coast 25 years ago, you could go into antique shops, you could go to house sales, and there were a lot of great old rugs.

“Generally, in this country, if they turn up, it’s at a country auction or something, and there are dealers from New York who go out and scout those things. The days of stealing a rug for nothing are long gone.

“There was once a huge inventory of these rugs in this country,” Adams says. “Some of them were bought by collectors and kept in American collections. But a lot of them were bought by dealers in New York who would sell them to German dealers. They would then sell them to German collectors.

“The German collectors are more advanced. A book was published in the mid-’60s by a dealer named Ulrich Schürmann about Caucasian rugs, and for the first time names were put on individual patterns, and this was a reference for people to say, ‘Gee, that’s what you call this design; this is what you call this design,’ ” he slaps his hands as if putting a label on something. “ ‘This is by this tribe.’ ”

“Until then it didn’t exist?” I ask.

“Yeah,” Adams says, “the research was terrible. The research had been done on classical carpets that are mainly rugs woven up until the 1600s. The best rugs ever made were court carpets, classical carpets. The purist would say that everything done since that time has been a degeneration.

“At the time that people started getting interested in tribal rugs, we were told a whole bunch of romantic nonsense about ‘there’s this little town in a mountainous area where each little tribe has its own design. There are certain totemic elements in it’ — that these were made to be used in tents and stuff, and somehow they ended up in this country and now we can buy them. Since then, we have discovered that all of these rugs from 1875 to 1900 were commercially made to be sold in Europe or to be sold in this country. And they were made in huge numbers.”

“By commercially made,” I say, “you mean the intent in making them was always to sell them?”

“Yes,” Adams says. “Certain very primitive things that you find in this country now and then are truly tribal pieces that were made as decorations for the tent or as part of the bridal dowry or something. But the vast majority of the stuff was commercially inspired.

“A rug is considered collectible if it meets two criteria: One, that it be handwoven and that it be colored with vegetable dyes. And two, it has oriental designs, or motifs — that it not be corrupted by Western influences. The idea being, if a weaver used a design or a color palette to suit Western furnishings and to appeal to that taste, the piece is less desirable. Most people — Americans — who see that stuff are not interested. But it appeals to us.

“This is where interior decorators have problems with oriental rugs, because the color palette of the really good rugs is very limited. The average decorator that goes out and buys oriental rugs to use as furnishings is liable to buy rugs that collectors consider very ugly and very debased. The colors that the vegetable dyes produce — the true, strong vegetable dyes — are too strong for the sensibilities of most decorators. So they like things that are more washed out, more palatable. And you’re liable to get that from rugs that all collectors despise, rugs made with aniline dyes, or fugitive chromium dyes that bled out and left you with a rug that’s kind of beige or gray or something.

“The thing collectors like about vegetable dyes is that the wool takes each dye lot in a slightly different way. So you get what you see in this rug,” he indicates the rug on his living room floor. “In the red field, you get this variation in the red that is called ‘abrash’ [rhymes with a-WASH]. Chemical dyes don’t do that; they’re always uniform.

“There is a built-in limitation to the colors they could make based on what the dyestuffs were that were available to them. Caucasians had a rich palette, and a rug might have eight to ten colors in it.

“There are certain colors that they couldn’t make. They couldn’t make a strong orange; they couldn’t make a strong purple. When aniline dyes were introduced around 1860, in the beginning they were more expensive, so the weavers would buy only small quantities of dyes and use vivid oranges and purples as highlights. What’s happened in the last 20 years is that if someone finds a terrific rug from the 19th Century that has aniline-dye highlights in it but is otherwise a beautiful rug, they will pay someone to pluck them all out and replace them with something else.”

“Really?” I am genuinely surprised.

“Oh, yeah,” Adams says. “A person who is knowledgeable who looks at that just associates chemical dyes with a debasement of a tradition. That will be the one standard that they won’t go beyond. I will not,” he is emphatic, “buy a rug with chemical dyes. The most important thing to most collectors — if you analyze what makes a rug good or desirable — is color.”

“What’s the second most important thing?” I ask.

“The fineness of the weave,” Adams says. “It’s the drawing of the design. The quality of the wool is much less important. And people who collect tribal rugs are looking for spontaneity. The idea that when a weaver sat down at her loom, she had a design in her mind, an idea of what borders she was going to use and how the field was going to lay out. But every knot wasn’t preprogrammed.

“Oriental rugs are woven in the sense that you take two separate pieces of textile yarn and wrap them around each other in such a way that the union becomes stable,” Adams explains. “Cotton or wool threads are strung up and down on a pole frame or loom to create the rug’s foundation. The side-to-side weft threads cross the long warp threads. It’s through the junction where the warp and the weft threads meet that the pile yarn is knotted or woven.

“The foundation threads are reflected in the fringe at the ends. It is easy to tell if a rug was woven on wool or cotton just by looking at the fringe. When a weaver finishes a piece, the threads of the foundation are knotted in a way that stabilizes the entire piece. The warp threads continue past the pile yarn for three to six inches, creating the decorative fringe at both ends. Many people get a rug home, discover the fringe makes the rug just a hair too big, and cut it to size. Huge mistake. The fringe is what keeps the whole piece from unraveling.

“Imagine a very tight fisherman’s net and then taking long strands of colored yarn and tying them through every hole. If the net was tight enough, when you finished you could cut all of the long strands of colored yarn to a uniform length and have a loosely woven rug. If the strands of yarn you used were multicolored, you would have a pattern reflected by the change of color.

“The pile yarn is long when the weaver is knotting it into the foundation. When a weaver finishes, the pile is cut to a uniform length and the pattern is revealed. The clip is determined by the size of the design. A rug is clipped shorter and shorter until the design is very clear. If you make a tiny design but leave the pile long, you just have a shaggy, muddled appearance.

“That gives you an idea of the process,” Adams continues. “The scale is something else again. A rug is limited in its size to the size of the loom on which it was made. One quick way to tell if a rug is a city rug or a village rug is the size. Looms used to create city rugs are larger because they are stationary in workshops.

“The great classical carpets, and almost all Persian carpets, are woven from a cartoon — a piece of graph paper where each knot is specified. So in a court factory, where they were making those kinds of rugs, there would be someone who held the cartoon and chanted to the weavers, ‘Two blues, two reds.’ ”

“Chanting?” I say. “Like somebody in the back of a boat beating a drum so everyone rows together?”

“Yeah,” Adams says. “The weaver wouldn’t be looking at a diagram, because these rugs have to be woven row by row by row from the bottom up. You can’t draw the figures in there. You have to keep it in your mind and figure out what you’re doing as you go along. And the wool is shaggy, so you can’t even see the design as you’re making it. So the most efficient way to weave a perfect rug is to have someone diagram it all out and then call out each knot to the weaver, and then she puts it in. And maybe you’re weaving a pair of carpets, or maybe five carpets that you are going to sell, so you have a little factory set up of five looms and somebody chanting.”

“So you have five weavers?”

“Right.”

“All weaving the same rug?”

“Right.”

“When you say ‘court factory,’ you mean what?”

“The great carpets from Iran made before 1600 were woven for the palaces and the court of the shah,” Adams says. “Tribal rugs, which we had long thought of as being ethnic, were made on portable looms that traveled with the nomads from the winter grazing grounds to the summer grazing grounds and back. Some of them were woven in a workshop, and some of them were made as a cottage industry in which they were woven at home, but they were made for export. Still, what we like about these rugs is the spontaneity; they just had to start in weaving, so borders may not turn the corners properly.”

“And you call that ‘unreconciled’?” I ask.

“Yeah,” Adams says. “So you get little mistakes like that. A lot of times you’ll find a rug in which you’ll find a first border that they may have decided didn’t work for them — they didn’t like — and they’ll change the design as they work their way up. You’ll see adjustments like this,” he points out a jag in the design of the carpet. “ ‘Oops, I got this too high. I’ll stagger over a couple of knots and get back on track.’

“A lot of times at the top of a rug when they are finishing it, they’ll find that they ran out of room. Here this whole thing is balanced. See, a row of stars and a row of stars. This rug is not the greatest in terms of spontaneity — you see the animals and the little people put in there.” He’s pointing out each feature. “This is part of the peasant aesthetic. There is a Latin phrase I like — horror vacui, the fear of empty spaces.”

While listening to Adams, I am distracted by the white cat outside. It jumps down, and only after it comes inside through the cat door do I notice it has three legs, two in front and one in back. Through years of use, the back leg now looks as if it is positioned in the center of her lower back.

“What is this cat’s name?” I ask.

“Tripod.”

Of course.

Tripod jumps up behind Adams and walks the back of the couch like a balance beam.

“You would almost never know she only has three legs,” Adams says. “She clamors up the bougainvillea and spends most the day on the trellis, and then she’ll bound down on the pillar and come into the house. She was much more adventurous when she was younger. She caught a few birds, but now she has recognized her limitations, and she doesn’t want to be on the ground anymore. She’s 11. She was a wild cat, born in the canyon. She sneaked into someone’s garage that had a wire birdcage in it, and she got her back leg caught in the birdcage. Someone found her and took her to the vet, where they cast the broken leg. But when they took the cast off they found gangrene, so they had to take the leg. She couldn’t be returned to the wild, so I brought her here.”

Adams has a number of throw pillows made from bag faces. Bag faces are the fronts of bags originally woven to transport bedding, clothes, grain, and other items on pack animals. Exporters cut off the plain back of the bag and sold the fancier front.

“What you will see mostly in this house is Caucasian and some Turkomans,” Adams says. “These are a pair of bag faces. These are finely woven, but there are some slight problems with the dyes. They are not considered the best. I have a couple of very good Turkomans.

“These were made by individual tribes, and each tribe had its own gul. This is what you call a ‘gul.’ You can identify the tribe by the gul. They truly were nomadic tribes. They had a limited palette of dyestuff, so everything is in this sort of brown-red family, with sparing use of blues.”

“The brown and the black colors are made with a corrosive substance, right?” I ask.

“Right,” Adams says, “except this brown is a natural brown [as opposed to being made with iron ochre]. You can see that there was a silk highlight here that has completely corroded away.”

To get the colors brown and black, sometimes the dye is made with iron ochre. Because iron ochre is a mineral, crystals are present in the dye, and over time and with wear, these crystals literally cut off the wool. You’ll know when you see an old or antique oriental rug with strands missing in the black and brown areas of the design that iron ochre was used. That can be a yardstick for determining age.

When Adams and I finish talking, he recommends that I speak with another collector he knows. He gives Ray Rosenberg a call and sets up the interview.


The first thing I notice inside Ray Rosenberg’s condo is that every surface is covered with beautiful weavings and artwork. The strong colors of bag faces, banners, small rugs, and not-so-small rugs radiate wherever the eye lands. Weavings are attached to, draped over, or placed on almost every surface, from the chair pads to the kitchen soffit.

Rosenberg used to make his living as an elementary-school teacher, but now he is a collector and a dealer of oriental rugs.

“Do you have a store?” I ask.

“No,” he says, “the way I came to sell was in order to feed my habit.” We laugh. “I bought and sold rugs so I could buy the ones I wanted to collect. A lot of rug people are like that: they become dealers by evolving.

“I’ve been back a week today from the East Coast,” he says. “This week I’ve been running around every day buying rugs that people have been hanging on to for me. They know that I pay a fair price and they can trust what I say.”

“They trust you enough to identify and put a value on what they’re holding to sell you?” I ask.

“Yes.”

“You must have a very good reputation.”

“I think I do,” he says. “I pride myself on that. And these aren’t just private people that call me; they are dealers and pickers. If I weren’t honest, I would lose them.”

Rosenberg also has the reputation of being a good, qualified restorer of rugs.

“I took up restoring for financial reasons,” he says. “I took one rug to a restorer when I was just starting to collect. I bought a Caucasian rug in Coronado. It was a beautiful long runner that had long rips along the warps and side cuts. I knew nothing, nothing, nothing about restoring, but I knew it was a good rug. So I asked around. Everyone I took it to that said they did repairing talked about putting tape or glue on the back of it. But I said I wanted it restored. I talked to the people at the art museum, and they agreed to give me the name of a woman in Pasadena who restored rugs. The long and the short of this story is, I paid $3 for the rug and spent $2000 restoring it. At the end of that episode, I thought, ‘I cannot afford to do this. She’s a human being with two hands — I must be able to do the same thing she does.’ ”

“I hope the rug was worth all that,” I say.

“Oh, yes, it was,” Rosenberg says. “I didn’t have any place to display it because it was very long, so I eventually sold it and got my money back plus some. It was a worthwhile experience.”

I ask Rosenberg about one of the pieces hung on the walls. It is beautiful but rather simple. “Would you call the center decoration a medallion?”

“You could.” He is just cautious enough in agreeing that I know that isn’t the correct term. He has a better explanation. “It doesn’t have a proper name. A lot of times that kind of thing is identified by the number of sides in the figure. That one has one, two…,” he counts out loud and we decide it has to be a deca something.

“That particular rug is one of our oldest and most rare,” he says. “It is one of nine known examples of that particular pattern.”

“What is that pattern called?” I ask.

“It doesn’t have a name,” he says, “other than the fact that the arrangement is called a ‘two-one-two.’ See the two white octagons up in the corner, then the large center one, and two below it? The other things are just kind of filler. Most people who look at this rug, even rug people, look at this and think it’s Caucasian because of the geometry.

“The man that I bought it from is one of the earliest collectors in San Diego. He used to call this his brown Kazak. Kazaks are a type of Caucasian rug that is very desirable, very coarse, large and bold and geometric.

“I fell in love with it the first time he showed it to me, but then I did some research on it and found out it wasn’t a Kazak at all — it’s Anatolian, east Anatolian, or Turkey. When he finally agreed to part with it, he sent it to Skinner’s auction house in Boston with a very high estimate, and it didn’t sell there. So when he started to sell off his collection here he gave me first choice. But I did tell him, ‘This isn’t a brown Kazak, it’s Anatolian.’ ” Rosenberg chuckles.

“How did he take it?”

“Well,” Rosenberg says, “he was pretty good about it. Usually he was hard to correct, but at that time he liked me, and he said something like, ‘Well, I appreciate your knowledge,’ or something like that.” Rosenberg laughs. “God knows what he thought.”

“What do you estimate its value at?” I ask.

“At the time it was sent to Skinner’s, in 1991, it was just at the time the Gulf War was starting, and the European buyers weren’t coming into the rug sales because of the war. And in my mind, that is the reason it didn’t sell. It had a $12,000-to-$15,000 estimate, and it did not sell. I think that its retail value is somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000.”

I am taken with the center of the center medallion and remark that the motif has a Chinese feel.

“Yes, it’s very simple and very striking,” he says. “It’s early 19th Century.”

Some of the elements right around it, on the red field, also have a Chinese feel.

“I collect things that appeal to me,” Rosenberg says. “If I had a focus at all, it would be Caucasian, mostly tribal. I have very few of what we call ‘city rugs,’ like that little Sarouk there. That one is not part of my collection. I just bought that this weekend. I put it there waiting to be washed.”

“So you bought it to sell it?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says. “We’ve been selling things like that on eBay, and I would guess that it would go for about $250.”

“How do you wash an oriental rug?”

“Well,” Rosenberg smiles broadly, “I wash them by hand. That’s what I have been doing all day today. I have four new rugs, much bigger, that I have been washing, and after you leave, I’m going to have to go and pull them in if they’re dry.”

“Oh, they are outside?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says, “not here, but, yes, they are outside. I have a studio with a large back yard. That’s where I do any business that I do. If I have to meet someone to show them a rug, or to buy a rug, I meet them there. I rarely have anyone come to my house.”

Rosenberg tells me about the only targeted break-in that he knows of. He says the collector was well known to antique dealers because he was buying rugs in the ’50s and ’60s, when no one else was. This man had some very valuable rugs at one point, and everyone knew where he lived. One evening when he was out and his wife and son were at home, two men came to the door and asked to see him. They forced their way in, pistol-whipped the woman and boy, and stole the expensive rugs. “That has always sort of lurked in the back of my mind,” Rosenberg says. “I don’t bring someone in unless I know them.”

“What possessed you to buy your first rug,” I ask, “and when was that?”

“In 1976 my partner and I bought a house overlooking the bay,” he says. “It turned out that under these horrible gold shag carpets was a hardwood floor. I had been aware of and had been collecting antiques. I worked with a decorator, but I knew nothing about rugs.

“When I lived in Philadelphia, I used to watch people at Freeman’s auction looking at the rug racks and wonder what they were looking for. It was a mystery to me. I knew nothing about them at all. But when we found our wonderful oak floors, I just decided we were going to have an oriental rug.

“The only word that I knew was ‘Bokhara.’ ” He smiles, remembering. “We went to a little place that used to be on Reynard Way. It has since closed. Two old Armenian men ran it. We told them that we wanted to look at a Bokhara rug. He had a wonderful piece that we fell in love with. I forget the price — maybe $1900. He said it needed a wash, so we gave him a $200 deposit. And we were to come back in two weeks to pick up the rug.

“When we came back he had coated the back with a kind of spray rubber cement to keep it from slipping. We were stunned. I knew enough to know that we didn’t want that. So I told him that we didn’t expect that, we didn’t want that on there, and he got absolutely livid. Livid. He would not give us back the $200, and,” Rosenberg is laughing, “he literally threw us out of the shop.”

“He ruined his own rug?” I ask.

“He didn’t consider it ruined,” Rosenberg says. “Because at that time people were regularly putting rubber on the backs of rugs. It did stop the rug from traveling on a wood floor.

“It was primarily a rug-cleaning establishment, and he was there for years and years. I even offered to buy another one and put the $200 towards it. He would have none of it. I don’t think I have ever been thrown out of an establishment before. He told us to leave, and he would have nothing to do with us.

“I decided maybe that wasn’t such a good idea anyway. I figured I had better learn something about rugs. So I went to the library and checked out books and just started reading about them. I became more knowledgeable, and I got hooked on it, but that was my first rug experience.”

“Do you go to garage sales?” I ask.

“I used to go,” he says. “When I first became interested in rugs; this was 1976. So it’s been 23 years that I have been actively buying and selling rugs. I used to do all my running around myself. I was up every day — Friday, Saturday, Sunday — going to swap meets, garage sales, and estate sales. I found a lot of stuff, but I have discovered in the last several years that I have established kind of a network of people — dealers and pickers — that know I will pay a fair price and tell them what it is.

“If I don’t buy it, at least I will tell them what it is and what to expect to get for it. So I have gotten to the point now where I don’t have to do that sort of thing anymore. I’d rather pay more money and give them their profit than have to get up early in the morning and run around. I’ve gotten lazy. But I still get a lot of rugs.”

I ask Rosenberg how he decides something is Caucasian.

“Well, it’s hard to make a generality,” he says. “When I look at rugs, I look at the structure. I guess that goes along with the fact that I restore.

“When you restore,” he explains, “you become acutely aware of how a thing is made. I try not to pay too much attention to pattern but more about how the thing is made. There were a lot of copies made: things that sold well would be copied in different parts of the rug world. You can get something that you think must be Turkish because of the pattern, but when you look at the way it’s made, it’s not. One thing that rarely changed was the tradition of how something was woven. The structure is very important.

“I’ve never visited the Middle East,” Rosenberg says. “I would assume once the women got their household chores done, they spent the rest of the day weaving, just sitting at the loom and knotting. That’s after they have gotten the wool from whatever source they get it from, whether it’s their own dyed-and-carded wool or — there are a lot of weavers that have wool supplied to them by the larger firms that farm out the work to the small weavers in the villages.”

“Is restoring tedious?” I ask.

“Yes and no,” Rosenberg says. “I find it very relaxing. But I don’t spend the whole day at it. I may work on one piece for a whole year, but that isn’t every day. It’s very time-consuming, very slow. That’s one reason I won’t work for other people. If you are particular about matching colors — and I think that is one of my skills, because I paint, so I feel like I know how to mix wools to get the color right. If I figured how much I was making an hour, I think I would be making about a quarter an hour.” Rosenberg laughs again. “When people ask me if I will do a project for them, I just say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t work for other people.’ ”

I ask Rosenberg about the rug under the coffee table. It has a large dark field.

“This is a Bijar [pronounced BEE-djar], technically a city rug. Bijars occupy a special niche for rug collectors. People who collect rugs generally don’t consider collecting city rugs, because they are too mechanical.

“For some reason, a Bijar rug has always occupied a special place because of the dyes that were used, because of the designs, because of the way that they are constructed, which is different than the way a lot of city rugs are made.

“Most of my rugs come with wonderful stories,” Rosenberg says. “This rug is from an estate sale in La Jolla. The people having the sale were moving into a condo. This piece was rolled up in the back of the house. It was not part of the sale. I asked him, ‘Are you selling this one?’

“He said, ‘No, we are keeping only one, this one.’ I told him, ‘If you ever decide to sell it, I would make an offer.’ And I told him what I would pay for it, hoping to be generous because I really wanted it. Several months later I got a call from him saying they had the rug in the condo, but the condo has deep, plush wall-to-wall carpeting, and the rug keeps moving. How does he keep it in place? It has a large coffee table on it.”

“Just feeling the back,” I say, picking up the corner of it and looking at both sides, “it would be very hard to tell which is the face of it.”

“Yes, it’s very, very worn.”

“Did it have a short pile to begin with?” I ask.

“It probably had a medium pile,” Rosenberg says. “It was closely clipped, as many fine rugs are, but I think that corner that you were just holding is pretty close to what it originally was. It was never a high-pile rug. But as it wears, it gets that feeling like you get with a kilim: which is the front and which is the back?”

Rosenberg mentions the San Diego rug society that he and another rug collector founded. Val Arbab has been a guest speaker at society meetings many times. “Val’s strength is the appraisal for valuation and evaluation using the structural method.”

“Has the rare-and-collectible rug availability in San Diego dried up?” I ask.

“I think it is much more dried up than it used to be,” he says. “A lot of the pickers will tell you they just don’t show up that often.”

Rosenberg offers to give me a tour of the house. He points out a rug with a large white field, rather coarsely woven, hanging on a wall.

“This is a rug that I treasure,” he says. “There are very few known and published examples, particularly with a white ground. It’s Caucasian.”

Interpreting the motifs of the various borders and designs can be an amateur’s Rorschach test. One element looks like fire demons to me. To Rosenberg, they look like little owls.

“I think it is actually a two-handled urn of some kind,” he explains.

The design seems to go up the rug only so far before it changes into another design, as if another artist finished it.

“Isn’t this a big boo-boo?” I ask.

He smiles. “These are the things that people like me love to see. It’s an indication that whoever wove this was just weaving the design out of her head. At one point she decided, ‘I don’t want to continue this.’ So she just stopped. I love it when they just stop in the middle of doing something and just change their mind. I think she saw that she was going to run into problems if she wanted to take this design on around, so…”

“She bailed.”

“Yes.”

“So she did this for her own use?” I ask. “She didn’t intend for this piece to be sold?”

“The current thinking is that most of these 19th-century rugs were made for Western export,” he says. “Maybe some of them were made for their own use. But they brought in so many thousands of these Caucasian rugs of this era that the feeling is that they were made because there was a market for them.”

I ask about the legend of the color green. Is it symbolic or just difficult to produce?

“It does involve blending two different colors. That makes it more difficult. But that is not to say that green doesn’t have special significance in some Islamic cultures. It is believed to be a sacred color, and a follower of the Muslim faith would not feel comfortable having that color walked upon.”

I move to another rug, also hanging on the wall.

“I waited eight years to get that rug,” Rosenberg says. “The couple that owned that rug was using it in their entryway. They called me to buy a different rug, and when I saw this piece being used as a doormat, I was appalled. I made them an offer, but the man kept saying, ‘No, I’m not ready to part with it.’ I put it on my calendar, and every six months I would call and ask them if they were ready to sell it.” He laughs. “It wasn’t until the man passed away that his wife sold it.

“Unfortunately, she didn’t sell it to me.” Rosenberg is grinning. “She sold it to a friend of mine, a dealer, who then put an enormous price on it because he knew that I was waiting for it. So I finally wound up with it.” He chuckles.

“I hope you didn’t pay an enormous price,” I say.

“I did, I did,” he says. “But I got what I wanted.”

I run my hand across another rug that has an interesting texture.

“This is a rug that I just bought this summer,” he says. “That is all moth damage that I will restore. I will put back the wool that should be there. The moths have done something interesting.”

“This is a beautiful little prayer rug,” I notice. So-called because it is used by Muslims to kneel on during prayer. A prayer rug is easy to identify. It’s a small rug with a directional motif sometimes described as the outline of a mosque.

“Now, is this the orange color?” I ask. “Or is this a faded red?”

“No, that is a typical Baluch coloring,” Rosenberg says.

“So this is not the orange that repels collectors?” It’s a salmon pink, or soft coral.

“No, no.” Rosenberg is horrified. He bursts out laughing. “I am very happy to say I don’t have anything here like that, but if you came to my studio I could show it to you. No, that is very harsh. This is a nice soft color, and it’s the same color front and back, allowing for the difference of knot twist. Yeah, it’s a good color, as opposed to the,” his voice drops deeper, “synthetic bad color.”

I try another term I think I know, “interlocking motif,” and he corrects me again.

“Well, that would probably be called a ‘ram’s horn’ design.”

He points out a Kazak with a selvage edge, as opposed to an overcast edge. Using the structural method, rug identification sometimes comes down to the process of elimination. “Structurally, I think you have got to be flexible,” he says. “And maybe by the process of elimination you say, ‘Well, this can’t be anything else, so it’s got to be…’ ”

“Who did the ladybugs?” I ask, focusing on another rug.

“Well, these are butterflies,” he says.

I guess I can’t even identify insects correctly when they are interpreted in wool.

“This is an old Chinese,” he says. “This is before the 1930s-type solid-field-with-a-medallion kind of rug. I found this downtown in an antique mall just rolled up and put into a basket. I find my best rugs just thrown into baskets. I don’t know that it has a lot of value, but I know it is early, and I just think it’s lovely.

“This is a rug that I love to tell the story about,” he says, pointing to another example. “This is a Caucasian rug. It’s called a Lesghi [pronounced LES-chee] because of this motif here.”

“It almost looks Navajo,” I say.

“Yes, well,” Rosenberg says, “people say that a lot, because in the late 19th Century a lot of Caucasian rugs were brought across and given to the Navajo Indians to copy the designs. So, many of the Navajo rugs have this kind of a look, because the motifs were copied from the Caucasian.

“Anyway,” he continues, “very early in my collecting days there used to be a swap meet out at the stadium. One of the days we were out there, my partner and I saw this rug spread on the ground with a whole bunch of pots and pans on it that these two young guys were selling. I knew instantly what it was, and I asked them if it was for sale. One of the guys said, ‘I don’t know if we want to sell it.’ I told my partner what it was and said we should try to get it for a couple of hundred dollars. It had wonderful colors. So one of the guys said, ‘Okay, if you really want it.’ I asked him what he wanted for it. He says, ‘Two.’ I said two what? He says, ‘Two dollars.’ ”

I start laughing. “What did you say? ‘Can you break a five?’ ”

“After I bought it I asked them where it came from,” Rosenberg says. “The guy said, ‘I think it came from the basement.’ So we always call it our two-dollar basement rug.”

I spot a rug worthy of being the carpet Cleopatra had herself wrapped in for delivery to Marc Anthony.

Rosenberg agrees. “Yes, it’s very velvety. This is a Turkoman rug with silk highlights. The wool is so beautiful, and it is very finely woven. It’s made by the Tekke tribe.”

I ask him about another rug. “This isn’t a Bokhara, is it?”

“Well,” he says, “ ‘Bokhara’ is a word that isn’t used anymore.”

Now I’m wrong and passé.

“That was the word most people used, including myself,” he explains, “because that was the only word I knew. Actually, Bokhara was a trading station where rugs were picked up. That name is really obsolete. These rugs are called Turkoman rugs, in general. And then after the specific tribe, the Tekke. There are six or eight very prominent tribal groups that weave rugs. They all have their own distinctive style and structure that you can identify.”

I comment on a small piece that seems to have a variety of borders and fields.

“This is what they call a Vagera, which is a sampler. They would make examples of patterns in different sizes and with different motifs. They would send these to the rug dealers so they could pretty much say, ‘Well, I can give you this border with that at each end with the Herati pattern, big or small.’ They would give you a choice when you ordered your rug. Now they have become collectors’ items.”

I see a beautiful but small mat just outside of the bathroom. “How much would something like this cost?”

“I paid $1000 for it,” he says. “It is unusual to find a Bijar mat this finely done with such beautiful dyes. They are one of the longer-lasting rugs. With proper care, one would last a good 100 to 150 years.

“When these rugs were new they were inexpensive. You could get a nice Caucasian rug for about $50. They were considered almost disposable. You use it for a couple of years and then get rid of it.

“This is a Turkoman. Basically, anything largely red is a Turkoman.”

“And the pattern, is it called an elephant foot?” I ask.

“They have made up a lot of names to explain different patterns,” Rosenberg explains. “Those things they call elephant-foot motifs are really guls, which is the Turkoman name for flower. They are stylized flower blooms. Particular tribes had an individual way of interpreting them. For instance, the Tekkes had this one that was divided into quarters with a blue line. That is almost a trademark — not the only one, but at least one of them.

“Sometimes you can identify a rug by the colors of the dye used. The dyes in many areas were made right there; the colors are very distinctive to the area or tribe.

“I am not upset too much by condition,” Rosenberg continues. “I can enjoy a rug that is a bit tattered, worn, or has a few holes in it. It still may be very desirable to me. Many collectors won’t look at something unless it’s in perfect condition. I would rather it be perfect, but I won’t turn it down because it happens to have a hole in it. You almost expect some kind of wear if it has any age to it at all. In fact, I get kind of suspicious when a rug is in perfect condition. That can be an indication that it is a new piece.”

I ask about what I think is a signature. Wrong again. It is a date.

“According to the Islamic calendar,” Rosenberg says, “it corresponds to the year 1860. But you have to remember, most of these weavers were illiterate. They might have been copying something and they didn’t get it right. You can never be sure of what an inscription means unless it is done in a city rug, where they knew exactly what they were doing. They may have just had a quirky sense of humor. A lot of them did really funny things.”

That human element that crosses all cultures. It is a factor more desirable than technical knowledge. Being able to see the hands behind the creation, across the miles and years — that’s the spark that inspires collectors who, figuratively speaking, worship the carpet they walk upon.

-- Patricia Boynton

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