At Peter Pap’s booth at the Greenwich Antiques Show in Connecticut, a woman is examining an enormous Mahal carpet with an unusual green ground that has been attracting passersby all morning. Looking down, the woman asks, “How much is it?” Pap replies, with a courtly nod, “fifty-four thousand dollars.”
Peter Pap is recognizable to followers of Antiques Roadshow as the expert from San Francisco with the scholarly refinement of a private school headmaster. He has graying hair, a beard of a very short nap, and watchful eyes redoubled by owlish glasses. As the woman toes the binding of the Mahal, he leans forward, anticipating what is coming next. “And how old are you saying?” the woman asks.
“It is,” he replies, “late nineteenth century.” After the woman drifts away, Pap looks in exasperation at his booth’s walls. “Did you hear the implication? ‘How old are you saying?’ The interaction starts out with two strikes against you.”
The woman’s suggestion-that antique rugs are never as old or worth as much as their sellers maintain-is something that Pap has long wanted to put to rest. Every category of the antiques industry has its scandals, but what brings Pap close to despair is his sense that some parts of the rug trade have lived up to the public’s perception.
Pap, who has been in the business since 1975, has watched in recent years as auction houses and retailers have chased trends favored by interior designers and their well-heeled clients. In particular, the pale gold-toned Ushaks from Turkey, once considered an inferior, less durable style, have soared in popularity. More insidiously, deeply colored rugs have often been doctored with acid washes to soften their tones, a practice that Pap finds equivalent to defacing a fine painting. And yet Mary Jo Otsea, who heads the Rugs and Carpets Department at Sotheby’s, says that altering rugs to suit decorative tastes is nothing new. She points out that in the 1920s Oriental rugs were treated to make them pinker, a vogue at the time. “We haven’t found that the chemicals harm the fabric,” Otsea says.
Pap disagrees, insisting that the rugs she refers to were not antiques and that he has seen the deleterious effects of chemical washes, especially on loose-weave rugs. He goes on to say that the current alteration of rugs does not stop at tinting. Decorators, and dealers trying to please them, sometimes have parts of a rug rewoven to tame the pattern or remove a center medallion so the rug can be placed off-center in a room. “If the rug has been cut down, or rewoven so that the background is not the one the weaver created, the rug doesn’t make sense,” Pap insists. “They are in effect making a new rug and it should cost what a new rug does.”
Of course, the fad for muted colors combined with the financial downturn has made this a great time for serious collectors of traditional Oriental rugs-the ones that have been prized for the richness of their colors. “You can now get the ‘best of type’ for the least amount of money in years,” Pap reports.
If Pap succeeds in rescuing the antique Oriental rug business, he will be in some sense returning a favor. In 1973, he left the commune where he had been living in Oregon and returned to New England, where he had grown up, hoping to matriculate at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Then, he says, “everything happened at once.” He married and was soon expecting a child. “I needed a job. The employment agency gave me the choice of packing meat in the South End or being a stock boy in an Oriental rug store.” Pap, a vegetarian, picked the rug store. His boss, a second-generation Armenian, had no interest in antiques. When older rugs came his way, he dealt them to itinerant buyers who were collecting antique rugs for the thriving European market.
After a year and a half at the store, Pap took the itinerant path himself. Working out of the trunk of his ten-year-old Volvo, he scoured estate sales, antiques stores, and flea markets for rugs, selling to collectors as well as to other dealers. “From my Armenian boss back in Boston, I learned to be tough when it was called for,” Pap says. The rest he taught himself, deal by deal. “I was ridiculed in those days for going to auctions and studying every rug and putting a price on each one, where the other dealers would focus on the three or four best things.”
Just as Pap was getting into the business, collectors were beginning to be fascinated with tribal rugs made by village weavers and nomads-spiky, brilliant Kazaks from Azerbaijan, and intensely geometric Turkmen rugs. These naive and often imperfect specimens, produced for dowries and family use, became a focal point of Pap’s business, along with saddlebags, salt bags, and other items of ethnographic interest.
Today Pap rarely attends auctions, to buy or sell. During the boom years of the 1970s, when he got into the trade, rugs were so undervalued that Boston antiques dealers would buy up the contents of an old-guard country house and stop off at the dump to get rid of the rugs. It cost Pap only $3,000 to buy enough rugs to start his business in 1975. In that climate of relative ignorance, auctions were a prime source of low-priced inventory for fledgling dealers. But by the mid-1980s dealers had caught on. The auction houses began pursuing rugs for their large sales and the public had become savvy too. “There is no room for a dealer at auctions anymore,” Pap says. “There are people who will pay what it takes for any rug that’s worth buying. The party’s over.”
In the early 1980s Pap settled into a shop in the tiny town of Dublin, New Hampshire. He built his business by working the Northeast’s cycle of antiques shows. “I had limitless energy,” he recalls. Today, with his store in San Francisco’s Jackson Square and a growing investment in his Internet site, he still exhibits at eight or nine shows a year. “I have customers who started in their thirties and are still buying twenty, twenty-five years later. As I’ve educated them they have elevated their taste and the caliber of what they buy.”
For Pap, this is how the antique rug business is supposed to work. Clients might start with semi-antiques from the 1920s and 1930s, waiting until they gathered value before trading up as their eye improves to older and more sophisticated “workshop rugs” woven in the cities of modern-day Iran. Eventually they become connoisseurs with a taste for village and nomadic rugs of the mid-nineteenth century.
These sorts of patient, studious clients are disappearing in every category of antiques. But Pap describes other problems in the business that sound like a subprime mortgage-style crisis in the making. When taste turns again toward bold color and graphic complexity, two decades of pale, chemically treated rugs will begin to hit the market. In a normal turnaround, dealers bank rugs that have fallen out of fashion, confident that they will regain their value when the pendulum of taste swings again. But, Pap says, “rugs are going to be put under a magnifying glass going forward,” and the altered rugs, he believes, will be worth pennies on the dollar. “The prices charged by the dealers who specialized in these rugs were not justifiable.” He sees signs that the reckoning has already begun. “At its peak you would see acid-washed rugs going for $30,000 to $40,000 at auction. Now it’s down to $10,000 to $15,000. The bloom is off the rose.”
None of this will have much financial impact on Pap, who does not deal in such rugs, but he cares all the same. He is a purist who wants people to grant rugs the same integrity they give any other art object. “We should think of ourselves as custodians of these rugs,” he says. At the Greenwich show, shortly after his exasperating encounter, another woman approached Pap about a rug she had discussed selling to him. With some apprehension she tells him that one of her children has objected and wants to keep the rug. “Perfect,” Pap says, “perfect.”
Above right: Flat woven rug, Bessarabian, late nineteenth century. Wool warp and weft, 92 by 72 inches. Photograph by courtesy of Peter Pap.
Above left: Afshar rug, southwestern Persia, late nineteenth century. Knotted wool pile on a wool foundation, 42 by 38 inches. Pap photograph.