Antique oriental rugs — an ecumenical term for handmade knotted or woven rugs ranging in origin from China and Vietnam in the East, Turkey and Egypt in the West, the Caucasus in the North and India in the South; and encompassing levels of manufacture ranging from urban ateliers connected to royal courts to lone mountain village girls weaving their dowries — tell stories. Stories of maker. Of topography, culture, class, material and religion. Of what a particular piece might have been used for, how it was used originally and has been used since, where it might have been used.
Breach a rug’s border, enter its field (what its main area is often called), and behold carpets of figurative or nonfigurative iconography: paneled designs rolling with wheels of life, butting with rams’ horns, bursting with flowers, flowing with water. Or a medallion depicting a dragon, a phoenix, the sun or a seed. Sometimes expressed in graceful curves, other times in harder geometry; sometimes said simply in a single motif, or alternately echoed in variegated variation. As in any good story, there is a lot to see, to parse, to decode, to try to understand.
So it is with antique rug dealer Peter Pap. With galleries on Jackson Street in San Francisco and Main Street in Dublin, New Hampshire, and with sources and clients filling points between, his warp and weft are long, broad and strong, his abrash, or the subtle shading differences that occur naturally over time, an intriguing gamut. What tale would his rug tell?
The son of a Yale professor father who had come from his native Switzerland to study at Julliard but instead studied philosophy at NYU, and an American mother who sang, Pap early on had a penchant for music. That he was born in music-loving Vienna (Mozart! Haydn! Strauss!), makes this inclination seem predestined — his training in the recorder, oboe and cello while growing up in Hamden, Connecticut (just outside of New Haven), a given.
Form, structure, tradition, the at times almost mathematical precision of classical music along with frequent trips to Manhattan, formed an artistic foundation strong enough to support experimentation, improvisation, even the occasional blue note. Pap developed a love of jazz — Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins — while at Hamden High, the lack of constraint an appealing counterpoint that led him to Woolman Hill, an alternative school in Deerfield, Massachusetts, which he discovered in an ad while reading the Saturday Review.
“Amy Arbus, Diane’s daughter, and Alex Schultz, the blues guitarist, were there, too,” says Pap, adding that most of the faculty was only five or six years older than the student body. “It was great, freeing.”
His next set, in sync with the vibe of the Age of Aquarius in the late 1960s and early ’70s, was a cross-country riff to an agricultural and arts-based commune on Oregon’s central coast where he stayed for a year and a half and started to play the saxophone. Hot sax on the brain, he then moved to Boston, intending to study at the Berklee College of Music, when life delivered an abrupt variation.
In short trumpet bursts, Pap married his first wife — who traveled east with him from Oregon — started a family and went to work in an Oriental rug store. “I had two immediate choices: working in a meat packing plant or as a stock boy in the rug store,” says Pap, who’s a vegetarian.
The year was 1974 and Pap was 20. For the next 18 months he worked for Richard Kurkjian, a second-generation Armenian rug merchant who: 1. Focused on new rugs, “the flavor of that day;” 2. Allowed Pap to discover, examine and start to learn about older rugs, often found at the bottom of heavy piles acquired much earlier by Kurkjian’s father (“I think it was the exposure to art and artists as a kid that gave me an ability to recognize artistry over mass production”); 3. Taught Pap about business sense and savvy, salesmanship and service, and “how to be a hard-ass” when required; and 4. Gave him the platform from which to observe the dynamics of what was then an especially unique and closed business.
“My boss would buy old and antique rugs from the nexus of his father’s clients and sell them to wholesalers who would sell to Europe,” says Pap. “In the ’70s and early ’80s, Europe was hoovering rugs out of the U.S., where they were extremely out of fashion.”
Operating first out of his house in Boston, Pap soon moved to Royalston, Massachusetts. “I had two little girls by 1976, and with my hippie roots wanted the family in a rural environment,” he says, noting that Royalston was also a great base of operation. “There are many, many places within a radius of two hours.” By the early 1980s, he had rented a small storefront in Keene, New Hampshire, and in 1983 had exhibited at his first antiques show, in Weston, Vermont: “Seven years from when I started buying until my first show.”
Such venues, Pap quickly decided, were a valuable conduit through which to meet and service new collectors. “Fairing” well, by 1991 he was attending between eight and 10 shows a year, among them the Winter Antiques Show in New York, the Philadelphia Antiques Show and the San Francisco Fall Antiques Show — during which, in October ’91, he took over the Baktiari Gallery in San Francisco’s tony Pacific Heights.
The owners Arky and Ginger Robbins wanted to retire but were very concerned and particular about their successor, about handing their clients on to somebody reputable whom they trusted,” says Pap, who opened his eponymous gallery in the Baktiari space on Clay Street in 1992 before relocating in 1994 to his present location on Jackson Street.
Not that Pap has abandoned New England. While there’s an interest in rugs throughout the country, and while the focus in San Francisco and the Bay Area is on the very high end, Pap notes that rugs remain East Coast–centric. In 1991, he moved his gallery from Keene to Dublin, New Hampshire. From there he continues to operate, 19 years later, providing an Eastern venue to keep in touch with contacts and clients, not to mention an idyllic summer getaway for him, his second wife, Terry, and their son, Jared.
As is often the case with businesses that combine aesthetics and erudition, Pap’s gallery is distinguished by his eye. His categorical bywords when evaluating a rug (the weight of each determined by the type of rug under scrutiny) are color, design, craftsmanship, rarity, condition, and overall feel — which is where connoisseurship comes to the fore.
As evidence of Pap’s eye, there is his inventory, made up exclusively of antique rugs. “I would say the majority of galleries have some degree of modern or custom production,” he says, noting that his preference for rugs “with the village and nomadic spirit” further sets him apart. “I tend to have many more small rugs and runners, which are widely considered not as profitable in the trade.”
What Pap finds beguiling in these smaller examples is evidence of the maker’s hand, mind and creative choices, “the artistry of the individual weavers.” (Pap’s predilection is born out by a visit to the gallery’s website, where under “recent acquisitions” and “current inventory” one can find a cross section of “scatter rugs,” “room-size rugs,” “oversize rugs,” “runners & gallery rugs” and “tribal rugs,” Hamadans, Tabrizes, Malayers from Persia; Oushaks, and Tullus from Turkey; Indian dhurries; kilims from the Caucasus, the list goes on and on.)
In addition to his eye, there is his word. Or “the standard of ethics we bring to the business,” he says. “We guarantee everything to be as represented, we disclose any restoration that has been done, we agree to take our rugs back in trade for full value, and we steer clear of the practices in the trade that I abhor, for example, the tinting of worn areas, changing colors in rugs, and acid washing.” Pap views these practices not only as a kind of aesthetic and cultural sacrilege, but also as an economic transgression that will adversely effect the rugs’ resale value; he’s talking pennies on the dollar, too, and not an incremental devaluation (for more on the perils of acid washing, see Pap’s Q&A).
So, after more than 35 years dealing in antique Oriental rugs coast to coast, Pap’s professional life is writ large on his own irregularly shaped weave. “Dealing in rugs comes very naturally to me, and the fact that you never stop learning — and you never know what rug is around the next corner — keeps it very exciting.” The iconography would be plentiful, the colors rich and varied.
But what would the dominant symbol be? What would encompass a passion begat by “the prospect of having a business that I could call my own at such a young age,” and which developed and deepened for the rugs themselves over time, one that became so great so early that quite early on Pap found it “hard to imagine pursuing any other area of work?” A saxophone — that talisman of Pap’s other musical passion that also alludes to a general orientation and world view that shaped and nurtured his career and life course. Variation and flexibility buttressed by technique, discipline and a continued curiosity. And all that jazz.
Why is it bad to acid wash antique Oriental rugs?
The rugs, their artistry and integrity are radically altered, and the wool quality is severely compromised.
How can you tell if a rug has been acid-washed/chemically treated?
If you see a rug that has virtually no color, various shades of browns, camel, beige, light blue, no reds, there’s a strong likelihood it’s been acid washed. They simply didn’t make rugs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that were monochromatic to this extent. An acid-washed rug will often be very shiny. And the body of the rug will become very supple, more so than if it hadn’t been washed. Often you can smell a chemical odor in the rug as opposed to the normal wooly smell.
Are there specific kinds of rugs that are most often treated?
The kinds of rugs that are most often acid washed are Oushak, Tabriz, Khorassan, Meshed, Kirman. These types lend themselves well to going from strong colors to the palettes that the design community wants to work with. (That doesn’t rule out other types of rugs also being acid washed.)
How much of a rug’s value is destroyed by this process?
When talking about a rug’s value, there is a before and after phenomenon that has encouraged dealers to acid wash their rugs. A strongly colored early-20th-century Kirman, a very unpopular rug in today’s market, which might have only netted $20,000 in its original color, might net a dealer $60,000 post acid wash. Yet the resale value for the end user is often a fraction of what they pay.
It’s not uncommon for buyers to find out they can’t get more than ten cents on the dollar when they turn around and try to sell these rugs. I’ve always felt that I had a fiduciary responsibility to my clients to sell them rugs that would stand them in good stead for the long haul, and when it came time to pass them on to their children or sell them, they would be pleasantly surprised at the value.