Chapter 10

Of course Sarah’s business instincts had proven sound.

After Sarah made her debut as a rug expert at the Carpet Museum’s show and tell, her rise to stardom in the rug world had been spectacular. In fact, even at that first show-and-tell she had made a deep impression on people, particularly on men between the ages of fourteen and ninety. For instance, as she extolled the quality of her Belouch prayer rug’s soft wool, she playfully roughed up its fleecy wool and then fondled and smoothed it in a way that upset them all. When she asked if any “gentleman” was willing to hold up her rug so that the audience could see it better, there were so many volunteers and they were so insistent on helping her that she had to settle the matter by holding it up herself.

Of course Sarah’s business instincts had proven sound. Her decision to print Charles Francis Green’s name on her business cards had opened doors. Opportunities had arisen. And she had never had to explain to Green why his name was there, in bold letters. Either he hadn’t found out or he was too much a gentleman to confront a lady. Often she called on Green to help her with rug matters. She would show him photographs of antique rugs that clients wished to sell or rugs they wished to purchase and he would graciously identify and appraise them. Each time she would thank him for his cooperation.

While she pursued her increasingly successful consultation business, she undertook training in the docent program at the National Carpet Museum. After she became a qualified docent, Sarah added “National Carpet Museum” to her business card and then dropped out of the program without ever having had to guide tiresome museum-visitors. In the meantime she had begun taking graduate classes at Georgetown University in “Textile Arts.” Fortunately, her professors understood that her duties at the Carpet Museum, which she may have exaggerated somewhat, often prevented her from attending classes and adversely affected her performance on occasional exams, and they took that in to account as they graded her work. In record time she was able to add “Masters, Textile Arts” to her business card. So now it looked like this:

Sarah Atwood MA, Textile Arts
Oriental Rugs and Carpets
National Carpet Museum, Washington, D.C.
In Cooperation with Mr. Charles Francis Green

As her career prospered, Sarah never doubted that she had chosen the right one, even though she knew that success meant having to walk among her clients and colleagues disguised as something she was not. It was not her ignorance of rugs that she had to mask—that was hardly a problem at all—but her dislike for Oriental rugs. Working with Oriental rugs nearly every day, she had quickly become so sick of them that she could have vomited. But really, she had never cared for them. Of course there was her Serapi with which she had at least felt herself to be on friendly terms, but even this feeling had dimmed. Not only that, but after working and socializing with collectors, dealers, curators, importers, decorators, homeowners, writers and scholars and even a few weavers, it was her conviction that every last one of them, like her, was faking their enthusiasm for rugs, each for their own reasons but mainly for money. That and attention. Collectors and homeowners craved attention; the others craved money.

In a feisty mood once, she had prodded the National Carpet Museum’s director, Kyle Berman, to see whether she could penetrate his disguise. At that time Sarah was in the docent program and Berman was her boss. One afternoon, someone from the public brought a rug to the museum to find out what it was, how old it was and what it was worth. The Carpet Museum never got involved in appraising rugs, but often someone on the staff found time to inform people about what they had. It so happened that Kyle and Sarah had been the ones to whom the job fell, and of course they were able to tell the fellow all about his rug. It was a south Persian gabbeh, circa maybe 1920, the kind of rug that a tribal people (the Qashgayi) wove near Shiraz, usually, at that time, for personal use rather than export. This gabbeh was dominated by a tiger that filled the entire field. It was a ridiculous tiger, really, woven in the most lurid synthetic dyes of edgy orange, flaming pink and fire engine red—not the kind of thing the Carpet Museum would have kept in its collection. Yet Kyle was nearly poetic in its praise.

“It is a wonderful survivor,” he told its owner, “of a long Persian tradition of bringing lions and tigers to life in their rugs. It is possible that even in the 20s, when this rug was woven, weavers no longer remembered the why and wherefore of their lions and tigers, but they owe their tradition to the days of Darius the Great, whose personal symbol was a lion holding a sword.” And more. After a quarter of an hour, the rug’s owner left, elated.

When the fellow was gone, Sarah smiled. “Well done, Kyle. There’s a happy customer. Maybe he will someday feel inclined to donate money to the museum.”

“Well, he had a fun rug.”

“Fun? I’d say it was nice of you not to make fun of it.” Sarah said “nice,” but she thought the real answer was that Kyle had been smart to forebear telling the rug’s owner what he really thought.

But he played dumb. “Make fun of it? Why would I do that?”

She laughed. For a moment Sarah tried to imagine living in the same house with the gabbeh and its lurid colors and its comic book tiger. She couldn’t, but then there weren’t many rugs she wanted to be in the same house with after working hours. “Well, let’s just say that you would make a good politician.”

“Thank you Sarah,” he said, a little stiffly, “but I liked that rug. It really is from a great tradition, you know.” Sarah took a breath to argue with him but stopped. He really wasn’t going to step out of his disguise, even with her. He was the director of the Carpet Museum, and he hadn’t got there by indulging himself, she thought. He was going to keep his feelings to himself. For the first time Sarah admired Kyle Berman. He was disciplined and that is why he had risen to the top. His success was no accident. She felt blessed to have absorbed this lesson early in her career. Never let down the front. It didn’t occur to her that he actually may have liked the rug.

Her career did seem blessed. As soon as she had added her new Master’s Degree to her resume, she had begun sending it to museums around the country along with a letter inquiring about positions as curator of rug and textile departments. She always included a professionally produced photograph of herself in her package. In the photo she was proudly holding a rug, of course, but it was she who dominated the photo and not the rug. Her resume got nibbles. Then she got a bite. She was invited to curate the rug and textile division of the San Francisco Museum. Just like that. When she showed up to take the reins, those who had hired her wanted to know all the latest about her famous mentor, Charles Francis Green.

After being on the job for a year or so, she met with a strange fellow with a beautiful voice, Avery Deane. The next day, Sarah phoned Ulysses Pope. “I couldn’t pin him down, Ulysses. He said the rug was still in China and hinted that it would have to be smuggled out.” She was one of the very few people in rug circles who had the nerve to call Pope by his first name.
“Has he seen it himself?”

“My impression is that he hasn’t.”

“So it could all be smoke and mirrors. What did he want?”

“He asked how much the museum is willing to pay for it.”

“And what did you tell him?”

“He had heard it said in Europe and New York that the San Francisco Museum was ready to pay a million dollars for it. I told him that it was not the museum but a private collector who was interested and that his figure was approximately correct. Then I cut the conversation short, saying that I wasn’t interested in talking about hypotheticals. I told him to bring me the rug when he had it.”

“Good. He may just be on a fishing expedition. Still, if he’s got something, I want you to land it. Don’t forget that there’s money in it for you.”

“Which, because of my position here, we needn’t mention again.”

“No need to. Just land that rug.”

Off the phone now, Sarah thought again about what Avery Deane had said. “You’re just like me, my dear. If there’s anything people such as us—true lovers of the arts—if there’s anything we despise, it’s money. We won’t even talk about it.” A true lover of the arts? No, she was someone who had merely put on the trappings of one. Despise money? She laughed. We won’t even talk about money? That was the only thing he had got right. Especially we won’t talk about a $100,000 commission if she could put the Ferrier Dragon Rug in Pope’s hands. And certainly we won’t talk about it where someone from the Museum might hear of it, because museums frown on their curators setting up little side deals. And maybe we won’t talk about it at all when, somehow, some way, she might manage to put the whole million dollars in her purse. Or suitcase. Because she wasn’t fooling around in a museum for the rest of her life.

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When a Dragon Winks

  • A novel by Emmett Eiland

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