Chapter 12

He even sniffed the rugs. Something was wrong, but what?

As Avery Deane was in his new digs in Berkeley inventing the Ferrier dragon rug, just five miles away at the University of California, Marley Highland III conducted a seminar for archeology students entitled Uncovering Archeological Fakes. It was an art that had already made him famous in some circles, and the seminar was well attended. “Some artifacts just don’t smell right,” he began, and his students were immediately enthralled. One wrote down “smell” in her notebook.

He was thinking about the two rugs in the Carpet Museum’s collection that had never felt quite right to him: the so-called Ninth Star Kazak and the Arabachi. For years, each time the Museum displayed them, he had peered closely at them, disturbed. When museum guards weren’t present, he turned the corners of these rugs and snuck looks at their backs. He bent back their pile from the front and examined their knots. He ran his hand over their wool pile and, yes, even sniffed at the rugs. Something was wrong, but what?

Kyle Berman, director of the museum, wouldn’t let Marley have a real go at them, not even a little snip or two from their pile so he could analyze their dyes. So one day Highland had smuggled a tiny pair of cuticle scissors into the museum and he did a little snipping when no one was looking. Later, in his laboratory, he had analyzed the rugs’ dyes and had concluded that, beyond any doubt at all, the two rugs were outright fakes. Spectrometric analysis showed the dyes to be Swiss formulations of a modern chromium type, and one of the dyes had been introduced just 20 years earlier. The rugs were essentially brand new, no question. And yet, he couldn’t blow the whistle on them without admitting to having diminished the two rugs by a few grams each, which, fakes or not, one just doesn’t do without permission. Highland had to keep his lip zipped, and that proved difficult. Possessed of information that would have shown him to be a smart fellow, he was tempted to share it.

On the other hand, there was nothing to stop him from learning what he could about the forger of the rugs—for he had no doubt that one person or group had made both of them: Their wool and dyes were identical. He had begun his investigation by looking through the 1989 auction catalogue in which the rugs were advertised. Both were said to be “The Property of a Gentleman.” Highland knew that such an attribution was common when a seller wished to remain anonymous, and he wasn’t surprised when the auction gallery near London that had sold the rugs absolutely refused to yield any information about the person or persons who had consigned the rugs. That seemed like the end of the trail. However, with the instincts of an archeologist, he decided to dig a little deeper.

Highland began by interviewing New York City rug dealers who specialized in antique rugs. He knew many of them, and many knew him by reputation, for he had done much to debunk the Earth Goddess craze that had swept the rug world in the late 1980s. Some regarded him as a spoiler, since interpreting various geometric designs as “Earth Goddesses” had inflamed the imaginations of rug collectors all around the world for a time and had been good for business. Still, dealers were flattered that he asked them for advice.

After friendly chit-chat, he would ask them, “Who can you think of that would be capable of forging 19th century Caucasian and Turkmen rugs? Unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to divulge which particular rugs this person may have faked. But, when you think of all your customers and colleagues and contacts, who among them might be smart enough and well-enough informed and dishonest enough to fake old rugs?” Strangely, without exception, the rug dealers’ first reaction was to smile. They were intrigued. But most of them quickly saw where this was leading and became at least a little balky.

“Does that mean that you’re going to start a big stink about forged rugs? Get collectors all stirred up and afraid to buy a rug because it might be a fake?”

“Not at all,” he would reply. “It means that I would like to stop rug forgery before it becomes a problem. I believe there is only one person faking rugs today, and if we can put him out of business, we’ll do the industry a big favor.”

“I don’t know, maybe the best thing is to leave well enough alone.” That’s how most of them answered. And yet, they were intrigued, and most of them began to speculate. They dismissed most of their collectors as being far from sophisticated enough to fake an old rug. But several of them mentioned a “picker” named Pierre. “He’s smart enough,” they said, “and devious enough.” No one knew his last name but all said that he wandered from one antique-rug shop to another and could readily be recognized by his signature snakeskin vest.

“What?”

“Snakeskin vest. He wears it all the time.”

“Hm. Pierre. Is he French?”

“I don’t know what the guy is, but I don’t think he’s French. He’s just a guy who wears a snakeskin vest. He could be your man though, a crazy guy like that. But listen, don’t publicize this, okay? Let’s keep this stuff about fake antique rugs within the rug community, all right?”

“That’s just what I would like to do,” Highland said, ambiguously.

Other dealers spoke of a man with an accent. An English accent, they thought, or maybe not quite English. British Empire, anyway: maybe Canadian or Australian or South African or something. “He knows his stuff,” one dealer told him, “like knots and how many wefts between rows of knots and spin and ply and all that.”

“But why do you mention him in particular?”

“I don’t know. Because he’s just kind of a mysterious figure, I guess. I don’t think anyone knows where he’s from or exactly who he is or whether he’s a rug dealer or a collector or what. I don’t even know his name. Small man with a big voice, and I mean really big voice. A beautiful voice, really. A pretty slippery fellow, if you ask me. He might be your man.”

Several people mentioned him. One rug dealer said he would phone Highland if the fellow ever showed up in New York again. That was something, at least.

Highland ran into Pierre. Of course there was no mistaking his snakeskin vest. “Is your name Pierre,” he asked him?

“Who wants to know?” Pierre snarled.

“Oh, sorry. I’m Marley Highland. I’ve heard that you really know your stuff about Oriental rugs.”

“Fuck off.”

Highland did. He had lost interest in Pierre, maybe because his vest was so ratty looking. His whole act was ratty. Marley Highland believed that whoever made the star Kazak and the Arabachi would be classier. He didn’t want Pierre to be his adversary. He wanted better.


So as Highland guided the graduate archeology students through the techniques and science of ferreting out fakes, through carbon dating and spectrometry, he thought back to the mystery man with the beautiful voice. “Now there’s an adversary,” he thought. “But no name and no country, just an accent. Well, sooner or later I’ll get him.”

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When a Dragon Winks

  • A novel by Emmett Eiland

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