Chapter 3

“But what is the top of the Oriental rug world?” she asked herself.

There came a time in Sarah Atwood’s life when she had to decide what to do with the rest of it. At 34, she had no profession except as a successful corporate wife, and that had ended suddenly when her marriage had failed. She received a sizable alimony which she believed was inadequate. In addition, she had the house—an impressive brownstone in Georgetown, a collection of fine furniture including several very expensive Oriental carpets, and undeniable social graces, including good looks and expensive-looking hair. She was at the height of her powers and hungry for more money.

It occurred to Sarah to return to school for a degree that might earn a good job, but that seemed such a long way around. In fact, no job or profession came to mind that did sound good to her. Rather, her impulse was to have some kind of commercial relationship with the finer things of life, like yachts, for instance, or Bentleys. Or Oriental carpets. Carpets came to mind simply because she walked on a couple of good ones every day.

She pictured a business card:

Sarah Atwood
Oriental Carpets

It was all too vague, though, wasn’t it? She would not attract money with a card like that. Unsatisfied, Sarah began spending hours each day staring at her Oriental rugs. She would walk from one large room to another, peering at them as they lay spread on cherry-wood floors. But, rather than studying their charming colors or their powerful designs, she was searching them for a business plan. In fact, she had no interest at all in the carpets except to speculate what she might be able to sell them for.

It was Sarah’s belief that, whatever she did, she should shoot for the top. “But what is the top of the Oriental rug world?” she asked herself as she stared at her carpets. “I have to know what the top is before I can set my sights on it.” She knew there were upper-end rug dealers who were fabulously wealthy. Is that where she should aim?

Sarah Atwood
Fine Antique Carpets
By appointment

But one needed decades to arrive at the top of that heap, plus, she guessed, genuine expertise. She thought she could fake the expertise, but she could not bare the thought of spending years and years gathering the inventory of antique rugs she would need to reach the top. No, that path was too slow. Should she import new Oriental rugs?

Sarah Atwood
Importer of Fine Oriental Rugs

But the thought of traveling in dangerous countries which were sure to be dirty disturbed her. No, not an importer. Then a writer about Oriental rugs? No money in it. “Follow the money,” she thought. “Where are the most valuable carpets in the world right this minute? In collections?” She considered. “No, in museums.” That insight caused Sarah a measure of satisfaction. Museums.

Sarah Atwood
Curator, Oriental Rugs and Carpets
National Carpet Museum
Washington, DC

She pictured her card in tasteful shades of ecru and ivory, and she liked what she saw. She imagined herself in charge of the oldest and finest and most valuable rugs in the world. She had a premonition of opportunities, misty in detail now, but promising. She had found the top of the heap. The question now was how to reach it. As she turned to that question, she paced from one of her carpets to another, staring without seeing. It was unlikely that she could become a curator over night, she reasoned, but on the other hand she wasn’t willing to spend years to reach her goal. She would have to find a way to move things along. In the mean time, why not call herself a consultant. “Consultant” had a nice ring.

Sarah Atwood
Oriental Carpet Consultant

Good, yet her instinct told her something was missing. She needed credibility. Like maybe:

Sarah Atwood
Oriental Carpet Consultant
By Appointment by Her Majesty, the Queen

Something like that. “How stupid that we don’t have queens!” she thought. She would have to find some other way.

Ruggies stood in circles, swirling drinks. They milled about on a wonderful carpet, a 14 by 20-foot Serapi with colors and wool that sparkled after 100 years underfoot, but they ignored it. It was large rather than small, and hence it was thought by them to have been woven for commerce and therefore not collectible. Rather, they judged it to be decorative.

A fundamental tenant of all rug collectors is that some rugs are collectible and others are not. Oh, collectors disagree about whether Turkish or Caucasian or Chinese rugs or rugs from East Turkestan are the most collectible. Some prefer rugs from the south of Persia, others from the north of Africa. But all agree that, to be collectible, a rug has to be old and it must not have been woven to sell. If it was woven to sell, collectors will not buy it. Or if it was woven to sell, its weaver must have been forced by poverty to sell it for staples, like salt or grain, and, even then, it must have been sold long ago. It was clear to all who partied on it that the splendid Serapi had not been woven for salt money.

One of the circles of rug-people was discussing fakes.

“Luckily there aren’t many in our field. I believe I’ve never seen one.”

“That’s why they’re called fakes, Kyle, because you don’t know one when you see one. Believe me, you’ve seen fakes.” The others in the circle smiled. That exchange was between two of the rug-world’s titans: Kyle Berman, director of Washington’s National Carpet Museum and the young archeologist and rug-writer, Marley Highland III.

“Seriously, Kyle,” Highland continued, “there may be more fakes in our field than you think. Has it ever occurred to you that your celebrated Ninth Star Kazak is a fake? Or your famous Arabachi engsi?” Not only Berman but everyone in the circle frowned, signaling that perhaps some things are not to be joked about. The Ninth Star Kazak and the Arabachi, fakes? They were among the cornerstones of the museum’s collection, and Kyle Berman had personally authorized buying them at auction for a combined $210,000.

Young Holden Carter was a witness to this conversation. At that time he was a student—a candidate for a master’s degree in art history—and a rug collector but not yet a dealer. Though he stood with the titans, he was far from one of them. He was astonished by the suggestion that his favorite rug in the world, the so-called Ninth Star Kazak, might be a fake. For decades no more than eight star Kazaks were known to exist. Then, just a few years ago, a ninth piece had surfaced near London, and it was the best of them all. Director Berman of The National Carpet Museum had acquisitioned it.

Holden had been pleasantly surprised a month earlier when he had received an invitation to today’s reception. At home in Berkeley, he had opened a hand-written invitation to a reception in Washington, DC in connection with an exhibition of rugs at the National Carpet Museum. The person inviting him, a Sarah Atwood, whose name he didn’t recognize, said that the National Carpet Museum’s Kyle Berman would be attending, as well as a number of other famous rug figures, Marley Highland among them. Holden had made the haj to Washington, of course, flattered by the invitation and eager to meet his rug heroes. And now here he was, listening to rug-talk that seemed, to him, to shimmer like precious stones.

“Oh bosh, Marley! That’s nonsense,” said Charles Francis Green. Green was America’s most famous rug scholar, said to have handled, photographed and analyzed every important rug and carpet in every museum in the world, and to have a dossier on each one. “They are no more fakes than I am.”

Highland laughed. “Well, we’ll never know, will we, since the Carpet Museum won’t give me a crack at them? How about it Kyle, are you willing to give me a two-hour examination with each of them plus a few tiny samples of their dyes and material? Something tells me those rugs aren’t what they seem to be.”

Berman looked uncomfortable. “We’ve talked about this before. I would have to secure the approval of the Board of Directors. I imagine some of them might prefer to let well enough alone.” Holden had the impression that Berman felt that way himself.

“Let well enough alone is right!” Old Ulysses Pope spoke for the first time. Holden knew him to be the country’s preeminent Oriental rug collector, a famously wealthy and crusty industrialist from North Carolina. “You just want to debunk something, Highland; put a feather in your cap and then leave rug collectors and museums all over the world afraid to buy anything because it might be a fake. You’re damned destructive, let me tell you.”

“But how can you possibly fake a rug, anyway? You mean make a new one look like an antique?” Holden asked. The others ignored him. Actually, hard feelings made him uncomfortable and he had hoped by his questions to defuse the tension welling up among his heroes in the circle. But before Highland, the archeologist, could answer Pope, a woman approached the group with an elegant hand extended toward Kyle Berman for a shake.

“Thank you so much for coming, Mr. Berman, Mr. Highland, Mr. Pope, Mr. Green and…” She looked briefly at Holden and nodded. Kyle Berman shook hands with her and so did the others. Holden mumbled a hello.

To Holden, the woman had the unmistakable aura of a society lady. He recognized the aura even though he had never before been in its presence. Her hair was streaked blond and palomino, her clothes were tasteful, her manners easy and her smile was self-assured. She was a society lady, but not a society matron, Holden thought, not at all. She was only a few years older than him, and she was very good to look at. The lady chatted easily with the circle for a few moments and then moved on to the next.

When she was gone, Pope said, “Who the devil is she? She’s goddamned good looking.” Holden thought he heard lechery in the rich old man’s tone, and perhaps disrespect, and he disapproved. For his part, Holden felt quite a swelling of respect for her. As she glided away from the group to the next one, Holden’s eyes followed.

“I assume she’s our hostess,” Berman said, “but I can’t think of her name.”

“Sarah Atwood,” Highland said. “I researched her after I received her invitation, or I tried to, anyway. I couldn’t find out much about her.”

“Sarah Atwood,” Holden said to himself, “the woman who sent me an invitation.”

“I didn’t know her either,” Berman said, “and the only reason I came was because she promised that you gentlemen would be here.” He nodded at all of them except Holden.

“Strange,” Highland said. “my invitation she said that you would be here, Kyle. Well, I guess she was right.” They laughed.

“So we’re all here,” Charles Francis Green said, “and yet not one of us have met her before or knows who she is.”

“Well,” Holden said, “I guess we do now. Sarah Atwood.” But again no one appeared to have noticed his existence. He was as invisible to the others as the gorgeous old Serapi underfoot.

Less than a week later, Sarah picked up her new business cards. She left them in their box until much later that night when she had made herself comfortable. Finally she put down her glass of port and, sitting with one leg tucked beneath her, she opened the little box and pulled out a card. She had indeed opted for ecru and ivory, and rather than the usual rug motifs that most rug-people work into their business cards, she had only simple, formal lettering followed by her phone number.

Ms. Sarah Atwood,
Oriental Rug Consultations
In Cooperation with Mr. Charles Francis Green

Sarah smiled at her tasteful new business card. “There’s no harm in claiming cooperation with the most respected rug scholar in the land—or any law against it. Anyway, he’ll never see the cards, and something tells me he won’t make a fuss if he does. Charlie Green is a gentleman.”

She did an easy calculation: $8000 for the catered reception, $45 for the business cards. $8045. “I made 50 friends in the right places and saved 5 to 8 years in my climb to the top. Charlie Green may not be the Queen, but…I’m on my way.” Sarah raised her glass and toasted herself.

The following Monday, someone from the National Carpet Museum invited Sarah to a “Show-and-Tell” at the museum. “Please bring a favorite rug and be prepared to share your knowledge about it with fellow rug connoisseurs.”

This was to be her first public appearance as a rug expert. She looked up one of the DC rug dealers she had invited to the reception and from him bought a tribal rug called a Belouch. When she showed him her card he said, “You work with Charles Green?” She said, “Yes,” and he sold her the rug for half-price.

Next she called Charles Francis Green. “Mr. Green, I wonder if you would look at a Belouch in my collection and advise me about it?” He invited her to bring it by his comfortable old home. In person, he thanked her again for her wonderful party, told her how happy he was to have met her and said he would be delighted to advise her about her rug. He was very attentive. He told her what was good about her Belouch and what wasn’t so good, so that after a while she knew exactly what she would say at the show-and-tell. (She would tell her “fellow rug-lovers” that, instead of bringing her best rug, she had brought “the first rug I ever bought. I would like to share with you some of the lessons I learned from it.”) Before she left Green’s home, she thanked him for his cooperation.

“Cooperation?” He looked puzzled.

“Yes,” she said, “I appreciate it.”

She did not leave him with one of her new business cards.

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When a Dragon Winks

  • A novel by Emmett Eiland

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