Chapter 4

Of course, it is open to question whether any Oriental rug can properly be called a work of art.

Sarah’s 14 by 20-foot Serapi, on which rug fanciers partied without paying it any mind, was conceived in northwestern Iran in about 1890 and was woven not long afterwards in a rural area further north and east. Here is the story of how it came into existence.

After the disruptive Afghan invasion of the Persian Empire in 1722, rug weaving in Persia went into a 150-year-long tailspin. It was not until about 1880 that an industry was reborn, and when it was, it was driven by the rug merchants of Tabriz in the northwest of Iran. The Turkish-speaking weavers of Tabriz produced fine and elaborate carpets in formal, flowing, court designs. Faced with more demand than they could supply, Tabrizi merchants commissioned weavers in nearby villages to make carpets after designs they supplied. In particular they commissioned rugs to be made in Heriz and in several smaller villages near Heriz, including one called Serapi. However, the weavers of the Heriz district were unused to weaving such finely knotted carpets and unused to working from drawings. They were intimidated but resourceful. Unwilling to give up lucrative orders from Tabriz, weavers strung their looms and began working. Of course they had to simplify designs in order to accommodate their more modest weaving skills and in order to weave from memory rather than graph-paper “cartoons.” What they produced was not at all what the Tabrizi merchants had expected. Heriz-district weavers created rugs so distinct and different from Tabriz carpets that they could not be sold as Tabrizes. They could only be named after the villages in which they were woven, such as Heriz, Goravan, Ahar and Serapi. Thus were born, almost by accident, what many connoisseurs today believe to be works of art, one of the earliest and best of which was Sarah Atwood’s Serapi.

Of course, it is open to question whether any Oriental rug can properly be called a work of art, especially one woven by three or four weavers sitting side by side at the loom, a rug whose design and colors were plotted not by its weavers but by institute-trained designers from far away. Or, another way to think of it is, can a translation be a work of art—a translation, in this case, from a Tabriz to a Heriz? Craft may be a better word for the process than art. Still, something creative was stirred up in this marriage of Tabriz designer and Serapi weaver. No one who opens his or her senses to Sarah’s Serapi (as opposed to merely standing on it and swirling cocktails) would deny it.

Though the rug gives the impression of balance and harmony, there is no exact repetition in it from side to side or end to end. Each of its several weavers has contributed a quirky use of color or a unique ornament that is never again found in the rug. Somehow, within the confines of a design put up by a merchant some kilometers distant, and working to produce an article whose sole reason for being is that it will be offered for sale, each weaver makes the carpet a personal expression.

Sarah was not the Serapi’s first owner. In 1900, it sold to a 45 year old couple for the polished hardwood floors of their new home in Alameda, California. Alameda is an island in the San Francisco Bay, close enough to San Francisco so that even in 1900 a trip there took less than a day, but far enough from San Francisco to enjoy somewhat different weather. Wealthy San Franciscans sometimes built second homes in an Alameda neighborhood called the Gold Coast and enjoyed warmer, less-foggy summers there. The house, a large Victorian, cost $7,500 to build, and the Serapi cost nearly 13% as much, $950. It was very expensive. The couple loved the bold carpet because its strong, saturated colors and its vigorous design. It seemed to capture the spirit of a country house, and they summered their family on its comfortable wool pile, its cheerful colors and its simple geometric lines. When a daughter inherited it in 1930, it was just beginning to come into its full beauty. Its natural dyes had softened subtly and the Serapi’s good Persian wool had acquired a luster from use. Unfortunately, the daughter was unable to fit the over-sized carpet into any room in her home and made an unwise trade with a San Francisco rug dealer for a new carpet that did fit her space. Even though the Depression was still raging, the rug dealer managed to sell the piece for $1250 to a New York rug dealer who traveled the States looking for just such semi-antique carpets. The New York dealer must have had times when he believed he had paid too much for it, because it sat in his Manhattan showroom for five years. During that time it was opened for customers so seldom that eventually it was attacked by moths and required $150 of re-knotting. But finally a fifty-year-old bachelor who produced nationally syndicated radio programs purchased the Serapi for his large Manhattan flat and he paid the impressive sum of $3500. The sensitive, artistic crowd who gathered there regarded it as astonishingly beautiful, and one friend, an oil painter with a national reputation, was so influenced by it that his sense of color was forever after influenced by it. In 1952 the radio producer who owned the Serapi suffered a stroke and died. Though he had no immediate heirs, he had a nephew in Maryland, and to the nephew he bequeathed his earthly goods. The nephew did have a living room large enough for the carpet. But this was a time when a man’s wealth seemed to be measured by the thickness of his wall-to-wall carpeting and Oriental rugs were considered old fashioned. The nephew and his wife stored the Serapi, none too carefully, and never used it. Their daughter, Sarah, inherited it in 1992, when she was 30 years old and the Serapi was 92 years old. When she and her husband opened the carpet to consider using it in their Washington brownstone, it was discovered that rats had nibbled its selvages. Though disgusted, Sarah immediately recognized that the carpet was valuable. The rug dealer who repaired it told her it was worth “about sixty.”

“About sixty what?” she asked.

“Not dollars, madam.” He sniffed. “And not cents.” That became a family story.

At the beginning, Sarah regarded it as something of value and status and as a set of colors she would have to account for in designing her interior. Later she thought she perceived in it a spirit that she should exploit in her interior design. And finally, she came to value it as having influenced the course of her meteoric career. But the truth is that she never came to love it. It was not until the very end that she fell head over heels in love with an Oriental rug.

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When a Dragon Winks

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