Interview with Antique Oriental Rug Expert Jan David Winitz
Oakland, CA – Editors note: On the eve of the 33rd anniversary of the opening of Claremont Rug Company, we asked founder and president Jan David Winitz to take a few minutes to discuss how the art and antiques world has changed in its perception of antique Oriental rugs. As the world’s leading gallery authority who specializes in first caliber rugs from the Second Golden Age of Persian Weaving (ca. 1800 to ca. 1910), the California antique rug dealer is in a unique position to provide insightful observations based on his broad experience in the collecting niche which increasingly attracts sophisticated aficionados across the globe.
Q) Looking back 33 years, what were your thoughts when you decided to open a gallery selling antique Oriental rugs? What made you decide to go into this particular niche?
A) I was introduced to antique Persian carpets and tribal rugs by a close family member who was an impassioned collector. From her and her acquaintances who were also art collectors, I learned about the various rug weaving groups and all manner of information that would become extremely valuable to me in my gallery. At a time when other children were collecting baseball cards, I was extremely interested in antique rugs. I went to college at UC Berkeley, graduated with a MA degree in Education and I taught English and History at the high school level. But my love of antique rugs only increased and when I was 25 I decided to turn my “hobby” into an art business. Even then, in 1980, I had a strong conviction that the finest antique Oriental rugs were great pieces of art and that someday would take their place as objects that are highly coveted and held in private collections. At the time, that was hardly the prevailing sentiment in the art world or even among Oriental rug dealers themselves.
Q) How has your business grown during all this time?
A) It is quite different on many levels. There are substantially fewer galleries in the world that specialize in antique Oriental rugs, as many businesses focused on contemporary reproduction rugs that are infinitely easier to source. At the same time, there has been a rapidly growing recognition within the art world of the value and importance of antique Oriental rugs. Claremont Rug Company has established a preeminent position in the collecting world and we now have clients on five continents. We annually sell more first caliber antique rugs than all the world’s leading auction houses combined. We have a vast inventory, ranging from area rugs to room-size 19th century carpets and extremely hard-to-find palace-size antique carpets. We have 10 full-time buyers who seek out antique rugs for us around the world. And we have nearly 1000 Persian carpets and tribal rugs “on display” on our website (www.claremontrug.com).
Q) I read that you once sold a carpet at an airport and clients have diverted their private planes to visit the Gallery. Can you tell us about that?
A) On many occasions, clients have flown into the private air terminal at Oakland International Airport and asked me to bring particular antique rugs for them to view there. As I know my clients’ taste well, more often than not, they purchased the rugs that I brought. And, yes, we had a client who was flying from Los Angeles to New Zealand on his private jet when he saw a very rare Caucasian rug in our brochure that interested him. He asked his pilot to divert to Oakland, but, having flown more than halfway to Hawaii, he had to continue on there to refuel, then flew back to Oakland and came directly to our gallery to purchase this tribal rug, along with a couple of others. On a regular basis, I fly (commercially) to a client’s residence with as many as 75 antique rugs for viewing directly at home. A fair amount of my business involves “house calls” all over the country.
Q) Could you tell us about your second gallery, Claremont 2?
A) We opened Claremont 2 in 1997 because we recognized there was burgeoning interest in one-of-a-kind Oriental rugs, but not everyone wanted to acquire collectible or museum-caliber antique rugs. At the same time, they desired distinctive, high-quality older Oriental carpets and a dealer who was willing to take time to educate them about Oriental rugs. The Claremont approach has always been to offer highly personalized, educationally oriented service which emphasized knowledge about antique rugs as works of art and respected the brilliant artists who created them. The weaving techniques and artistic sensitivity has been lost forever, I’m afraid. This makes all of the antique rugs we handle that much more precious, knowing that pieces of such artistic inspiration and visual impact can never be created again. Claremont 2 allows clients to acquire worthwhile Persian carpets and tribal rugs from the late 19th century and early 20th century that will greatly enhance the beauty of their homes and introduce them to the majesty of antique Oriental rugs.
Q) How have your inventories grown or changed in the past 30 years?
A) The changes in how collectors perceive rugs from the Second Golden Age of Persian Weaving is largely a result of their education and the increased recognition by the wider art-collecting community of the value and artistry of antique carpets. When Claremont opened in 1980, for instance, Caucasian rugs and tribal rugs and village carpets as a whole were not appreciated nor highly valued. I had a different perception at the time, because I recognized the incredible artistic potency these rugs have, despite their lack of recognition in the market. Today, these same antique rugs have become a central emphasis of our clients around the world. At this point, Claremont offers a vast inventory of 19th and turn of the 20th century Oriental rugs in all sizes up to 17×30 and each one is art-level.
Q) How have client tastes changed during the past 33 years?
A) The short answer is that decorative tastes change over time. But the more insightful observation is that what I call “Real Art” does not change and that there are always an ample number of people whose eyes can be developed to recognize it. The finest antique rugs from the Second Golden Age of Persian Weaving have always been masterpieces, even if they weren’t appreciated as such. But now as there is more exposure, more education and more opportunity for the public to view the carpets, the understanding and perception of the carpets is beginning to mature. Our clients choose their antique rugs less because they match their fabrics and more because they set their hearts ablaze. It is always exciting to see the proverbial light bulb ignite as a client begins to feel the emotional impact and note the nuances of a single antique rug or of the best pieces in a particular weaving group.
Q) During this time, the Internet became a new way to reach customers. How has the Internet played a role in your business?
A) I remain extremely grateful to a long-time client, John Warnock, who in the late 90s when he was CEO of Adobe Systems asked me if I’d thought about going onto the worldwide web and I innocently answered, “What’s that?” He convinced me that the Internet could be a powerful tool for our business. As a result, when we launched our first website in 1999, we became pathfinders in applying Internet technology to the field of art sales, long before the overall art and antique community recognized its value. We started by presenting fewer than 100 Persian and tribal rugs on our website. Currently, we have nearly 1000 antique and vintage rugs on our site. And more than 60 percent of our annual transactions involve the Internet. We also present our antique rugs on social media sites such as Pinterest, Facebook and Houzz. The Internet is also very important, because many of our clients are just as apt to have homes in Florida, Geneva or Rio de Janeiro as in California. The Internet provides access to our inventory of extremely seldom-encountered antique Oriental rugs to clients for whom visiting the Gallery might not fit with their complex schedules. It is also a major way clients can take part in the periodic sales of entire private collections we offer, such as The Chappaqua Family Collection which we very recently opened to an extremely promising response.
Q) Recently, a 17th century carpet sold for nearly $34 million. How will that affect the market for rugs from the Second Golden Age?
A) From time to time, rugs of great historic significance come to market in an auction setting. When they do, there is significant interest from the media and, generally, much attention is given to antique Oriental rugs. In the most recent instance, my reaction to the price, this specific Persian Kirman rug and the art rug collecting market were broadly quoted in publications and among art and antique social media sites. What I said was that I wasn’t as surprised by the price as I was that it took so long. As with any important collectible art form, there are many factors that affect the value of the objects. Top caliber rugs from the First Golden Age of Persian Rug Weaving very rarely come to market because they are primarily held by museums. World-class to museum-level Oriental rugs from the Second Golden Age are also diminishing in availability as aficionados are enthusiastically acquiring them for their private collections. We have been fortunate over the past decade to have acquired the four most important privately held collections that have come to market in the 21st century. For us, our reputation has been an extremely important aspect of how we obtain the best-of-best antique rugs. For instance, the Chappaqua Collection came to us as a designation in the owner’s will. We also have a global network of buyer/collectors who are continually seeking out great rugs for us to offer to our clients.
Q) What’s next for Claremont?
A) The success of Claremont has been achieved by staying with our philosophy from Day 1:
- We treat our antique rugs as great art and present them in an educational setting.
- We believe in lifetime relationships with our clients and are always available to them.
- We have a long-term exchange policy for all of the antique rugs that we sell.
- We make “house calls” anywhere in the U.S.A. with antique rugs that we believe would best fit a client’s residence.
- We can ship antique rugs on approval to domestic clients, a process we make both effortless and economical.
- We listen and respond with rugs as close as possible to what the client is envisioning.
- We understand that building an antique rug collection occurs over time and is not a time-constrained decision.
As a result, we ambitiously continue to seek out the best antique rugs from The Second Golden Age to provide our clients with what is unquestionably the richest collection of art-level antique carpets possible. I anticipate that even as the number of truly worthwhile antique rugs that are available continues to decrease, because of our ever-expanding buying network, we will be able to offer a greater number of rugs that will excite even our most mature clients.