Q & A with Claremont Rug Company’s
President Jan David Winitz
First featured on ArtDaily.Org
Oakland, CA — For over thirty years, Jan David Winitz, President and founder of Claremont Rug Company in Oakland, CA, has built a global reputation among carpet collectors and connoisseurs. Since Claremont Rug Company opened its doors in 1980, their niche has been a challenging, yet incredibly exciting one – offering only the finest in authentic, art-level antique carpets, coupled with entirely first cabin service. Claremont Rug Company holds a central position on the international market as a “first source” buyer, ambitiously acquiring superlative private collections and significant family estates rich in carpets that will literally enrapture the viewer through their great creative depth and exquisite craftsmanship. Jan David Winitz took some time out from his busy schedule to answer some basic questions about the carpet business.
Q: How and when did you get into the field of rugs?
A: I actually was introduced to antique Oriental rugs as a child by my grandmother, who was a prolific collector and one of the few women in the field in the mid-20th century. While other children were collecting baseball cards, I was learning about 18th and 19th century rugs and the interest grew over the years. After I graduated from college (University of California, Berkeley), I taught high school English for three years and continued my rug “hobby.” In 1980, when I was 25, I met Christine Hunt, who became my wife and who was also an antique rug collector. We both had a passion for antique Oriental rugs and reached the mutual conclusion that art level rugs would be at the very least our “hobby.” We opened Claremont Rug Company with a vision and, fortunately, what we had seen as a latent interest among art lovers to collect antique rugs was correct. Claremont Rug Company moved quickly from being a sideline to our primary business endeavor.
Q: What clicked and made you say, “This is what I want to do the rest of my life”?
A: After being introduced to antique Oriental rugs by my grandmother and the many collectors she knew, I came to learn about the culture of the people who created them, and to appreciate the spiritual nature and deep impact of the pieces. From the onset, I believed that antique rugs were an undiscovered art form and I was confident that I could expose the world to them. I was also comfortable that I could use my background in education as part of the way I conduct business. Over the years, I have been privileged to work with many collectors of various forms of art and to educate them about antique Oriental rugs. It has been extremely fulfilling.
Q: I imagine there is no school where you can learn about rugs apart from regular art schools, how did you acquire your knowledge?
A: First of all, as far as I know, one can’t even go to art schools to learn about Oriental rugs. Instead, you have to read the limited amount of literature devoted to the field. In addition, there are a few museums in the world, including the de Young in San Francisco, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Textile Museum in Washington, DC and the Berlin Museum that have extensive collections. We like to believe that our Gallery, with an inventory of 4000 pieces of which 1000 are available for viewing on our website, is also an important resource for honing one’s eye for great antique rugs. Overall, as with most areas of interest, the more that you study, read and experience pieces first hand, the more you begin to obtain knowledge and to gain a more seasoned eye. Of course, the exposure to great rug collections through meeting my grandmother’s connoisseur friends before and after her passing catapulted me into this magical art form. For my part, I have been fortunate to talk with descendants of the rug-makers to gain some of the perspective that the actual weavers had. As a gallery owner for the past 32 years, I review “one-in-the-world” antique carpets on a regular basis, yet can still say I learn much every day. I continually find myself seeing something in a rug that I have not seen before. I also have friendships with many collectors and have been lucky enough that my wife shares my interest in antique Oriental rugs.
Q: What are the best books about Oriental rugs?
A: Two of the best are “Rugs and Carpets of the World” by Ian Bennett and “Oriental Carpets: From the Tents, Cottages and Workshops of Asia” by Jon Thompson. Everything by the early luminary Ulrich Schurmann is superb. I should add I have written a short introductory book near the beginning of my career: “The Guide to Purchasing an Oriental Rug.” Certainly not a “tome” or of the gravitas of others I mentioned, but my clients tell me that it has been quite helpful to orient them to the field.
Q: There are a couple of concepts that you have developed, first how did the Whole Home Collections concept come about and can you give a few examples of how you tackle decorating an entire home?
A: From the very beginning of the Gallery, I have communicated with my clients about the intrinsic artistic and cultural importance of antique Oriental carpets. At the same time, they are an art form for floor display and most clients use them in this traditional manner in their homes. As a result, decorating with them has most often been the starting point for a rug collection. Clients who had lovely homes and fell in love with their great beauty often experienced that a room without an art-level rug seemed to be missing something. So creating “whole home projects” grew out of my clients’ natural extension of appreciating and displaying rugs. Antique Oriental rugs have that rare ability to enhance many different decorating styles. I understood early on that art-level antique rugs serve stunningly as unifiers to other forms of art. They add tremendous warmth and distinction to a room, and have a great unifying effect on a home, which otherwise might seem simply an accumulation of art and antiques.
Q: The second concept, on how you elevated the status of rugs from decorative to art level, can you please explain how this happened through time?
A: From early on, I have felt that the best antique 19th century Oriental carpets are among the world’s most profound art forms. So from Day One at Claremont, we have presented antique rugs as objects of art that can be used to beautify one’s environment. When we opened in 1980 that was certainly not the norm. We told our clients then as we tell them now, that 19th century Oriental rugs are significantly undervalued relative to other forms of art, because premier rugs have a profound impact on the sensitive viewer. In confirmation of this, recently one client marveled that his entire antique carpet collection cost significantly less than his Lichtenstein. I lectured extensively for about a decade and my book about purchasing authentic Oriental rugs covers their adherence to the artistic principles of balance and harmony. When we started printing catalogs 24 years ago, we always used the description for each carpet as an opportunity to discuss its aesthetic merits as well as its technical and decorative aspects. At this point, writers and art editors of several significant publications have interviewed me when writing articles on the antique Oriental carpet, so the appreciation of rugs as great art has definitely grown. Of course, the newly refurbished and endowed Islamic Galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has been instrumental in the continuation of people’s perception of rugs as an art form.
Q:When did people start hanging carpets instead of leaving them on the floor?
A: In truth, as far back as there have been rugs, they have been displayed on furniture and on walls. The Dutch Renaissance painters frequently depicted Oriental rugs draped over tables. We have some photos at the Gallery of Mark Twain, who was an Oriental carpet aficionado, with tribal rugs draped over his furniture. Recently, as the appreciation of antique rugs has increased and the recognition of their artistic merit has expanded, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in clients hanging rugs and storing their rug inventories in dedicated chests or rug vaults, as well as continuing to display them on the floors.
Q: How do you acquire your rugs? Do you have people scouting the world?
A: We have a staff of full-time salaried buyers who are rug collectors and work exclusively for Claremont Rug Company. They are located throughout the U.S. and Europe and as a result, we are in communication with collectors internationally and are the first ones contacted when private collections come up for sale. We are periodically approached by families who wish to divest themselves of long-held collections. Two years ago, we were privileged to acquire what we called “The Intercontinental Collection” that was amassed by family members in Europe, South America and the U.S. A main motivation in selling their rugs was that they could be sure they went to other connoisseurs who could appreciate them. The family came to us because they were comfortable that we could fulfill that wish and sell their family treasures in a dignified manner.
Q: What are the most sought after weaving groups?
A:As interest and knowledge of 19th century Oriental rugs has increased so has the appreciation of a variety of weaving groups. Particularly sought after recently are the best tribal rugs from the Caucasus mountain region as well as Persian classical carpets such as Laver Kirman, Mohtasham Kashan and Hadji Jallili (Haji Jalili) Tabriz. The Northwest Persian village rugs from Azerbaijan, such as Bakshaish, Serab and the best antique 19th century Herizs or Serapis have also found an important interest among both connoisseurs and those furnishing estate-level homes.
Q: Can you explain a little about designs and colors of rugs?
A: First and foremost, the weavers of art-level rugs employed natural dyes exclusively. Unlike chemical dyes, these colors from plant and other natural sources soften and “mature” over time, and offer a much greater variety and depth, thereby increasing the carpet’s beauty. The pristine natural sources of these dyes no longer exist, enhancing the value of the old natural-dyed pieces. Yellows came from saffron; the cochineal insect produced vibrant rose hues and Tyrian purples came from sea snails. There are numerous exotic hues, such as certain greens and blues, found in 125-200 year-old Persian, Turkish and Caucasian rugs that after more than 30 years of experimentation by our Restoration Department , we are still unable to duplicate.
In terms of design, the pattern vocabulary of the 19th century Oriental carpet tradition is staggering. Each region and tribal group developed an extensive repertoire. Designs in Persian and Near Eastern tribal carpets were sometimes inspired by early religious symbolism, the natural world that surrounded them, and partially borrowing from neighbors or invaders, but over centuries many individualized motifs were created. Some designs used in Caucasian and Turkoman tribal rugs were found drawn on cave walls in Turkestan.
Q: Do you find that most of your clients are knowledgeable about antique rugs, or do they come to you for advice, and as an investment opportunity?
A: The common denominator among our clients is that they appreciate surrounding themselves with beautiful objects. We find that people with an exposure to art “get” antique Oriental rugs very quickly because beauty and harmony translates from one art form to another. When people with little knowledge of rugs come to us, the education happens as we introduce them to the different styles and qualities, so they can determine which ones resonate with them and will most gracefully enhance their home.
Living with art-level antique carpets is the best education of all. It is interesting to some to know about the types of weave and the origin of certain motifs, but their glorious color palettes and mesmerizing pattern language are the most eloquent of teachers for those who live with great antique rugs. While antique Oriental carpets are included in most art funds, the average client who works with us considers investment as a secondary motivation. With the supply of great antique rugs diminishing rapidly, top-tier 19th century carpets still in sound condition are an exciting long-term investment on par with the best art and antique furniture. Owners who take reasonable care of their carpets can enjoy the financial security they are excellent depositories of wealth. In that regard, we also extend to our clients a long-term exchange guarantee.
Q: Are 19th century rugs a good investment?
A: They have been over the years and they continue to be undervalued relative to other forms of art and antiques. Antique Oriental carpets are a precious, tangible asset as they have been through the ages. Gold is also classified in that manner, but great rugs have a deep emotional, and some would say spiritual, impact on their owners. Bottom line, so to speak, is that antique rugs have high returns on both the financial and emotional investment levels.
Q: What hangs in your home? Do you have a special or favorite rug?
A: The rug that hangs behind my desk at the gallery, an early 19th century Bakshaish “Dragon and Phoenix” carpet I bought when I was 19, is not only one of my oldest carpet friends, but the one that has had the most impact on me. Of course, my wife, Christine, would tell you that my “favorite” changes daily, each time I see an exemplary new piece come to the Gallery or when I see one in my own collection that I haven’t looked at for a while. I don’t apologize for this. Great antique Oriental rugs have that quality about them.