ARTS & COLLECTIBLES
ANTIQUE ORIENTAL RUGS: THE MORE YOU KNOW, THE MORE APPEALING THEY BECOME
Jan David Winitz did not set out to be a globally acknowledged art dealer whose specialty is the finest antique Oriental rugs from the Second Golden Age of Weaving (ca. 1800 to ca. 1910).
“When I graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English and an MA in Education, I was quite certain that I would be a teacher, and I was for three years,” he says. “While I had been studying antique rugs since I was a child with the guidance of my grandmother, it was not on my career horizon.”
Then, in 1980 at the age of 25, that all changed. The newly married Winitz and his wife, Christine, began discussing their shared passion. They believed, then as now, that the best rugs from “The Second Golden Age of Persian Weaving” were entirely overlooked as works of art and significantly undervalued. From this vision, Claremont Rug Company was born in a small storefront located in a vibrant neighborhood in Oakland, CA. His business, as it turned out, was also an early example of “bootstrapping.” Eschewing traditional rug selling techniques and working with minimal financial resources, he and Christine built Claremont Rug Company from scratch. Thinking that they would sell primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Winitzs opened Claremont’s doors just as Silicon Valley was emerging as a global model for a new era in business. “Many of our early clients were the entrepreneurial and financial legends of the technology world,” he remembers, pointing out that they had often also bootstrapped their businesses.
South Persian Qashqai tribal rug, 5’ 3” x 9’ 4”, 3rd quarter, 19th century
Persian Bakshaish “Tree of Life” village carpet, 8’ 7” x 10’ 11”, 3rd quarter, 19th century
Not so coincidentally, he notes, the emotive qualities of antique Oriental rugs are often a welcome contrast to the rigor of a world dominated by technology. And the geometric patterns of Caucasian and Persian tribal and village rugs appeal to those with engineering or scientific backgrounds. “The balance and harmony at the core of these rugs struck a responsive chord in our clients. In a very tangible sense, our rugs provided a chance to escape the pressures that build in the ‘start-up’ culture of the Valley,” he says.
Creating a business model unlike any other in his field, they instituted a ‘client first’ approach where customer service begins at the first encounter with a customer, not after they make a purchase. “From the very beginning, client education was always our ‘holy grail’.”
“At the Gallery, telephones and emails are answered by highly knowledgeable staff. Clients never encounter voicemail during store hours. We were early adopters of the internet and web technology, having been introduced by a client, John Warnock, the co-founder of Adobe Systems. We seldom employ conventional advertising, nor do we participate in outside shows.”
Claremont Rug Company president, Jan David Winitz, sits in his office in front of a jewel from his personal collection, an early 19th century Dragon and Phoenix Persian Bakshaish carpet.
During the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, the Gallery relied on an enhanced website and semi-weekly educational and New Acquisitions emails. “We went from doing 80% of our business in-store and in-home, and 20% online, to the exact opposite. Emails arrived almost daily thanking us for the relevant information we were providing and our helpful phone consultations.”
More than four decades on, having expanded to four showrooms in three buildings at the same location, Claremont is broadly recognized as a leader in the rug-collecting niche with clients on six continents and 46 countries.
While there is never a single reason for success, one factor stands out for Winitz. “I am an educator. I value the process of sharing my knowledge, providing guidance, and watching a client begin to appreciate what they are seeing at a profound level.” He speaks of when clients intuitively take a deep breath and connect to a carpet because they start to comprehend what it represents. When they get an inkling of the motivation, expertise, and dedication of the weavers and the vastly different world in which the rug was created.
Persian Tabriz city carpet, 7’ 9” x 11’ 5”, 2nd quarter, 19th century
Persian Serapi village carpet, 9’ 7” x 12’ 10”, circa 1850
As he sits at his desk in his office, a remarkable carpet hangs on the wall and provides a stunning example of a MuseumCaliber piece. In the late ‘70s, the art world had yet to recognize the brilliance of Persian Bakshaish carpets, which allowed Jan David to acquire this rug (an early 19th century “Dragon Rug”) for a sum a young person could afford. “It is a rug that I see every day when I come to the Gallery.” He continues, “but I can honestly tell you that there are still many times when I see something in it for the first time. It is this transcendent quality that the great pieces possess that fascinates me and makes me want to expose others to the antique rug universe.”
Over the years, Winitz, the author of “The Guide to Purchasing an Oriental Rug,” has examined and sold many thousands of 19th century carpets and is in a position to evaluate preemptively and offer a vast collection of High-Collectible to High-Decorative carpets. Claremont’s trove consists of more than 2500 antique Oriental carpets, each having its own story.
“It is very important when viewing a rug for the first time,” he reflects, “to meet it without predisposition or expectation. For many art collectors who are used to acquiring ‘signed’ pieces, the concept of being entirely open-minded because most rugs are anonymous works of art is the first hurdle to clear. Helping clients learn how to look ‘into a rug’ is very much an educational process. I share my insight; I encourage questions, and I help them discover a profound level of understanding of what the weavers were attempting to accomplish.”
One of the more important skills that he offers clients is helping them “read” the carpets, plumbing the motivation of the weavers and the world that they were depicting. Every tribal or urban weaving group had its signature pattern language that preserved the symbology of their ancient culture and their way of life. “Daily the weavers who were primarily women would sit for hours, intricately creating one-of-a-kind combinations of these patterns enhanced by artistically nuanced, vegetally-dyed color palettes.”
As he discusses the milieu that has occupied most of his life, Winitz continues, “Because every art-caliber antique rug is an individual creation, each is unique and reflective. I greatly enjoy explaining to clients that knot count, for instance, is centrally important in some pieces and incidental in others. Or helping them understand an intentional color-shading technique called ‘abrash.’ Or the significance of a ‘boteh’ (the precursor to the paisley design) or a bird-like motif. The building blocks of understanding are tied up in the details.”
“Rugs address all the senses. They are tactile, they are visual, they have emotional impact, and appeal to the intellect,” Winitz says. And they can be employed to suit the sensibilities of the owner. Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud draped them over furniture; the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers took advantage of their grandeur in enormous, luxuriant rooms. Today, with encouragement from Winitz, clients increasingly hang them as wall art. They also outfit wine cellar-like vaults for dispay and storage.
Winitz’s four decades of doing home presentations around the country have rounded out his knowledge of how rugs perform decoratively. He shares with his clients his direct experience of how these original artworks augment different decors, architectural styles, and individual tastes. A favorite anecdote revolves around one residence that he says, “I’ve had the privilege of furnishing for three different owners over 25 years! Each party opted for an entirely different rug style, bringing their own sensibility to the home and establishing an ambiance reflective of themselves. That I was able to guide each of them to their complete satisfaction brought me tremendous personal gratification.”
Caucasian Akstafa tribal rug, 3’ 11” x 8’ 9”, 3rd quarter, 19th century
Persian Mohtasham Kashan floral carpet, 8’ x 9’ 7”, 3rd quarter, 19th century
Winitz explains that some clients start with the rugs at the stage when the architectural plans are being drawn up. “Recently, I was standing on the cliffs of Malibu, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, on an empty site with my client, his architect, and his builder. We were discussing how to design the house with his rug collection in mind to create the right light and sightlines to incorporate them into the residence.”
He also remembers when a client on his way home to New Zealand had his pilot turn his private jet around in order to acquire a rug that he saw in a Claremont brochure. Winitz said, “I met him at the airport with the rug, and he continued his journey.”
That is the degree of passion that art-level antique rugs evoke. “An informed eye is one of the hallmarks of a collector,” he adds. Clients often write him about their experiences. “I marvel that clients who lead extremely busy lives actually take time to let me know about the impact that a rug has had on their life.”
One ongoing client from Santa Fe, NM, wrote: “I saw one recently, a High-Collectible Caucasian Talish, that I immediately felt a connection to…What I felt was really unusual, almost as if I were connecting to the weaver…”. Another California client commented, “I’d like to chat with you about understanding the differences between certain rugs I have seen on your site that are attractive to me ... I can sense it, but sometimes I just can’t put my finger on why a piece moves me so much more.”
The consulting room of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was furnished with a Persian Bakshaish palace size on the floor and a tribal Persian Qashai on the couch.
Jan David Winitz believes that education is a process of opening the mind to new levels of knowledge and enthusiasm. “Antique Oriental rugs provide that platform for me as an educator and for my clients, who become participants with me in the process of discovery. When they make an educated choice that will enhance and bring great emotional depth to their daily lives, that becomes the great joy of what I do.”