During the early and mid-1970's, I went to lots of auctions and estate sales ("tag" sales) in my quest for rugs. Even in the rug-barren Midwest, these could be fertile ground for acquisitions. Once I bought an antique silk rug that had been kept in a box marked "car mats." It wasn't exactly priced as a car mat, but there was, as we liked to say, room in it for me.
By the end of the 70's, the competition was too fierce, the sales agents and auctioneers too knowledgeable, for any real bargains to be had, especially in light of the time and travel involved.
Of all the successes and failures, one episode remains most clear.
In October of 1975, while living in Rock Island, Illinois, I heard of an estate sale in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, about 90 miles away. On the telephone, the woman conducting the sale described some of the rugs, including a small one with fish and boats around the center. Oh, my God! A Portuguese carpet? Just a small rug, she said. The large house had belonged to a wealthy industrialist and the rugs had all been in the family. No ringers, no dealers' rugs, just family rugs. I was hooked, just liked those fish in the rug. I had to get to that sale. It might be a Portuguese carpet after all.
The sale was to begin on Saturday morning. Determined to be first in line, a friend and I drove to the house the Friday night before the sale, arriving at around 10. I put my sleeping bag on the stone stoop of the front door, establishing our claim to the first position in line.
At about 1:00 a.m., a patrolling policeman respectfully requested that I go back to the van to sleep instead of blocking the front door. I complied; I couldn't buy the rug from jail. But I remained firmly determined to sleep as close to the fish and boat rug as the law allowed.
I next tried sleeping on the grass next to the van, still on the property, but slumber was not my destiny that night. At about 3 in the morning, a car skidded on the wet autumn leaves and smashed into a nearby tree. I retreated to the van, abandoning all hope of sleep, but grateful that I was still there, first in line. Not in jail, not in the hospital.
Sleep may not have been possible, anyway. Visions of fish and boats swirled in my head.
The center medallion of the fish & boat rug waiting inside
At 4:00 a.m., the first dealer showed up. Having driven for about 6 hours to get to Cedar Rapids from Minneapolis, he was astonished to find that others were there ahead of him. We knew instantly who and what he was. He asked why we were there: was it for the rugs? What rugs? Are there rugs in the house? Well, he wasn't sure there really were any rugs in the house. (Sure, he didn't know. Neither did we.)
Car after car arrived with Persian dealers. The atmosphere was eerily like what one would expect at an auction during that time, but this was a tagged sale. There would be no pool, no knockout auction afterwards, no complex division of the goodies.
Even though the sale started at 8 that morning, we started lining up at the front door at 6:00. Of the first 16 people in line, 14 were there for the rugs. And we were first. There were five of us: me, my friend, his wife, their son and a friend of the son.
Two places behind me were two elderly women, one of whom had worked in the house as part of the staff. She also asked the purpose of our visit. Were we there for the Meissen serving dish? No, not really. She had used that dish for years and wanted it as a momento of her years of service. So lovely, she said.
I assured the woman that we had no interest in any porcelain. I announced, in a somewhat louder voice (perhaps for the benefit of others behind her) that we were there for the, uh, the, uh, furniture, yes, the furniture. Oh, she said, they had wonderful furniture. Now relieved and relaxed, her posture seemed to straighten. She was as equally determined to have the Meissen as we were to get the rugs. We large young men were no longer a threat to her cherished Meissen piece.
I knew from my prior conversations with the sales agent where some of the rugs were in the house. Some Caucasians were on a railing on the second floor. The rug with the boats and fish was upstairs, but she couldn't remember where. The Sarouks and larger carpets were on the first floor. My friends and I had determined our separate paths. Each had an assignment. Of the five of us, the two youngsters were the last in line.
When the door was opened at 8:00, all hell broke loose. The boys hesitated at the door momentarily, blocking the dealers behind us for a couple of precious nanoseconds. I heard cursing behind me, not in English, but cursing nonetheless. Bitter, lip-curling, internationally recognizable cursing.
Scurrying around the house, we scooped up all the good scatter rugs, including the antique Sarouk with the fish and boats. One of the dealers managed to wrestle it from the arms of my friend's wife, but a Cedar Rapids cop on duty in the house returned it to her.
Another dealer managed to heap together three or four of the painted Sarouks on the first floor. Standing atop them, he announced: "I am buying these, 100%, I am buying them, for sure I am buying them." Sullen, he wasn't even flipping the corners of his booty with his shoe.
THE Sarouk-Faraghan Rug
By the end of the morning, he saw wear that made the rugs unacceptable in the German market and so left the house empty-handed. Although he accused us of intruding on "his" territory, he grudgingly acknowledged that we had beaten him at his own game.
The nice woman behind me got her Meissen serving dish. She proudly showed it to me at the cashier's table, perhaps still wondering why, if we had bothered to be first in line, we hadn't wanted the Meissen.
I got back to Rock Island after noon on Saturday, just in time to leave, sleepless, for Galesburg, Illinois where my 10-year reunion at Knox College lasted until about 4:00 a.m. Gone are the days when I can stay up all of one night and until 4:00 the next. Now I can only remember that I did it, not how.
On the following Monday, while at the bank we both used, my friend told the bank president, George Thompson, the details of our Cedar Rapids escapade. Mr. Thompson (who, along with the bank, was a client of mine) laughed at the thought of his customers (a prominent businessman and his own young lawyer) carrying on this way over some rugs. He loved to tell the story on both of us. Every once in a while he would get a twinkle in his eye that told me he was remembering the story.
We bought about a dozen rugs in all. They were good, not great. I sold off my share; my friend still has only the Sarouk with the fish and boats. By now I have forgotten the rest of them, except for two Caucasians that I held onto for a couple of years. I even found some old pictures of them recently. (No, I don't wish I had them back.)
One of the Caucasians
What matters is not the rugs, but the quest, the hunt, the capture and, above all, the tale. My rugs are no longer so interestingly acquired.
I may not remember all of the words precisely as Shakespeare had Henry V speak them, but didn't he say something like:
This story shall the good man teach his son; And Cedar Rapids shall ne'er go by, From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered, We few, we happy few, we band of rug collectors. For he to-day that buys rugs with me Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition; And gentlemen in Iowa then a-bed Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not there, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That bought with us upon Cedar Rapids day.
To comment on this article, e-mail Wendel R. Swan, or e-mail us a Steve Price.