[A version of this article appeared in print in the October 2015 issue of Rug News andDesign Magazine.]
As a young editor, upon receiving an email promoting a new book called The Encyclopedia of Antique Carpets by Abraham Levi Moheban, my first thought was, “who is this guy – is he legit? Does he know his stuff?” I called my father, Leslie Stroh, our publisher and a man who has been in the rug industry for over forty years. This is what he had to say about Abraham Levi Moheban.
“Back sometime in 1977, when I was debating about really going into the buying and selling of rugs, I had a conversation with Abraham. We were attending a Sotheby’s Auction. As we spoke, we happened to be walking across an antique rug. When we got to the other side of the rug, Abraham turned to me and said, Les, this rug has been altered. In the few minutes we had spent walking on the rug, he knew from the way the rug moved under his foot that at some point the rug had a backing put on it. Abraham said, ‘it just did not move the right way.’ It was then I realized that I was not meant to sell antique rugs.”
A man walks across a rug and by the way it moves, he can talk about its past—I would say he knows about rugs. Below is our interview with Abraham Levi Moheban – the man behind The Encyclopedia of Antique Carpets.
My great-grandfather, Mehdi, worked in silk production for garments and rug weaving in Meshad, Persia, in the late nineteenth century. Meshad is in Khorasan province which, back then, was a tremendous trade region in eastern Persia. My grandfather, Solomon, was a carpet merchant, also in Meshad, and had a shop where he would buy and sell old carpets from the early twentieth century until 1940. My father, Jacob, joined the business at an early age and moved to the capital of Tehran in 1951 to continue in the carpet trade. I jumped at the opportunity to be a carpet entrepreneur and launched my own company in 1961. I soon became a carpet-buying agent for several large foreign export companies, until 1972, when I opened a showroom in New York City. My son, David, joined the company in 1998 to make it five generations in the carpet industry.
2. What excites you about antique rugs?
I always viewed antique carpets and rugs as an art form in every purchase I made. From my first day in business, my policy was, before obtaining an antique rug I would ask myself, “would I place this rug on my home floor or hang it on my wall?” If the answer was “yes,” I would then finalize the purchase.
I must say, I have truly enjoyed my past fifty-five years in the antique rug profession, greatly!
3. When did you start doing your research? Was the research in the beginning more about knowledge? Or did you always anticipate doing an encyclopedia?
Research for my Encyclopedia of Antique Carpets: 25 Centuries of Weaving began almost six years ago, though my quest for knowledge in this field started from the first day in business by discussing with fellow professionals details such as rug origin styles, coloration, designs, techniques and materials utilized in weavings. I, of course, have been reading trade books and following industry catalogs and magazines for decades, to maintain awareness of the latest market discussions that have come forward.
4. How did you go about doing your research? How many years did it take to collect the research?
My fifty-five years of experience in the trade prepared me for this project. An antique carpet encyclopedia has never been done before. My passion for antique carpets and rugs, along with my firsthand knowledge in weavings produced throughout five continents that appeared in my showroom gave me the opportunity to write this book.
5. Did you do any traveling for your research?
For my business, I toured five continents to discover weavings in unique designs, colorations, and sizes for my collection. Numerous trips all across Europe and the Middle East to purchase beautiful carpets. I visited East Asia, North Africa, and South America as well. Canada, Mexico, and all over the U.S. for carpets and rugs brought over from the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries. Even during my retirement, for research purposes, I continued to travel abroad to visit museums with notable preserved antique, and even ancient, rugs and carpets to include images for the encyclopedia. Revisiting cities such as Athens, Beijing, Berlin, Florence, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Milan, Paris, St. Petersburg, and Vienna were high on my list.
6. In compiling the information for the book, did you learn anything new? Did any of the information shock you?
I learned some interesting facts researching American weaving ateliers from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. Three notable companies, William Baumgarten & Company, Herter Looms, and Edgewater Looms produced wonderful carpets and tapestries for the most important Gilded Age families of the era. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that William Baumgarten had his primary workshop in the Bronx and dyed wool in the Bronx River for his coloration process. His firm employed between eighty to one hundred artisans at that location.
I also visited the Palace Museum in Beijing and was amazed by the palace-sized Imperial carpets dating back to the 16th century preserved there. The carpets were made for the Ming dynasty, still healthy and with high pile. That surprised me!
7. Do you believe we can use paintings with rugs in them to help reference rug trends in history?
I do. Renaissance painters Lorenzo Lotto, Hans Holbein the Younger, brothers Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, and Domenico Ghirlandaio, included rugs in the settings of their masterpieces. Most rug designs used in their paintings were originally woven in west Anatolia and exported to Europe during that period for the nobility. I dedicated several entries on this subject to help readers learn that the rug styles painted in the artwork are named after the artists today in the trade. Holbein rugs, Lotto, Bellini and Ghirlandaio rugs are very much coveted by art col- lectors and museums today.
8. What was the hardest part about sorting the information?
Writing on the weaving heritage of tribes, villages, towns, cities, and master weavers over 25 centuries was a challenging and serious under- taking, no doubt. Plenty of detailed information to sort out, such as rug colors implemented, weaving periods, sizes produced, quality grades, and market prices with photos coordinated.
Another challenging task was creating the eight maps with notable weaving regions, tribes, locations, and manufactories from around the world. I can proudly say the information provided in the encyclopedia will help readers, today and in the future, learn the essential details about a specific rug origin. It was difficult, but a pleasure to share my experiences and study in this field.
9. Did you leave anything out?
My specialty lies in antique and semi-antique carpets and rugs. I felt a cut-off period to exclude weavings made in the modern era was necessary. Current carpets have become almost wholly abstract in style. These pieces constitute a design vector outside my work. Placing them now in my encyclopedia is premature. Everything old was once new and surely they will take their places in the ongoing tradition. In respect to certain areas that have rejuvenated old weaving practices, I made an exception to include certain weavings made until the last half of the 20th century to appear in the encyclopedia.
Additionally, I took the task in writing rug origins produced on a commercial scale. I included what has been recognized in the trade, and avoided the really obscure items that may or may not indicate previously unknown production. For example, two fine silk antique rugs inscribed by Armenian weavers as coming from Aleppo in Syria have appeared in the market over the last decade. The quality indicates that they originated in highly professional ateliers with substantial experience in highest quality rugs. The debate in origin is questioned in the market, since the rugs’ designs and qualities have attributes pointing to workshops of Kum Kapi or Hereke in Anatolia. Can it be weavers migrated to Aleppo and created a few rugs in a workshop that closed operations after a few weavings? I honestly have chosen to avoid this considered group. There are numerous other examples of extraordinary uniqueness, single rugs that ought to be considered for my Encyclopedia of Antique Carpets, yet persistently they remain incomparable.
10. How did you choose the rugs to be photographed?
I obtained high-resolution images of the most important carpets and rugs from museums, private collections, auction houses, and accomplished dealers from around the world. I wanted to include extraordinary pho- tos for each of my 618 entries to help the reader understand the color and design trends for that specific rug origin. Thirty-six museums participated in my photo research with my gratitude.
11. Your son, David, did the editing — David, what did you learn in the process of editing?
I learned a great deal. We were able to gather rare signatures of famous master weavers from Persia and Europe exclusively for the book. Also, I gained knowledge about the empires that produced court weavings of the highest quality such as the Safavids, Ottomans, Mughals, Mamluks, France, and Great Britain commissioned magnificent pieces which are preserved in museums and private collections today.
It was a pleasure. Before, we worked eight years together in his company and I would always pick his brain on carpet information. He had a fantastic way in pointing out the beauty in rugs to me. I definitely wanted to collaborate on a project that focused on his carpet knowledge and experiences.
13. How involved were you in collecting information?
I helped with organizing the information, and fact checking. I assisted in research for the entry images and the market prices we placed for them. I traveled with my father on several trips abroad to witness first hand museum pieces that we were considering to include for the encyclopedia.
14. David, why did you choose to continue in the family business?
I do love antique carpets! I worked many summers with my father to learn the family business. After graduating from Boston University, I felt compelled in joining this beautiful industry. Also, I always admired the traveling my father had to do for his profession. Buying antique carpets for our collection and presenting it to designers and collectors soon thereafter is exciting and fun.
15. I noticed you can purchase early on Amazon? Where else can one purchase? Release date?
You can purchase The Encyclopedia of Antique Carpets: 25 Centuries of Weaving, the two-volume set from my publisher, Princeton Architectural Press in New York City, or online at www.papress.com on December 29, 2015. You can also purchase it internationally in select bookstores and online.