An email announcing the Grogan and Co. auction of the Opie Collection on January 31st sparked this story. James Opie, Leslie Stroh and Michael Grogan, all three “outsiders”, came into the rug business in the 1970’s. For the last 50 years, they have been growing older and maybe wiser. Now James is selling his collection of antique one-of-a-kind rugs, mostly from South Eastern Persia; Michael Grogan is the auctioneer. Leslie is the publisher of Rug News and Design which has been continuously published for 40 some
Psychedelic Patterns to Tribal Rugs
Jim Opie recalled his early attraction to psychedelic patterns, when busy “finding himself,” in the mid-1960’s., in Big Sur. He tells his beautifully written story for David Brooks’s blog: The Life Report: James Opie. Attracted by the mosques of Tabriz, Isfahan and Shiraz, Jim travels to Iran in 1970, returning with a deep and enduring fascination of rugs and enough examples to start selling. Within weeks, the rugs were stolen. Jim wrote to a dealer in Shiraz, asking if he might help replace the rugs. The dealer sent him bundles of rugs through the mail, trusting him to pay for the goods after they sold. Now Jim was on the fringes of the oriental rug business and in 1972 began regular buying trips to Iran, and then Afghanistan.
From Rugby to Rugs
In 1972, Leslie Stroh came into the rug business by way of a “winger” on the Columbia Business School’s rugby team, who was employed by one of the legendary asset strippers of the day. In The West End, a bar on Broadway, while a rugby player* was dancing on a table stripping down to his black jock strap and singing the Zulu Warrior, the asset stripping employee and Leslie were talking about the fact that an MBA was only preparation to be a CEO and nothing else. (I was his very new wife; I witnessed it all.) A few days later, Leslie was CEO of a rug importer the asset stripper had inadvertently acquired. The Fritz & LaRue Co. was affiliated with the OCM, an English company, which once had dominated the Persian carpet trade and was still a significant factor in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. In 1973, Leslie made his first buying trip to Central Asia.
6 Months to Sotheby’s Department Head
In 1978 Michael Grogan got a summer internship job at PB84, Sotheby Parke Bernet’s space on East 84thStreet for artifacts not quite up to Sotheby’s standard for the Madison Avenue gallery. He was in the furniture and rugs office. At the time John Edelman was Sotheby’s rug expert. In the fall, Michael took a full-time job working with John rather than return to college. When John left Sotheby’s in the spring of 1979, Michael became Sotheby’s rug expert after 6 months on-the-job training.
Jim Opie said it would be hard to explain today the mystique of rugs gripping the market in the ‘70’s. He remembers the sensation of being on the edge of “something spiritual, something magical.” He recalls buying an Afshar on the 10th floor of 245 Fifth Avenue, and, with the rug over his arm, taking the elevator to the 9th floor where a man asked if the rug was for sale. They negotiated the price standing outside the elevators, such that the other dealer ended with the Afshar and Jim recovered his costs plus $200, the cost of his flight to New York.
Michael Grogan said the New York rug auction scene was a circus. There could be nine rug auctions in a week. PB84 had an auction of tribal rugs; Sotheby’s auctioned fine Persian rugs at 980 Madison Avenue; Christie’s had a rug auction as did Philip’s. Plus 245 and 295 Fifth Avenue were alive with rug buyers. And there was John Edelman’s auction gallery on East 77th Street next to the subway. Germans were buying Sarouks like crazy, and Italians bought oversized worn Persian rugs. There were the merchants such as Vojtech Blau and the Beshars, who were profitably selling to the carriage trade up and down Park Avenue as well as the State Department and White House
Boa Constrictors and Belly Dancers
When the past is remembered, John Edelman stories always surface: about his Boa constrictor, Cloudband, who provided security for the gallery on East 77th Street; about the belly dancing parties to hype up-coming auctions.
And then the Circus Stopped
What happened? Why did the “circus” stop? When Michael sold the Mitch & Rosalie Rudnick collection, it came with her book of dealers’ business cards, perhaps 800 of them from all over the US. “I knew all the names; they are all gone now.” All three mentioned the melt down of Eberhardt Herrmann, a millionaire German rug dealer who had “made” the market with standard-setting catalogues for ethnic rugs. Leslie thinks large vertically integrated Indian firms such as Obeetee and OCM began chasing the Persian production with ever better quality at half the price. And then much lower priced hand tufted rugs were the coup de grace. Michael believes that colorful rugs just went out of style as the interior decorators went to greige floor coverings.
“Truly Tribal” Rug Collection being Sold
Jim’s collection is mostly “truly tribal” rugs. A truly tribal rug has designs that are indigenous to the tribe – all the culture is embedded in the rug and none of it was borrowed from urban cultures. This is less common in tribal rugs than many may assume.”
A favorite of both Michael’s and Jim’s is Lot #81; it’s one of the most desirable with confronting lions, birds, and human figures on an ivory ground; it is a pure traditional tribal rug with no city influence. It was published in Jim’s 1991 book; two collectors have told Michael, “We have wanted to buy this rug for a long time.” On this rug Michael pushed the estimate because it is a “heck of a rug.” Although heavily restored, it is “Best of Type.”
The full story is published in the January-February issue of Rug News andDesign.
The Fine Rugs & Carpets Auction is on January 31st starting a 11:00 am at www.groganco.com – Grogan & Company, 20 Charles Street, Boston, MA 02114.