Home > Archive >Examining the Blau Tower@sotheby
email: jc@rugkazbah.com
Fri, Dec 22nd, 2006 09:42:32 PM
Topic: Examining the Blau Tower@sotheby

The business-as-usual winter 2006 sotheby rug auction has been augmented this year by the inclusion of just over 100 carpets from the “estate” of the late Vojtech Blau, who was for several decades a well known force major in/on the New York rug market.

RK has been around the scene for most of those decades and, quite naturally, at various times came into contact with Mr Blau.

Since this is not the place for us to recount all the recollections and memories acquired during those years we have abstained from memorializing too many of them here.

However, we have mentioned our plan to someday publish an autobiography and whenever that hits the newsstands will be when you all get to learn more about him and many of the other memorable and less ruggies we have mentioned here on RugKazbah.com.

We will recount one short story about Mr Blau to put him into the proper perspective – something the sotheby catalog doesn’t exactly succeed in doing.

Some long years ago, probably sometime circa 1980, at a sotheby auction sale held at their then old headquarters located on 980 Madison Ave NY, we got into a small auction battle with Blau.

Honestly, we don’t remember if he or we ended up with the piece, nor do we even remember what was the object of our intention. But we do remember him coming up to us when the bidding stopped and saying, like he was the King of England and we were but a serf on his ancestral fiefdom: “How dare you bid against me”.

As many of you by now realize, RK doesn’t relate well to imperious commands and gestures, especially when they come from someone who is not any higher on the royalty totem pole than we are.

As for Blau that day? We let the old pregnant pause work for us a bit and left him standing there with his mouth still open, as we are sure he was expecting to quickly reply to some type of subservient answer he thought would issue forth from us.

When that pause had done its work and none was forthcoming, we looked him in the eye and replied “How dare you bid against us, sir”.

Clearly this incident did not go down well with either of us (frankly we could have cared less) and from that day forth we never again entered his shoppe or spoke with him.

Now please realize, gentle folks who read RugKazbah.com, we had always enjoyed a rather distant but cordial relationship with Blau – we had been in his shoppe a number of times and spoken with him, sometimes at length.

What possibly could have made him act in such a boorish and imperial fashion at sotheby’s that day?

Again, we could have cared less about analyzing Blau’s motivations or his feelings then or now but we should mention, in passing, we have noted that same type of holier than thou attitude expressed towards us by other alleged big-time ruggies.

Is it because RK doesn’t wear his Pierre Cardin/Armani suit or heft a gold rolex on our right wrist?

Or is it just because RK is independent, knowledgeable and not afraid to do as we please and say what we please?

You can take your pick but whatever it was that made Blau try to get a leg over on us, it didn’t work.

We know a lot about Blau’s “career’ in rugs and even a bit about his European past. Trust us on this one, nothing we know implies Blau became anything other than a pompous character once he struck it rich in America.

We can’t really see why he believed he was a konig rather than just a rug dealer/schlepper, who was smart enough to locate his showroom on the top floor of the Parke-Bernet building where all the sotheby auctions were formerly housed.

All we have to say to him and to so many others in rugdom, who harbor similar thoughts about themselves, is good luck and good riddance.

OK, enough about us and Blau, let’s take a look at first what sotheby has to say about his collection and then at a few lots RK has chosen for commentary. But before we do we need to backtrack a bit to make one point clear.

As with the pinner sale and other high-flying collector dispersal sales that have occurred in the past decade, Blau’s collection presents a top-notch bunch of rugs compared to what is usually on the market. However, considering these collectors, like Blau and pinner, were buying for many decades and had the connections to get to see many pieces both on and of the market and the money to buy what they wanted, RK can’t help but dun them for the lack of awareness to collect the important historic,non-urban pieces that were there for the picking.

RK eschews the condition first mentality that motivated a collector like Blau and is proof pudding when assessing his collection. There’s a lot of furnishing carpet meat on the block at sothebys but, as far as we are concerned, nothing historic to whet our palate.

So while the rest of this review denigrates Blau’s, and other people’s as well, collecting methodologies as “dated” and “old-school" it is for this reason and none other.

We did mention pinner and should not include him in the condition first collector crew. The pinner collection, thanks mainly to his late wife Leslie’s superior rug-knowledge and passion for collecting, had some important historic pieces. It was her influence and surely not pinner’s carrying himself around from conference to conference as if he was the George Washington of rugdom that is laudable.

But we digress, back to Blau.

Here are a few sentences from the sotheby preamble to the Blau sale including our comments which follow:
“Our December 14th auction of Carpets from the Estate of Vojtech Blau is one of the most illustrious carpet collections formed in the second half of the 20th century.”

With the usual overdose of hype and fan-fare sotheby’s has lathered on superlatives that are, at least in our viewpoint, quite over the top, as there are a number of other collections we believe are more worthy of such an accolade.

“For over 40 years Vojtech Blau was a towering figure in the world of fine antique carpets and tapestries. It is clear from the carpet collection formed by Mr Blau that he had a real passion for rugs and that he had a discerning eye and set rigorous standards.”

Yessshhh, doesn’t anyone at sothebys know being a ‘towering figure” in the world of rugs actually equates with being about a 10 inch tall midget involved any other art area. Or, God-Forbid, an amoeba sized protozoa (yes, we know this is our theatrical use of scientific terms, so pipe-down mr phd) in any real world activity, like politics or finance.

Rugdom has always had the need to make some participants seem larger than life (or smaller as it be wont) and sotheby’s paean to Blau moves this saint-making modus operandi right along.

“From the bold and geometric to the refined and floral, the rugs and carpets in the collection reflect a true appreciation for the art of weaving in all its diversity.”

He may have “appreciated” rugs and their “diversity” but his collection is back-dated and we think for today’s advanced collectors few if any of Blau’s rugs are must-buys.

We see almost all of them as posh furnishing pieces and, because nothing historic ended up being collected, can we imagine Blau didn’t “appreciate” the importance of preserving historic, ie archetype, examples? Or understand the difference between diversity and dollars?

Blau was a merchant, it all was for sale – it just was a question of to whom, for how much.

RK is not denigrating him but, let’s face it, very often a dealer’s collection, as the saying goes, is just the pieces he can’t sell.

Quite true in most cases, especially since can’t sell has several completely different meanings, which might apply here as well.

“In addition to the rare and historical early 17th century Mughal animal and palmette carpet, he also kept a number of early Caucasian carpets including a ‘shield’ group weaving, several silk carpets and smaller finely woven rugs from Persia, tribal and village weavings from Turkey, and two Ming carpet fragments.”

We’d ask: Did he “keep” them like pets?

And we agree: True, true and all that but considering Blau had basically enough money to buy whatever he wanted and had primary access to get pieces through trade and other contacts, the fact he “collected” so few, if any, really outstanding historic weavings doesn’t bode well for calling him a rug giant.

Again that’s all according to us. We recognize others views might differ; if so, bully for them.

Blau, like many, bought rugs that were safe in all ways including ROI(return on investment). He apparently avoided like the plague cutting edge(damaged) and avant-garde(village and clan) pieces.

For this reason we never believed the Blau-s and other so-called “important dealers” we have known possess the expertise and knowledge to lead the way.

Since the 1960’s, it ‘s been up to the private collector and though this is obvious to anyone who follows rugdom, few on either side, dealer or collector, are doing anything substantial about it.

OK, now lets look at a few of the pieces RK has singled out for comment.

Lot 35, a Senna Prayer rug belongs to a group RK has always admired. Blau’s example is surely not a best of type but it is a rare and wonderful Persian urban-product and our favorite prayer rug in the collection.

The circa 1875 date Sotheby has hung on it seems a bit out of line, we prefer first half 19th century but the $15,000—$20,000 estimate appears right on in the light of others that have sold.

The robust all-stripe field pattern of flowers in boxes lot 39, called “an unusual so-called Marasali Prayer rug”, displays didn’t have to work hard to get our attention.

Neither did the high as a kite $25,000—$35,000 guesstimate or the mention of an all-silk foundation.

The circa 1875 date given by sotheby’s cataloguer might suggest the presence of synthetic dyes, do they know something we don’t?

Regardless, the rug is rare and up to $50,000 is what we see it making on race-day, as the rabid Caucasian collectors will have trouble passing up this opportunity.

The ROI, and we all know that’s what a majority of rug art buyers are seeking, will be small or maybe even negative but because those certain buyers covet the bragging rights associated with silk foundation pile weavings, the rug will nevertheless sell well over-estimate providing it is older than 1860.

We include this Bergama rug, lot 52, only as comparison with the piece pictured in the initial post to this thread – the one from the main sale catalog that we will hopefully get a chance to look at later.

If lot 52 is worth $7-10,000, which is something we doubt unless it is bought as a “furnishing carpet” for it has little art and no history, the other one should be 6 figures.

Yes, yes we know there is no real rug-market but as long as there are so many erroneous and mistaken estimates and catalog blurbs we see no chance for there ever to be one.

By the way, lot 52 looks somewhat earlier than the mid-19th century date given in the catalog but that’s just a bit of nit-picking on our part. It might be late 18th century but we don't mean our comment to imply anything earlier.

We include lot 62, a Kazak rug to comment on the frightfully high estimate of $30,000—$40,000.

Granted this rug is not a real collector piece - it’s design is far too boring and droll – and it will no doubt end up on the floor to keep someone’s tootsies warm and cozy. But, in our estimation, paying such a price for a rug of this ilk is another disaster in almost all respects, including ROI.

We are not interested in furnishing carpets, especially those like lot 62 that are passed off as “collector-quality”. But this piece, a marvelous Karadja, lot 79 is a honey of a piece and well worth the same $30,000—$40,000 estimate.

We do recognize this is a bit of a teaser estimate and this rug will, unlike the Kazak, exceed those numbers. And well it should.

We doubt we, or anyone who is qualified, would say the same about lot 83, another Bergama, which carries a hefty $25,000—$30,000 guesstimate.

We doubt this will sell to any collector and though it probably has a plenty of toe warming pile we doubt it will go off the podium for even the low estimate, let alone anywhere above.

Quizzically dated circa 1800, we’d have preferred a first half 19th century, which would be more in keeping with the dates given other similar Anatolian pieces in the Blau and regular sales.

Never mind the fact the rug market has passed by Turkish rugs like this lot and lot 52, preferring now to venerate genuinely older and more historic pieces. Again, the “condition” oriented collectors of the Blau type missed to boat by paying big bucks for pieces like this one and 52 while neglecting to buy the real important Village pieces that rarely, if ever, are in such states of preservation.

It is now very clear such a bias has changed and we will be surprised if many of Blau’s pieces can find new homes at the inflated prices sotheby has set up.

One thing is sure, though, there are a lot of hard wood floors in expensive houses that need carpets and we believe it will be this market, and not the collector market, you might see bidding for them.

Another soon to be forgotten child of Mr Blau’s will be, in our opinion, lot 86 a so-called 18th century East Caucasian Carpet.

Here the $20,000—30,000 estimate is reasonable but, gee, who wants to own a ghost of a rug like this? Not RK, how about you?

We do recognize the study-piece value of this carpet, as it relates quite well to showing where some Perpedil and Chi-Chi styles of rugs originated.

But, besides for these footnote relationships, large format commercially inspired so-called Caucasian carpets of this type, including many dragon and sun-burst medallion-types as well, are, in our view, furnishing carpets and not really collector pieces. That said, there are some extremely early and fantastic examples worthy of the praise RK cannot rightfully send in the direct of this floor-rug.

Same goes for lot 98, a so-called Caucasian Shield-rug, which carries an unbelievably ridiculous estimate of $100,000—$150,000.

Hello…. earth to sothebys ….. wake up, ladies.

This washed out and colorless rug with its rote and droll articulation will not sell, no matter how loudly sothebys cranks up the organ-grinding.

There are other examples of shield rugs, a number cited by sothebys in their catalog blurb, but this piece is, in name only, worthy of mention with the best of them.

As for the rest? Who cares, not RK and neither should you.

A rug like this is nothing but another example of the “old-school” collecting mentality and expertise someone like Blau espoused and thankfully RK can say is on the wane.

No doubt Mr Blau bought and sold many excellent rugs in his career. Prior to the 1980’s it was easy to locate exemplary pieces in America – hardly anyone was looking for them.

But to see Blau’s collection of condition oriented pseudo-collector rugs, rather than those grab your short hairs killer pieces of earlier generations he could have lassoed, doesn’t fill RK with any warm thoughts about what a “towering figure” in the rug collecting world he was.

Blau the collector was not much to write home about – Blau the dealer, well there we might agree he deserves the high-water marks sotheby’s catalog tosses around like confetti will be at midnight on December 31.

Author: A Reader
Fri, Dec 22nd, 2006 09:42:32 PM

RK Replies:

The Blau sale, like all other big-name rug collection dispersals we can remember, tends to bring out buyers who not only have little knowledge of what they are buying but what they should pay for it as well.

High prices, even at auction sales like these, are believed by many to “help” the market. Actually, RK doesn’t believe this for a wink.

So, the sale provided a “rug lesson” for all, in the sense some rugs sold for very substantial sums. Is that what they are really worth?

Remember worth is, in a field like antique oriental rugs, only determined by the ability of the seller to extract the maximum price for his goods and the buyer to diminish that price to the best of his ability.

This maximum, which is as obvious as the nose on one’s face, is visibly open-and-shut and pretty accountable in private hand-to-hand transactions.

However, at auction, this often isn’t the case because there are many covert and hidden variables which the auction house, buyer or the seller can employ to affect and effect the price outcome.

The old caveat emptor is one never to be ignored in any transaction, especially one that takes place at sotheby or any other auction hall.


Wonderful write-up Mr. RK. Thanks for the rug lesson.

Author: jc
Sat, Dec 16th, 2006 07:04:23 AM

As it was pictured, we did not realize lot 83 was going to be as colorful and charming in the flesh as it turned out to be and the $100,000.oo plus it made was not out of line considering all the factors at play.

After all, beautiful, early rugs made prior to the 19th century are rare and even more rare when found in a such a remarkable state of preservation.

Same could be said about other rugs in these sales we commented on or didn’t.

The few pre-early 19th century ones in excellent condition, like this Bergama, are therefore basically priceless as far as we are concerned. Especially when two strong and motivated bidders are forced to compete. Then, when a $132,000 price is made for such a rug, that figure could be called reasonable and, yes, even cheap by the purchaser. Go find another…

Note: Our previous comments concerned only its art historical value and not its monetary one. We stand firmly by what we wrote and by no means do we equate monetary value with historic value.

We well recognize the importance and relevance both these aspects hold and that is the reason for this addendum and explanation.

Home   Buy/Sell at the Kazbah   Terms Of Service