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Krikor Diradourian, Survivor/Dealer by James Opie
y retail shop in Portland had been opened five or six weeks in 1975 when an immaculately dressed man, about age seventy, entered and walked directly to a room-sized Kashan in the center of the room. He deftly inspected the rug by turning over a corner with the toe of a shoe and I thought, “Surely a dealer.” Only dealers manage these toe flipping gestures so adroitly. He was unusually short and his well fitting suit appeared to be silk. I detected no special regard for the Kashan as he moved to several pieces on a wall, before approaching my desk to introduce himself. “I am Krikor Diradourian. I buy rugs…sometimes.” He laughed, as if buying rugs “sometimes” was funny. What he meant, surely, was that he bought rugs on his own terms, when he could make a good profit by moving a piece to Germany, where Armenian colleagues enjoyed a booming market. He commented on only one rug that day, the Kashan. “Four, five years ago, market in Germany much better for Kashans. Today…not so good. Your tag say nine thousand dollars. I pay you three thousand…green money.” Though I understood him precisely, I had not heard “cash” referred to as “green money” before. Mr. Diradourian removed all ambiguity. If I accepted his offer, he would pay me three thousand dollars in American currency. Though his demeanor expressed confidence and expertise, I was unaware that Mr. Diradourian was the most knowledgeable person in Oregon in vital aspects of our business. Though he could not consistently distinguish a “Khamseh” rug from a “Qashqa’i, or a “Chodor” from a “Yomut,” he knew something more important: where rugs could be acquired inexpensively—here in the United States, in Portland, Oregon—and where they could sell for much higher amounts—in Germany. I politely declined his offer. Conducting business from his home, Mr. Diradourian was the first person in the northwestern United States to exploit business opportunities in the gap between old rug values in the U. S. and their values in Germany. In the former, Orientals were falling out of favor, while in Germany they were quite popular. In the early 1950s, as Mr. Diradourian and his wife established themselves in Portland, Germany was rebuilding cities and towns destroyed in the war and decorating tens of thousands of homes and apartments strengthened the old rug market. Additionally, Oriental rugs had proven their value in black market transactions after the war. Citizens did not forget the period when rugs, diamonds, and gold were accepted in lieu of currency. Such memories linger, and West Germans viewed handmade rugs as sound investments for the next forty years. Living in Portland where he bought from homes, from estates, and also from local dealers, Mr. Diradourian sent hundreds of rugs to Armenian colleagues in West Germany. Month by month, he and his wife thrived, and by the time we met in 1975 he wore handtailored silk suits and collected rugs for his own pleasure. When visiting my store he often counseled me on the conduct of business and I gradually learned that his unique business perspective was shaped by challenging circumstances in two cultures, Turkey and Germany, that tolerated his existence, but never accepted him. He visited my store one day to find a lovely antique Tabriz on my wall. After Mr. Diradourian offered me a thousand dollars for it and I refused, he looked at me reproachfully. I expected him to begin bargaining, but he shook his head and said, “Younk man! You have fine piece…don’t hang on wall! Roll up and put in back room! When good customer come, you tell, ‘I save something special, only for you.’ You walk to back room and get rug. When bring out, carry as precious glass. Not carry…so and so. Carry like…” He demonstrated, as if holding a fragile object. His hands were empty but his eyes brightened, looking down at the imaginary rug he carried. He leaned forward as if placing it on the floor. “You slow unroll. Not fast. And while unroll, customer look at rug and you look at customer! See his eyes! Is excited? If excited, price go up!” He laughed.
I was beginning to understood the life circumstances that shaped Mr. Diradourian’s view of those with whom he dealt, and perhaps all of humanity, for early in our relationship he and Mrs. Diradourian invited me to their apartment for Turkish coffee. There, over strong cups of sweetened coffee, I learned Mr. Diradourian’s life story. Born in eastern Anatolia in 1905, he was nearly nine during early months of 1915, when his parents sent him to Constantinople. While massacres of Armenian males and death marches for women and children had not yet commenced, his parents were deeply worried. They dressed their only child in layers of clothing, stuffed money in his inside pockets and sent him to an uncle and aunt in Constantinople, the Ottoman capital. They intended to sell their property and follow him, but waited too long. Within a few months both his parents were dead, victims of the Armenian Genocide (1915—1917) orchestrated by Turkey’s “young Turk” leaders, and carried out primarily by Kurds. He said, “If they not send me to uncle and aunt I would be killed, too, or starved on road to Syria. Only children with mother or older brother or sister could survive death march. But in Constantinople, I safe. Employees in foreign embassies there, watching, so Turks not kill Armenians living there. Uncle and aunt make home for me. Like my wife and me, they had no children. Uncle and aunt become my parents and I become their son.” In the course of growing up he learned the uncle’s business, dealing in carpets, first as an errand boy and then as an active assistant. In 1933 his uncle sent Krikor, age twentyeight, from Istanbul to Berlin, to establish a rug store there. “Good if young person struggle in business, and I struggle,” he said. “Uncle patient with me. He send merchandise and after a time rugs begin to sell.” Hitler’s rise to power was strongly supported by business interests and rug dealers did well in Germany’s active economy, preparing for war. The Nazi regime’s primary impact on Krikor’s life, however, focused on race laws, when it became illegal for him to marry a German woman whom he loved. (Though Armenians were not scheduled for extermination, their blood was to not mix with “pure” German stock.)Mr. Diradourian’s business in Berlin thrived during World War II and he opened a larger store. However, a British firebomb raid in 1944 set fire to his neighborhood, completely destroying his shop. Though not a single rug remained, he was not driven from business. A system of mutual support instituted by Armenian dealers throughout Germany, and also in Istanbul, helped someone in Mr. Diradourian’s shoes. He was Armenian, young, hard working, had loyal customers and could reestablish himself. With help, he could continue selling rugs, and so the combined efforts of Armenian retailers and wholesalers put him back in business. Supported in part by competitors, Krikor opened another store and his business prospered. He said, “Sales very good at end of war. People see end coming and buy art, fine furniture, good rugs.” However, with Germany’s defeat came yet another blow. When Western and Soviet powers divided Berlin into zones of occupation, Krikor Diradourian’s shop was only a few blocks from the dividing line, on the Soviet side, where private enterprise would soon cease. Liquidating his affairs, Mr. Diradourian repaid all his debts, married the love of his life, and together they reviewed their options. Leaving East Berlin was not challenging immediately after the war, but it took them a few years to move to the United States. In 1949 they settled in Portland, Oregon. “Arrive Portland by train,” Mr. Diradourian said, “with fifty dollars. Soon, fifty become twenty. Then ten. I look for job but not know English and no one hire me. Then I find job as janitor in high school. Pay not much, but we live.” An old Armenian story affirms that “a craft is worth more than gold.” Mr. Diradourian’s lowly occupation did not diminish his practical expertise in Oriental rugs and he soon made friends with local rug dealers, especially Armenians who knew what happened in Turkey and sympathized with him. Krikor began buying old pieces that had accumulated in these dealers’ inventories, since the growing popularity of wall-to-wall carpeting made Oriental rugs less desirable and many came on the market. As old rugs kept coming out of homes, with shrinking numbers of customers for them, Krikor Diradourian’s “green money” must have looked especially good to Portland rug dealers. During the Diradourians’ visits to my store, or when visiting their apartment, I spoke
The RUG SHOW @ JAVITS — FALL 2015
To be continued on page 41
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Krikor Diradourian, Survivor/Dealer — by James Opie little with Mrs. Diradourian. Taller than her husband, she had strongly dyed red hair and eccentricities appeared after drinking a glass or two of wine. (She made utterly mock “passes” at me several times in my store, obviously contrived to amuse her husband.) For decades she had held down a job in a department store while Krikor swept floors in a high school. (And all the while, “sweeping” Portland in another way, searching for underpriced handmade rugs.) Regarding investments they owned, I knew nothing, though he often carried a copy of The Wall Street Journal. There was other investment literature in their apartment but by far the greatest attraction, and surely their best investment, were the Diradourians’ collection of antique Caucasian rugs. With each piece in mint condition, their collection of twenty-five or thirty superlative examples surely comprised the finest private rug collection in the Northwestern United States at that time. After preparing Turkish coffee during my visits to their apartment, Mr. Diradourian often opened a closet or two, revealing pieces I had not seen before. But sometimes he merely wanted to speak with me, discussing his younger years and sharing advice from his uncle, whom he regarded as a sage. He said, “My uncle say, ‘Never worry about find good merchandise.’ Uncle say, ‘Always be poor people on earth and always be merchandise.’ Not be in hurry to buy. My uncle say, ‘Profit is in the buying.’ Wait for sure profit.” During one visit he said, “Younk man, how you buy old rugs in homes very important. My uncle tell me, when buying in home never make offer! People want you make offer for their rug. Never do. They say, ‘But you know rug business, I not know. Have no idea how much my rug worth.’ “Must be clever and make them name price. You say, ‘Madam, is your rug. How much make you happy, sell this rug?’ “They again say, ‘No idea have. Not know Oriental rugs.’ “Truth is, they have in mind price. They not say yet, but in mind they have amount. You smile, say, ‘Please speak. Price too high, doesn’t matter me. Please, I come here, to your home. Now I here. If I say you, ‘ten dollars,’ you not sell. If I say very high price, like thousand dollars,” you happy sell! So, somewhere between. You know inside what price make you happy. Please tell. But…not too high.’” He laughed. “Work like so. They must name price. Maybe take ten minutes, maybe one hour. Finally, most of time, they give price. Sometime price high. Sometime price okay. Sometime price low. If price high and you cannot buy, never make offer. Leave phone number, say ‘Thank you.’ Later, maybe they call. “If price okay, work make price lower. Find hole in rug. Edge need repair. Act sad when see damage. Say, ‘If no damage, more I pay. But this rug…’” His face looked pained. “Always find problem, drive price down.” He continued, “If price low, never hurry. Look like thinking hard. You wait. Maybe look unhappy. Then…okay, you buy. But not show excited. When back in shop, plenty time to be excited. “Also, younk man, carry green money. People enjoy green money. After you work on price, if they still not say ‘yes,’ at right moment take out money. Let them see. “Everyone like green money. Most of all me!” He laughed again. I never interrupted him but only listened, sorting the wheat from the chaff. Being a simple and straight-forward “American” dealer, who did make offers and broke other of his rules, he probably viewed me as a thick-headed student. There was a couch near my desk for the comfort of customers and Mr. Diradourian would sometimes sit there for an hour or more, reading The Wall Street Journal, relaxing, and watching ongoing business. He sometimes saw ways that, from his perspective, I erred in my approach to a customer and, without hesitating, shared his observations. Once he watched as a woman who had bought many rugs from me was close to buying another one. She walked around the rug, trying to decide. Attempting to help her, I described—for the third time—the rug’s excellent qualities and where it fit into the world of handmade carpets. In the end, she still could not decide and left without the rug. After she was gone, Mr. Diradourian said, “Younk man, pardon, but you talk too much! When moment to decide come, must be quiet. When you talk and talk, this break spell. Moment come when silence is best salesman.”
I was grateful for this counsel and often remembered it. Some customers need more commentary about a piece and others need less. When the moment of decision arrives, silence may be best. I sometimes bought exceptionally attractive antique pieces, well over a hundred years old, and displayed them on a wall in my shop. The combination of Mr. Diradourian’s advice and personal experience led me to see that the more attractive an older, worn rug was, the more important it was to keep it in a back room and not on display. Often, the antique piece, however threadbare, was much more colorful and attractive than newer pieces in excellent condition. In this connection, once Mr. Diradourian visited while a collector from California spent most of an hour in my shop, looking at several tribal rugs. Woven in the early twentieth century, they were attractive and in excellent condition. Condition mattered greatly to this collector and he would have bought at least one of these rugs, had he not been distracted by the lovely colors of the worn rug on the wall. After struggling to decide which piece to buy he walked from the two rugs on the floor to the worn antique piece on the wall and said, “If you find something this attractive in excellent condition, please let me know.” And he left. Mr. Diradourian understood this situation completely. He asked, “You know he coming?” “Yes,” I said. “We had an appointment.” “And you know he like rugs in good condition?” “Yes.” “Then why you have that”—he pointed to the antique rug that so distracted the collector—“on wall? If any rug distract him, put in back room! You must organize shop to suit customer who come.” Shaking his head, Mr. Diradourian returned to the couch and added, “Nothing dishonest! Customer want buy and you want sell. This your store. You set up way you want. Must think always about customer, what customer like, what make distraction for customer. Distraction sometimes stop sale.” There is a phenomenon that can be called “dealer-manners,” that is, how one behaves when visiting a store belonging to another dealer. In this area, Mr. Diradourian’s behavior was generally good, but he slipped once. He entered my shop while I was concluding a sale and walked to a Bakhtiyari rug, still laying flat on the floor, not far from my desk. As the woman who was purchasing the Bakhtiyari was writing her check, Mr. Diradourian said, gruffly, “I never like Bakhtiyaris.” The Germans’ preference for finely woven rugs probably made Bakhtiyaris look a notch or two above Hamadans, far below Isafahans, Kashans, and Tabrizes. But this was a vegetable-dyed rug with some age and he was in my shop, apparently unaware that I was engaged in selling this rug. This incident taught me the importance of watching what I said when visiting another shop. I could never take any chances when a customer was present. I did not need to help a dealer sell something, though once in a blue moon that was possible. But I could never utter a negative word about a piece in another dealer’s inventory. Unless a close relationship had developed, visiting another dealer’s shop was like visiting a foreign country, where one must carefully mind one’s manners. Not all of Mr. Diradourian’s counsel immediately made sense to me. The first time he asked me, “Who come first today, you or your business?” I didn’t understand him. But after hearing this three or four times, the meaning sank in. For he saw me reading a newspaper or spending time on other interests. I was young and struggling;within the confines of my shop, he saw that my business always had to come first. Krikor Diradourian died in 1985 at the age of seventy-nine. He was a born dealer and an expert negotiator, whose outlooks and skills were forged among unfriendly, even hostile, populations. In Turkey, his parents were taken from him. In Germany, he was forbidden to marry the woman he loved. With his uncle and aunt no longer living, other than his wife, perhaps rug dealers in both Germany and Portland were his family. I visited Mrs. Diradourian after her husband’s death and during that visit she wept inconsolably for many minutes. When quiet again she said, “Krikor would want me to make Turkish coffee for you.” And she did.
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