Photographs by Al DelBello and Mary Shustack
On a recent morning in the sleepy town of Chatham, N.Y., Wallace Schmidt is assessing the community room of the town’s fire department.
One of Schmidt’s frequent auctions of Oriental rugs will start here in less than two hours and potential bidders are starting to trickle into the bare-bones Columbia County venue.
This isn’t the ritzy showroom of a Sotheby’s or Christie’s, to be sure.
Here, it’s all about the task at hand – getting antique and contemporary Oriental rugs into the hands of collectors, dealers, decorators and homeowners at prices that leave retail far behind.
Schmidt says hello to a few regulars, as others are pulling out tape measures to check the day’s offerings. He’ll then pause to chat about the business that’s been part of his life since 1967.
“I was 20,” he says before adding with a laugh. “I shouldn’t say I was 20. I should say I was 2.”
Schmidt, who grew up just north of Albany, was an antiques and auction regular who found he had an affinity for Oriental rugs. He would go to auctions in New York City, where he lived in the late ’70s and early ’80s, “days when I haunted all the auctions.”
He’d follow and learn from John Edelmann, considered one of the foremost authorities on Oriental rugs.
“That’s where I cut my teeth,” says Schmidt, who has been importing rugs himself since the late ’80s and now lives north of Saratoga Springs. He deals with one importer and features antique and new rugs, many in silks and wools and primarily from Persia (modern-day Iran), India, Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan, China, Tibet and Egypt.
Schmidt would go on to have his own antiques business in Albany, but also traveled the antiques circuit.
He speaks of estate sales, such as the one of noted New York dealer Tom Devenish, and finds he uncovered in humble conference centers in western New York.
When Schmidt began an auction business, he gravitated toward Oriental rugs, which had long captivated him.
“It’s like a big mystery,” he notes. The colors, patterns and countries of origin prove ever fascinating, and he continues to collect the rugs himself.
And, Schmidt says, many share his passion.
“Some people are addicted,” he says. “They just keep buying.”
Auctions, Schmidt says, are “in my blood,” and indeed he continues in the field as a marketing specialist and auctioneer with AuctionAdvisors, which specializes in commercial properties. He has also conducted auctions for hospitals and colleges to help raise funds.
At his Oriental-rug auctions, usually held nine times a year, it’s easy to see Schmidt’s love for his work.
Schmidt, who describes his auctioneer style as “kind of conservative,” encourages newcomers to stop in.
“Auctions are first choice all over the world, except (in) the United States,” he says.
He knows there is still some trepidation among many shoppers timid to take up a paddle.
“They don’t know what to do,” he says. “They’re afraid to move, to scratch their nose.”
But he says, attending an auction, seeing the goods and being part of the process makes all the difference. Online bidding, he says, just cannot compete.
“Cookie jars are fine, but when it comes to some kind of art, you have to see it.”
And that has brought a couple dozen people to this latest Schmidt auction.
“You get good prices and a good selection,” says Kim Armer of Charleston, N.Y., who’s been to past auctions and finds Schmidt a true professional.
“I do think he knows what he’s talking about. He’s very direct, very simple – in a good way,” she says.
Though the economy has had an effect on sales, Schmidt says Oriental carpets are still desired, and rarity does add to value.
“No Persian goods come into the country anymore. That’s raised the prices,” he says.
On this particular day, Schmidt will be showcasing some 250 handmade rugs during his 1 p.m. auction. They’ll range from what he calls “scatter to palace” sizes, with colors in traditional reds and blues to the latest decorator colors. The rugs, which represent types ranging from antique Persians to Aubusson, needlepoint to Heriz, super silk to Tabriz, carry retail estimates from $250 up to $12,000.
What attracts a bidder is never a guarantee, so plenty of options are always on hand.
“Some days you want to say, ‘You need sunglasses to look at this rug’ – but then people will buy it,” he says with a smile.
Soon, Schmidt must end the chat, as the auction is about to begin. His strategy for today? “Just to try to keep it running as smooth as you can.”
He greets the audience, gives a quick introduction to what’s ahead and reviews the format. He reminds that the auction is taking place in a firehouse, so the alarm may ring.
“All set? OK, let’s go.”
And indeed, things kick off a moment later as assistants hold up one rug after another, Schmidt detailing its features and starting and quickly pacing the bidding process.
Schmidt is clearly in his element, standing atop piles of rugs or pacing from side to side. Quips galore keep the crowd chuckling and the action moving.
When a circular rug fails to connect with the bidders, Schmidt demonstrates his years of experience: “What I always say on the round rugs, ‘If you don’t have a round room, with the money you save you can build one.’”
Other rugs go fast, bids coming quickly and buyers not willing to let ones they have their hearts set on get away.
So a customer has too many? Schmidt has the answer: “If you don’t like the color, give it to your neighbor you’re fighting with over the fence… Give it to your mother-in-law, maybe she won’t visit so often.”
And when one buyer takes a beat too long to signal he’s still in the hunt, Schmidt teases with “You can bid twice.”
The sale proceeds for a couple of hours before ending, as do all Schmidt auctions, with more than a few bidders heading home with some treasures.
Wallace Schmidt will next hold auctions Nov. 10 at the Litchfield Fire House and Dec. 15 at the Chatham Fire House. Schmidt is happy to answer any questions about any type of auction or the auction process. Contact him at (518) 649-9912, ext. 706, or firstname.lastname@example.org.