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James Opie

A Lifetime of Passion in the Oriental Rug Business

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In 1970, at the age of 31, James Opie started his business, James Opie Oriental Rugs, and opened a retail store in downtown Portland in 1975. Now a Portland staple, Opie has had the same business phone number for forty years.

“I was of the generation of ‘young American dealers’ who were attracted to the business in the 1970s, from a love of the objects,” Opie says.

Before his business began, he says, “an inexplicable passion related to repeating geometric designs” led him to start reading books on Islamic buildings. This indirect beginning would carry him far.    

“I could not take my eyes off these printed images,” Opie recalls, adding, “Another formative influence was the book Meetings with Remarkable Men by G. I. Gurdjieff who extolled Oriental rugs as true works of art and wrote about individuals encountered in his Asian travels. These readings inspired a wish to travel to Iran and Afghanistan.”

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Opie explains that pursuing his interest in the two related art forms, Islamic mosques and Oriental rugs, changed his life. While they are related, he points out that a major advantage of rugs is “our ability to buy them, sell them, move them from continent to continent, place them on our floors, hang them on walls and experience their vivifying influences in our homes.”

In an effort to plumb the source of what profoundly attracted him, Opie began traveling to Iran and Afghanistan in the early 1970s.

“Iran was readily accessible in 1970 and I used a summer vacation from teaching to travel there, absorbing impressions of wonderful Islamic buildings,” he says. “Then, incrementally, I entered the rug business—accidentally or perhaps by fate.”

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After spending time in both Iran and Afghanistan, he was hooked. During these trips, Opie observed the work of hundreds of weavers and was befriended by several experienced rug dealers who influenced his career, and, he says, “my outlook on life.”

“After 1979 and the drastic disruptions in Iran and Afghanistan, only war kept me away,” he says. “But by then the core of a career had been formed.”

He adds, “Entering the Oriental rug business was extremely fortunate for me, and the Muslims have an answer for all manner of good luck. They say, ‘God is merciful.’ I didn’t know what I was doing at first, but a ‘thread’ kept pulling me forward. Liking people and wanting to know about their lives made it possible to escape, for moments, the self-centeredness from which many of us suffer. Once I began letting others in, life, especially life in the Oriental rug business, was so interesting, I could not stop.”    

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After spending significant periods in Iran, Opie felt it was time to record what he learned. More specifically, he wanted to clarify inexact terminologies then used to identify south Persian tribal rugs. Along with writing scores of articles, he authored two books – Tribal Rugs of Southern Persia and Tribal Rugs – and the latter was translated and published in German, Italian and French editions. 

Opie explains, “Traditionally ‘field work’ meant going out into the mountains and nomadic camps to observe weavers first-hand. I did that, too, but my best field work was in Persian and Afghan bazaars, where dealers with real knowledge shared what they had learned.”

In self-publishing his first book, he adds, “I had no idea what this project would cost me, and, had I known, I may not have continued. But, in the passionate manner of the young and determined, I carried the project through at a high standard, and was greatly relieved when the book was received well by colleagues around the world.”

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He continues, “Aspects of ‘the fanaticism of youth’ definitely helped me. I arranged for the best rug photographer of that time, Peter John Gates, to fly from London to Oregon, where we set up a studio in a vacant building and began shooting scores of rugs. Dealers and auction houses cooperated with images and a useful and attractive book took shape.”

Opie’s second book, Tribal Rugs, developed from an interest in the origin of the oldest tribal designs. Concurrent with writing, Opie has taught rug weaving classes to children and has lectured to small groups. In 1993 he was awarded The Joseph V. McMullan Award by The Near East Art Research Center in Washington, D. C., for “Contributions to Scholarship and Stewardship in Islamic Textiles.”

 

View The Scarab's selection of rugs from The James Opie Collection.

 

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