Krikor Diradourian, Survivor/Dealer

My 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. After looking at the Kashan 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, before that moment I had not heard “cash” referred to as “green money.” Mr. Diradourian removed any possible ambiguity. If I accepted his offer, he would pay me three thousand dollars in American currency.

I declined his offer. 

Though his demeanor expressed confidence and expertise, I could not have then guessed that Mr. Diradourian was the most knowledgeable person in Oregon in vital aspects of our business. Although he hesitated before the challenge of correctly attributing certain rugs to precise sources—“Khamseh” or “Qashqa’i?” “Chodor” or “Yomut?”—he knew something more valuable: where rugs could be acquired inexpensively—here in Portland, Oregon—and where they could be sold for much higher amounts—in Germany. 

Operating from his home, Mr. Diradourian was the first person in the Northwest to exploit startling differentials between rug values in the US, where Oriental rugs were viewed as out of favor, and in Germany, where old rugs were intensely popular. As Mr. Diradourian and his wife established themselves in Portland in the early 1950s, Germany was busy rebuilding cities and towns destroyed in World War II. With large numbers of new homes and apartments to decorate, the market for old rugs was strong. Supporting this, German citizens did not forget the immediate post-war period when printed money was worthless and Oriental rugs were among accepted objects of barter. The enduring value of handmade rugs was imprinted in the minds of large numbers of West Germans, who for decades purchased Oriental rugs as investments.

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. Shipment by shipment, he and his wife thrived, and by the time he first visited my store he was wearing hand-tailored silk suits and collecting rugs for his own pleasure.

He visited frequently and often counseled me on the conduct of business. Gradually I came to see the relationship between the unique circumstances of his younger life and his exceptionally practical (some might say “predatory”) business perspectives, for he had suffered in two cultures—Turkey and Germany—which tolerated his existence but never accepted him.

He visited my store one day to find a lovely antique Tabriz on my wall. After offering me a thousand dollars for it, which I refused, Mr. Diradourian looked at me reproachfully. I expected him to begin bargaining but instead he shook his head and said, “Younk man! You have fine piece . . . don’t hang on wall like this! Roll up and put in back room! When good customer come, you tell, ‘I save something special, only for you.’  Then 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 at the imaginary rug in his hands. 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 forces shaping Mr. Diradourian’s outlook toward his customers, and perhaps all of humanity, for early in our relationship he and Mrs. Diradourian invited me to their apartment for Turkish coffee and there, over strong cups of sweetened coffee, I learned Mr. Diradourian’s life story.

Born in eastern Anatolia in 1905, he was nearly nine in the 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 his uncle and aunt in Constantinople, the Ottoman capital. They intended to sell their property and follow him but waited too long. Within two months both his parents were dead, victims of the Armenian genocide orchestrated by Turkey’s “young Turk” leaders and carried out by Kurds.  

He said, “If they not send me to uncle and aunt I would be killed, or starved on road to Syria. Only children with mother or older brother or sister could survive death march. But in Constantinople, I safe. Foreign embassies there and employees in 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, carpets, at first as an errand boy and then as an active assistant. In 1933 his uncle sent Krikor, age twenty-eight, from Istanbul to Berlin, to establish a rug store supplied by his uncle.

“Good if young person struggle in business, and I struggle,” he said. “Uncle patient with me. He send rugs and after time rugs start to sell.”

Hitler’s rise to power was supported by business interests and German Oriental rug dealers prospered in an economy preparing for war. The Nazi regime’s primary impact on Krikor’s life, however, focused on race laws, for it was illegal for him to marry a German woman whom he had met, and 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 fire-bomb raid in 1944 flattened his neighborhood, with a direct hit on his shop. In spite of every piece in his inventory being destroyed, he was not driven from business. Armenian dealers throughout Germany, supported by Armenian wholesalers in Istanbul, had instituted a mutual support system, such that any dealer seriously damaged by the war could be restocked with goods and supported with credit. Mr. Diradourian was young. He was hard working, had loyal customers and was able to reestablish himself. With help, he would sell many more rugs, and so his competitors, colleagues, and suppliers joined together to put a fellow Armenian back on his feet. 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.”

With the war’s close, however, came another blow. When Western and Soviet powers divided Berlin into zones of occupation, Krikor Diradourian’s shop was only blocks from the dividing line, on the Soviet side, where private enterprise would soon be eliminated. Liquidating his affairs, Mr. Diradourian repaid all his debts, married the German woman whom he loved, and jointly they reviewed their options. Leaving East Berlin was possible immediately after the war and first they moved to West Germany. It took a few years to move to the United States and 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.” 

Mr. Diradourian’s lowly occupation did not diminish his expertise in Oriental rugs and soon he had cash in hand, to buy. He made friends with local rug dealers, especially Armenians who knew what Armenians in Turkey had suffered. Krikor began buying old pieces then accumulating in these dealers’ inventories, since the popularity of wall-to-wall carpeting made Oriental rugs seem all the less desirable. One bundle at a time, Krikor began sending regular shipments to Armenian colleagues in Germany.  

As old rugs flowed out of homes, with few buyers for them and, as yet, no local collectors, Krikor Diradourian’s “green money” must have looked quite good to Portland rug dealers.

During the Diradourian’s visits to my store, or when visiting their apartment, I spoke 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, which amused her and, for reasons I never understood, amused her husband, as well.) For decades she had worked in a local department store while Krikor swept floors in a high school. (All the while, during evening hours and on weekends he “swept” 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 home but by far the greatest attraction, and best investment, were the Diradourians’ collection of antique Caucasian rugs. With each piece in mint condition, their collection of twenty-five or thirty superlative pieces comprised the finest private rug collection in the Northwestern United States at that time.

After drinking Turkish coffee together in their apartment, Mr. Diradourian 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.  

“My uncle say, ‘Never worry about find good merchandise. Always be poor people on earth and always be merchandise. Not be in hurry to buy.’ Uncle often 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. 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. No idea have how much my rug worth.’

“You must be clever and make them name price. You say, ‘Madam, is your rug. How much make you happy, sell this rug?’

“They maybe say, ‘No idea have. Not know Oriental rugs.’  

“Truth is, they have in mind price. They not say yet, but in mind they have price. 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, “two thousand dollars,” you very happy sell! So, somewhere between. You know inside what price make you happy. Please tell. But . . . not too high.’”

He laughed.

“Work like so. Owner of rug must name price. Maybe take ten minutes, maybe one hour. Finally, most of time, they give price. Sometimes price high. Sometimes price okay. Sometimes 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.  

“If price low, important to not hurry. Look like thinking hard. 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 when see green money. After you work on price, if they still not say ‘yes,’ at right moment take out money. Let them see.

“Everyone love green money. Me, most of all!”  

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 most of his other rules, he probably viewed me as a thick-headed student.

There was a couch in my store 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, frankly 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 moment of decision comes, silence may be best.

This truly was useful counsel.

I sometimes bought exceptionally attractive, but worn, antique pieces 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 it belonged in a back room and not on display. Antique pieces, however worn, were often more colorful and attractive than newer pieces in excellent condition. 

In this connection, Mr. Diradourian was on hand when a collector from California visited me, and seriously considered buying 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 in a 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 and colorful antique piece on the wall. In the end he 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”—the pointed to the antique rug that so distracted the collector—“on wall? If any rug distract him, put in back room! You must think with clear mind and organize shop to suit customer who comes.” 

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.”

Listening, I began to understand how he had conducted business successfully during the 1930s and 1940s.

Mr. Diradourian and I never discussed 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 very good, but he slipped once. He entered while I was concluding a sale and walked to the very Bakhtiyari rug, still laying flat on the floor, that I was selling. As the woman purchasing this Bakhtiyari wrote her check, Mr. Diradourian said, gruffly, “I never like Bakhtiyaris.”

My blood chilled.  He was in my store, commenting negatively on my merchandise, with a customer present. He could not have known that the rug he criticized was one I was selling, but he never should have taken such a chance. I was aware of the Germans’ preference for finely woven rugs, making a Bakhtiyaris seem only a notch above run-of-the-mill Hamadans, and far below Isafahans, Kashans, and Tabrizes. But this didn’t matter. It was an attractive vegetable-dyed rug with some age and he was in my shop, inattentive to what was transpiring.

This incident taught me the importance of watching what I said when visiting another shop, especially with a customer present. I did not need to help a dealer sell something, though occasionally that was possible. But I could never utter a negative word about a piece in another dealer’s inventory. Visiting another dealer’s shop is like visiting a foreign country, where one must carefully mind one’s manners.

Mr. Diradourian serious slipped that one time, but he continued to share useful advice. The first time he asked me, “Who come first today, you or your business?” I did not understand him. What could he mean, “Who comes first?”  But after hearing this three or four times, the essential question he was raising 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, my business, and nothing else, had to come first.

Krikor Diradourian died in 1985 at the age of seventy-nine. He was a born dealer, 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.