An Interview with Global Art Dealer Jan David Winitz
Over the past 43 years, Jan David Winitz, founder and president of Claremont Rug Company, has built a global business from a base that initially served only a small number of clients in Northern California. How he developed a company that now places art-level antique Oriental rugs with clients in over 50 countries on six continents is the product of thoroughly knowing his market, intimately understanding his client base, and concentrating his efforts on what makes his business a rich resource for those he serves.
Winitz believes strongly that his underlying business philosophy crosses industry lines and aptly applies to broad consumer marketing segments. As he says, “what you leverage for leadership in your business should set you apart from others in your field. In our case, it is having built a highly curated inventory and purposefully developing ongoing relationships, both with our clients and with a network of sources who provide us access to an extremely valuable and increasingly rarely found product.”
He points out that, for the most part, other galleries and global auction houses can no longer offer connoisseurs the best rugs woven during the “Second Golden Age of Persian Weaving,” ca. 1800 to ca. 1910. So limited is the availability of top-tier rugs from this period that Claremont is now developing a dedicated clientele in Asia and the Middle East, along with its longtime following in the Americas, Europe, and Australia.
Recently, Winitz sat down with us to discuss how he continues to build on his success in a question-and-answer session.
How do you describe your business and client base?
We provide elite 19th-century rugs that as well as serving as elite home furnishings and art investments to ultra-high-net-worth clients. We act as trusted advisers and spend a tremendous amount of time providing our clients with educational material and access to our knowledge to help guide their acquisitions.
What are the most critical factors that have determined your success?
As the years have passed, I have recognised that having a clear vision beyond transactional was something highly successful companies and CEOs share. At a fundamental level, I believe in hiring staff members with an affinity for beauty, a strong willingness to learn, and a general passion for life. In that sense, we are old-fashioned. Because our communication with clients is educational in nature, it is essential that we train our staff and create in them a passion for the art form we are representing. As time is a tremendously valuable commodity for our clientele, rather than have voicemail during business hours, every call is answered by a highly responsive staff member with a college degree and much experience with our product. We call this approach ‘Client First.’
Can you be more specific?
The best 19th-century Oriental rugs are rare and valuable works of art. The dilemma was how to communicate this initially, which evolved into how we could maintain (and expand) our inventory of the rugs. Early on, we cultivated an international network of sources and developed ongoing relationships with our clients. The result is that we have unrivalled and continuing access to rugs that collectors desire and are only available through us. And we have clients and their families who have been with us for over four decades. While many galleries concentrate strictly on selling, I have always spent a considerable (and an increasing portion) of time seeking “inventory.”
At the same time, we have invested heavily in technology and our website. Since the impact of COVID, we have flipped our business from 80% in-store and 20% online to 30% in-store and 70% online. In 2022, as a result, we added significant new clients in Australia, Hong Kong, Italy, Malaysia, and Singapore. And interestingly, we have a growing client base in the Middle East from collectors and families where top-tier rugs are no longer available. Secondarily, we spend significant effort providing educational and historical information about rugs.
How has your success evolved?
I hope this won’t sound immodest. I am gratified that we have helped many clients build extensive, important collections of rare rugs that are the equivalent of investment portfolios. We have numerous clients who have invested many millions in our antique rugs. These are folks who want to deal with a long-term trust adviser rather than someone simply who wishes to sell a product.
For instance, our website is replete with educational materials we created that cannot be found elsewhere. In this way, we feel that we have been impactful in raising the recognition of the historical and artistic value of antique Oriental rugs among art collectors.
Our success is based on fundamental principles that are all too often misapplied or disregarded by those who work with an elite clientele. Our approach has always been, as author Malcolm Gladwell describes, “the outlier.” The conventional approach in our industry to building business has, for the most part, been “transactional.” However, our success is very much promoted by our reputation. Our one location (Oakland, CA) is not situated in an arts/antiques enclave, nor do we participate in off-site events. Yet, we have sold more 19th-century and turn-of-the-20th-century art-level antique rugs annually than all the world’s leading auction houses combined for many years.
We adhere to our principles because they work. We understand our market, we know our clients, and most of all, we are committed to helping clients acquire rugs that are both profoundly inspiring artworks and sound investments. As a result, I spend nearly as much time sourcing rugs as I do selling them. Having spent my entire business career in this collecting niche, I am tremendously gratified to receive continual feedback from clients about how much they enjoy what they acquire from us.
You have spoken of the rugs in your inventory. Can you provide a general description of what they are and why clients are attracted to them?
The rugs are both rare art and precious tangible assets, valued in the $10,000 to more than $500,000 per piece range. Many clients start by buying rugs to furnish spaces in their homes, but they become more and more inspired by the incredible beauty and artistic virtue of their pieces and wish to surround themselves with them. Our clients come to recognise that there are precious few of these pieces available and that they are irreplaceable as investments and great art.
What lessons have you learned and how do you think your success can be applied in the broader business world?
Don’t hesitate to embrace old-school commonsense business practices while also adopting advanced technology as a means to gain industry leadership. In our case, we have a well-trained, extremely enthusiastic staff, many of whom have been with us for two to four decades. Our client, John Warnock, then the CEO of Adobe Systems, guided us to build our first website in 1980, and we have redesigned it multiple times since then to continually update the user experience and the site’s SEO capabilities to reach an ever-widening audience. We have an ethos that our clients and staff embrace because it is genuine and heartfelt. I enjoy my work immensely; my staff members are hardworking and impassioned, and our clients deeply relate to what we provide them. All in all, Claremont Rug Company is a 43-year-long labour of love.