Mary Jo Otsea on Collectable Rugs and Textiles, Part 1

On September 13, 2008, Mary Jo Otsea, gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program at The Textile Museum here in Washington, D.C.


Dan Walker, The TM Director introduced Mary Jo,

saying that she was a person with an assured knowledge of rugs and textiles and had been in the business longer than one might expect. He said that she is currently a Sothebys Senior Vice President and the Worldwide Director of Carpets.

Mary Jo approached her subject descriptively rather than perscriptively.  She defined a “collectable” piece as one “suitable for a collection” but gave no advice about rugs and textiles that might in her opinion be “collectable” or not.  Instead, she talked about the aspects of rugs and textiles, that, in her experience conducting auctions, seemed to affect collector decisions.

She said that many collectors tended to focus on particular types and that she would organize her presentation in that way.  She provided a series of projected examples.

She referred first to the two specialized format Moghul rugs that appeared on her title slide.

Mary Jo said that these two pieces were 17th century and were likely made for use with a fountain or a dais.

Here is a closer look at the one on the left above.

Her second piece was the embroidery below.

She said this Ottoman piece is also 17th century and silk on a linen ground.

Next, she treated a variety of Central Asian pieces.  Mary Jo said that sometimes rugs and textiles are converted to be part of an item of furnishing and that the screen below is an example.

The panels of this screen were made by cutting up and inserting an antique Uzbek suzani.  Mary Jo said that this piece came to Sotheby’s for sale like this and its owner had also bought it already assembled.  She estimated that this suzani was embroidered in the 1850s.

The next piece was also a suzani, this time with an “iris” design.

Mary Jo described this as a “dowry” piece.

Next, was a Turkmen cherpi, silk embroidery on a yellow silk ground.

Mary Jo reminded us that the cherpi is worn over the head and is not a coat, as the false sleeves that hang down the back, with a connecting panel, suggest.  The design on this one was unusual in that it was less heavily embroidered than some.

The Turkmen piece below was a pile door surround, called a “kapunuk.”

A little closer look at part of it.

This kapunuk was woven by a Tekke woman.

The piece below is also Turkmen; this time woven by the Yomut.  The latticed “field” design is unusual.

Mary Jo explained that this was a tent pole cover, called an “okbosh.”  Many Turkmen were nomads and lived in trellis tents that were taken down for travel and then put up in new locations.  The tent poles were usually divided into two bundles and were decorated on their ends with these bags that were pulled over them.  So the sides of this piece would have been joined to form a tube and the four ends taken in to form a pointed end.

Next were two sumptuous pile trappings.  These are both by the Salor, revered among Turkmen weavers.

These images do not do these pieces justice.  Among other things they, are quite wide.; noticably wider, for comparison, than a Turkman chuval.  Both of these pieces are sizable enough to command notice when placed on the sides of a wedding camel for decoration.  Both were heavily decorated with silk in areas that appear dark grey in these images.  The silk has corroded and is largely lost.  As a result there is a kind of beveled character to the surface.  The lower trapping is larger, the measurements are 4’3″ x 1’9″ and 7’4″ x 2’6,” respectively.

The next rug Mary Jo presented is a very rare one from the Hecksher collection.

Speculation about this piece has tended to think of it as, perhaps, a very unusual, 18th century Yomut group weaving.  It has a lot of palmette devices that resemble some Persian usages.  In Hali 156 there is an article considering whether this piece and a small group of similar ones, should, perhaps be seen as Khorasan weavings rather than as definitely Turkmen.  Mary Jo said that this rug currently resides in the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.

We now came to a series of rugs that Mary Jo presented two and three on a single slide.  To give you images that are large enough to appreciate, I’m presenting them to you in vertical sequence.

The next two pieces were Baluch pile weavings.

This piece, although worn, has an interesting boteh-filled field, woven on natural camel hair. 

The bag face below has considerable purple, unusual for the Baluch.  Collectors often look for, notice and value the unusual, in this case the wide use of purple.

Mary Jo now moved to several Shahsavan pieces.  These pieces are woven in soumak.

The first two were khorjin (saddle bag) faces.


The next two Shahsavan pieces are complete khorjins.

The second complete Shahsavan khorjin is of a particular design highly-prized by collectors.  They are popularly called “beetle” bags.

The khorjin set above was sold twice by Sotheby’s, both times for substantial amounts.  I overhead a conversation at ICOC X in which some German collectors suggested to a U.S. collector who owns what is often seen as a best-of-type Shahsavan “beetle bag” that they would be willing to pay him a price for it approximating that of a BMW.  He still owns it.

The next two pieces were embroideries from the “Transcaucasus,” an area that includes the Caucasus and some areas of far northwest Persia, including those where many of the Shahavan lived and migrated. 

Mary Jo pointed out that both of these embroideries are different from those we have treated above, like the suzani and the Turkmen cherpi, in that they cover the entire area of their ground cloth with embroidery stitches.

The first of these pieces is the one below:

Mary Jo described this piece as probably Azerbaijan and called attention to it’s “country” rendition of urban Persian designs.

A second embroidery was more properly Caucasian.

This is a “Kaitag” embroidery, a type of embroidery first high-lighted seriously, and rather recently, by the British scholar Robert Chenciner.  One of the things that makes Kaitag embroideries valuable is that there is a rather small universe of them and its size is known, approximately.  Kaitag pieces are highly prized by a group of collectors who pursue them and pay high prices for them.

Mary Jo’s next two pieces were an Azerbajain embroidery and a fragment of what has been traditionally called a “Caucasian dragon carpet.”  The latter piece is in pile.  These two pieces were shown together because of the similarity of their designs.

Here, below, is the Azerbajaini embroidery.

And here, below, is the “Caucasian dragon carpet” fragment.

Compare especially the “armature” devices that occur in both of these pieces.  The quotation marks around “Caucasian” indicate that there is controversy about whether the “dragon” carpets (some have no “dragons”) were, in fact, woven in the Caucasus.

The next two pieces were Caucasian “shield”-design rugs.  These rugs are also old with an estmated age of 17th-18th century.

The “shield” devices in their fields are also described as “open-top palmettes.”

I am repeating here, immediately below,  for ease of comparison, the Hechsher “Turkmen” rug which has similar open-top palmette devices in its field. 

These palmettes in both the “Turkmen” rug and the two Caucasian “shield” carpets are seen to be based on earlier Persian models.

Next Mary Jo presented two Caucasian rugs, below, both with a “prayer” format.

These two rugs are very different.  The one on the left, very refined; the one on the left a “country cousin.”  Here are closer looks one by one.

This rug is a very unusual Caucasian.  It has silk warps and wool pile.  The drawing is very detailed and precise.  It is nearly at the level of a “court” piece.

The rug below has a wool structure and pile.  The main border is very unusual and the drawing is spacious (something often seen as characteristic of older Caucasian pieces), but it is a “village” piece.

Two more Caucasian rugs followed, mid-19th century.  The first, a recognizable type, what is called a Sewan Kazak.

Mary Jo said that it came to auction in this poor condition, but that its sought-after type, its interesting asymmetry, strong graphics and evident good colors might make it attractive to collectors not insistent on good condition.

The piece below is a very different and unusual Kazak.

Its center of interest is its beautiful, abrashed blue field, bounded by three graphically dramatic border systems.  This kind of plain field is often seen on Talish rugs, but is surprising, and might attract collector interest, on a Kazak.

The next two pieces, also Caucasians with niche-designs, were from the eastern Caucasus.  Here they are side by side.

Again, we have a contrast.  The rug on the left is the obvious sophisticate; the one on the right relies rather heavily on its rural charm.  Here they are, slightly larger, in sequence.

The rug below was from the Blau Collection.  It is fine wool on silk.

Its fineness, colors, precise, controlled drawing and provenance would likely work to make it attractive to collectors.

The rug below is much coarser. 

Its graphics are less subtle and so have more punch despite its overall mild, even faded-seeming colors.  It has a yellow-ground, something that attracts many collectors.  It is possible that its positive features might carry its interest to some past the possibility that it may have some dyes that are synthetic.

 The next two pieces were also eastern Caucasian rugs.

The first of these was a piece that is placed in the Seichur subgroup of rugs from Kuba.

 The distinctive white-ground border here is seen as a Seichur indicator.  The carnation blossom field design is not rare but might be seen by some collectors as more unusual than the “cross” designs seen on some Seichurs.

The other eastern Caucasian piece in this pair has a “Karagashli” design.

The two oblique, red-ground devices in the field are characteristic.  So is a blue ground, although this shade is a bit different.  A good range of vivid colors, the crisp drawing, and spaciousness of the design, would draw some collectors.

Mary Jo now moved to another major category: Anatolian rugs.

She began with the fragment below and told a story about it.

She said that when when this fragment came in, she was excited about having it and highlighted it in a Sothebys publication that goes out world-wide in the firm.  Some folks in Germany wrote immediately asking why she was highlighting an old rag like this.  She said she was able to explain that this fragment is from one of the rarest Anatolian rugs with a “phoenix and dragon” design and that it was estimated to have been woven in the 14th century.  Ironically, she said, it sold for a high price to a customer in Germany.

There are collectors who are very interested in fragments for a variety of reasons.

Next were two more Anatolian rugs of notable age.  These were both “Lotto” rugs, so-called because rugs with varieties of this design were frequent in paintings by an artist of this name. 

The first of these two rugs is estimated to have been woven in the 16th century.

The second Lotto rug, the one below, is estimated to have been woven in the late 17th century.  The wide border and asymmetric design are characteristics of later “Lotto” rugs.

 Lotto rugs are famously attractive to collectors.

The next piece was a “saf,” a format with two horizontal rows of multiple niches placed one above the other.

This saf is 17th century, woven in Oushak and is 10 feet by 13 feet in size.  Mary Jo saw its likely sources as “architectural.”

A second saf was the one below.

This very colorful piece deaccessioned by the Philadelphia Museum.  It was woven in two pieces, but I think Mary Jo indicated that the dealer who purchased it has separated it into three pieces and sold them.

Next were a couple of very similar Anatolian rugs with “prayer” designs both attributed to Konya.

Notice the “coupled columns” in the lower part of the fields of both of these rugs.  This feature gives this design its name.

Here is the second.

These rugs are among those described as “Turkish village rugs.”  That is a group of rugs avidly pursued by collectors.  Christopher Alexander built a marvelous collection of them and wrote a (very difficult to read) book about them.  Turkish village rugs were also featured importantly in the German industrialist Kircheim’s “Woven Stars” collection.

The last two Anatolian pieces that Mary Jo treated were two Melas examples.

First, there was the complex rectilinear design below.

Mary Jo’s second Melas example was rare.

She said that this is the only example of a white ground Melas niche-design known.  It is clear that this is a rug that would attract a lot of collector attention.

Persian rugs and textiles were the next major category. Mary Jo began with two different Afshars.

The first of these had a darker general palette enlivened by a white ground.

This is a relatively sober rug with interesting field devices and a nice subtle complexity in its dark main border.

The second Afshar, while younger than the first, was in excellent condition with good colors and an interesting boteh design.

This is a piece also had an effective striped border, and interesting finishes on both ends.

The next piece was attributed to the Qashqa’i in southwest Persia.

This rug has good range of color, controlled drawing of a narrow striped field and a white-ground border that collectors might like.  The narrow stripes of the field are made even more interesting by the addition of internal instrumentation.

The next rug was a quite different type: a gabbeh.  A “gabbeh” is a format done traditionally with bright colors, simple designs, long pile and multiple rows of weft between rows of knots.

This one has a somewhat wider range of color and a plethora of simple repeated design devices that collectors could well value.

The next two pieces were both attributed to the Qashqa’i.  The first is

This piece has an unusual asymmetric field design.

A second Qashqa’i rug has a more formal niche design.

This is a “millefleurs” design and is one prized by many collectors.

The next piece was a very unusual Khamseh bag.

One might be tempted to see this as a sampler if it weren’t for the bottom finish that seems very like the top edge of a khorjin (saddle bag).

The piece below is Persian Kurdish.

A cargo bag is not a frequent Kurdish format, and one with good colors, a well-drawn mina khani design, and four borders, would likely attract collector attention.

Jaf Kurd bags with diamond designs like the one below, are pretty frequently encountered.

Mary Jo said that what might attract collectors to this one is its very large size.

The next piece was a large Qashqa’i horsecover.

Mary Jo said that horsecovers are of interest to collectors because they were woven for special occasions, often had not much use, and, as is the case with this one, are, as a result, in very good condition.  Jim Burns, once gave an ACOR presentation on horse and saddle covers, saying that a collector who focused on this format is assured of having high quality pieces because the weavers lavished them with their best materials and attention.

The next Persian pieces were the two Bakshaish rugs below.

Bakshaish rugs are often placed in the “decorative” rather than the “collectable” category, but these village renditions might attract collectors.  She said that both of these pieces had a camel hair ground.

The next piece was a fine Bijar with a prayer design.

This is piece is full of wonderfully complex designs, including lots of inscriptions.  Done on a silk foundation, it came from the Blau collection.  Its provenance and the fact that it is based on Safavid designs, would attract a definite kind of collector.

The piece below is a Bakhtiari rug.

It, too, is inscribed along its top edge.

The next rug is a pictorial silk Kashan.

The sacrifice of Isaac is depicted in its center panel and there are cartouches everywhere, with Hebrew inscriptions.  This is a rug that will draw the interest of particular collectors.

The piece below is a 20th century Anatolian rug.

Despite its youth, it can, predictably, command real collector interest because it is a known, high-quality type: a “Kumkapi,” woven superfine in silk.

The next Persian piece was the very urban Ishfahan piece below, woven in the 17th century.

Some collectors might be attracted, not only to its sophisticated design and wide color palette, but also to the fact that it was once owned by J. P. Morgan.

The next rug Mary Jo treated is, perhaps, currently, one of the most famous rugs in the world.

Despite its rather subued appearance in this image, this rug’s current place in the world is defined  primarily by the fact that it was bought out of the Doris Duke estate for the current record price at auction of $4.5 million dollars.  Among its features that resulted in that price are the facts that it is an all silk “Polonaise,” estimated to have been woven in the late 16th century.

Mary Jo described next rug as also one that is “hot and expensive.”

This glorious rug is a Moghul from the Blau Collection.  Collectors with money, please.

The rug below is also an extrordinary one.

This is a Safavid rug that one needs to look at closely in order to appreciate.

Mary Jo provided two detail images of it to help us do that.  Here, below, is the first detail.

And here is a second detail of another area of it.

Clearly another rug to command a collector with resources.

The next rug Mary Jo presented was also at this level.


This is a huge Safavid carpet, 20 feet long.  Mary Jo said that it is 17th century and in great condition.  Again she provided closer details.

Here is a corner.

And here is an even closer look at a small area of the field.

Moving to some older Persian fragments, Mary Jo showed the one below, from the border of a large carpet.

Not all collectors like fragments, but a lot of them could be persuaded to find room for this piece from a medallion carpet woven in Tabriz in the 16th century.

Following are two Mughal pashmina pieces; the first a mihrab panel woven in the Kashmir shawl technique of twill tapestry weave

and the second a yellow ground knotted pile prayer rug.  Both feature the ‘millefleurs’ design and were probably woven in Northern India in the 18th century.

The image below is a fragment of a Moghul silk velvet.

Wonderfully clear drawing of botanical forms.

The next piece was an embroidery from Goa.

This piece is described as “silk and metal.”

Mary Jo now moved further east.  The next two pieces are attributed to east Turkestan.


This is a silk rug with a striking blue field.

The next piece was an interesting seat mat.

Elaborate and careful drawing and an effective use of color might stir collector interest.

The next pieces were two very similar Khotan and Yarkand rugs.

Mary Jo said that there is lots of restoration in the first of these two pieces (you can feel it better than see it) but that collectors like the dramatic trefoil borders that both of these pieces have.

Mary Jo’s two penultimate pieces in her lecture/slide show were a Ninghsia and Kansu, Chinese carpets.

She said that the designs in these two pieces reflect those in other areas of Chinese art.

It was likely fitting that the last rug that Mary Jo presented used to reside here in the DC area.  It was, for a long time, what you encountered when you came into Wendel Swan’s house.

Wendel had long-described it as likely 18th century, but when he sent it to Sotheby’s to auction, the experts opined that it was in fact, “Ming,” and so 17th century.  Mary Jo commented on its noticably large knots, despite which the Chinese weavers achieved remarkably curvilinearity.

Anyway, the piece sold for a very high price and all parties were gratified.

This was the end of Mary Jo’s projected lecture, but she had brought a few pieces “in the fabric” and moved to consider them next.

The first piece on the board was an embroidered suzani.  Here is an unobstructed look at it.

Here is a closer corner.

And a closer detail of the field.

This suzani is a 19th century piece with a “trellis” design based on a Moghul model.

Mary Jo had brought a Qashqa’i horsecover, similar to the one included in her slide presentation.  First, an overall shot of this piece.

The image below is a closer corner.

This is a special occasion piece from the late 19th century with little evident wear.  The materials, colors and drawing are all mobilized to make the horse that wore it look its best.  I think Mary Jo said that the line of pink tufts are silk provided to show opulence.

Here is one closer look to let you see the detailed drawing and color use in the decorated area of this piece.

The third piece that Mary Jo had brought was the Ottoman turban wrapping below.

Here is are two closer details of this 17th century village piece.

There are visible stains but the age of this piece, its good colors and the graceful drawing and dense embroidery will attract some collectors.

Mary Jo’s next brought piece was an Anatolian Lotto rug with wide, colorful, cartouche borders.

Here is a closer look at the borders at one corner.

And a close-up of the field.

Lotto rugs are popular and this 17th century example in good condition would/will draw a crowd.  Charlie Ellis once proposed some categories in which he suggested Lotto rugs could be usefully grouped.  The collectors bidding on this rug would likely be able to place it in Charlie’s typology.

 Mary Jo’s fifth brought rug was a western Anatolian piece with a niche design.

Below is a something closer to an “all-edges” image of it.

This rug is attributed to Bergama and is estimated to have been woven in the 1800s.

Here is a closer corner.  It has a wider palette than the overall images initially suggest.

And his is a large detail of the field.

Mary Jo’s sixth rug  was was this yellow-ground piece that was also included in her projected presentation.

It is attributed to Genje and estimated to have been woven in the 1880s.  It was upon seeing it “in the wool” that a member of the audience wondered whether it might not have a synthetic dye.  Mary Jo acknowledged that possibility.

Here is a closer corner.

And here is the latticed field with a separate niche device at the top.

There is a good purple visible in this field.  Both yellow grounds and purple can lure collectors.

The last of the pieces that Mary Jo had brought herself was the colorful Caucasian rug below.

She said that this piece was attributed to Shirvan and is estimated to have been woven during the late 1890s.  It is dated (twice) 

but the dates, both the same, are in the 1200s of the Islamic calendar and have been discounted as far too early for accuracy.

This rug is in great condition although there is restoration in its ends.

Here is a closer corner.

Notice that the classic Shirvan indicators of brown and white warps and white cotton selveges are not met by this piece (although the warp color may be the result of the restoration).  Jon Thompson said in his catalog for the exhibition that was part of the 75th anniversary celebration of the New York Hajji Baba Society, that there is no reliable structural distinction between Shirvan and Kuba rugs.

This was the end of Mary Jo’s part of this rug morning program.  Members of the audience had brought pieces in and we moved now to examine them.  I have placed that part of this session in a Part 2 that you can reach by clicking the link below.


R. John Howe

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