Mary Jo Otsea on Collectable Rugs and Textiles, Part 2

This is the second part of a virtual presentation of a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program that Mary Jo Otsea of Sothebys gave at The Textile Museum here in Washington, D.C. on September 13, 2008 

If you have not read the first part of this program it would be advisable to do so before going on with this second part.  Here is the link to it:

A number of those in the audience had brought pieces into this session and Mary Jo moved next to an examination of them. 

The mode followed was that a given piece would be put up on the front board and then its owner would be asked to comment on it. 

I will retrieve what I can from my notes and my memory and, occasionally, supplement that from other sources.

Coincidentally, the first pieces put up in this half of the program were mine.  I said from the audience that I had not been able to predict whether Mary Jo would take a descriptive or a prescriptive approach to the subject of “collectability,” and that I had selected the pieces I had brought to potentially “push” two specific boundaries of collection that can be controversial: fragmented pieces and those with at least some synthetic dyes. 

I complained that Mary Jo had spoiled my fun by politely taking a descriptive approach, within which she had already demonstrated that collectors will sometimes be attracted to very fragmented pieces, and that at least one rug she had brought might have some synthetic dyes, but also had other virtues that might, on balance, still attract collectors to it.

My first piece was an example, both of a fragment, and of a textile that had at one point been converted for a furnishing use as a seat cover.

The piece above is a fragment from a Tekke chuval, cut at one point to permit its placement on an upholstered chair as a seat cover.  The “notches” at the corners were made to accommodate the chair’s legs.

Here is a closer look at a detail of it.

This fragment is finely woven, very well drawn, and has two reds and two blues.  I would confidently estimate its age as third quarter 19th century and it may be older than that.  When I encountered it, it had already been removed from its seatcover function.  I merely put a back on it to stabilize it.  It lays on my night table and I see and touch it daily.

The second piece I brought is potentially more controversial.  Here is what it looks like when you first encounter it.

It is a complete Tekke torba-type bag.  Some closer looks.

There are signs as one looks of suspicious colors.  I invited Mary Jo to look at the inside of this complete bag.  Here are some images of its interior turned inside out.


The colors inside this piece are very different from those on its outside.  Instead of a general coppery orange (could it have been chemically washed? maybe, but why are the insides so different?) the inside dominating colors are a bright orange and a wine-red.  We might suspect the red to be from cochineal if it were not so different on the inside than it is on the outside.  Anyway, this piece was woven with some dyes that are almost certainly synthetic.

Now let me list the virtues of this piece.  It is very finely woven.  The high technical quality of the knotting drew Elena Tzareva’s attention once when she had it in her hands.  The drawing of this piece is all of precise, traditional, Tekke devices and the composition of the design is, for me, of a high quality.  Last, the octagon gul is unusual.

I think that most serious Turkmen collectors would would say that this piece is not “collectable,” and I have trouble defending it at bottom myself.  But then I remember how arbitrary, even irrational some of our collecting standards can be.  Sometimes we cut ourselves off needlessly from pieces that have real merits because of their condition or the possibility that they contain synthetic dyes. 

A very experinced, famous, show dog judge once said “It is understandable to like a dog in spite of its faults.  It is only if we like a dog because of its faults that re-education is indicated.” 

I think this insight applies to our decisions about what rugs we consider “collectable.”  My own view is that it is permissible to collect a rug in spite of its faults as long as we don’t begin to admire it because of them. 

Having said that, I have still to confess, embarrassingly, that this Tekke torba is one of the first three pieces I bought after I decided to begin to collect seriously, and that the initial thing that attracted me to it then was its nice coppery color. 

My apologies for “going on” a bit about these two rather humble pieces.

The next piece was a Tibetan saddle rug.

Tibetan saddle rugs are found in three basis shapes, this “notched,” rectangular one, a “kidney”-shape, which is reputed to be that of the oldest saddle rugs, and a “butterfly” shape, borrowed by the Tibetans from the saddle rugs of some Indian colonial cavalry units.

This “notched,” rectangular design and the “kidney”-shaped designs are the shapes encountered more often.  This rug was intended to go under the saddle (most Tibetan saddles are wooden).  There would have been an additional piece in this Tibetan saddle rug set: a separate rectangular piece with a matching design that would have been placed on top of the saddle.

Kuloy provides a layout showing how Tibetan saddle rugs of the shape of our “brought in” example were woven on the loom.

Notice that the part of the saddle rug that goes under the saddle is woven in two pieces, with the warps on what might be seen as the horizontal and with the pile (of both parts) pointing to one side of the piece.  The additional rectangular rug is woven on the same set of warps, but with an orientation that is more usual.

Since the “under the saddle” part of such a rug set is made in two pieces, these need to be joined.  In shorter ones that is done by adding a middle section in heavy cotton batting or felt.  Such a middle piece is needed in “shorter” saddle rugs to let them hang sufficiently far down the sides from under the saddle.  But some saddle rugs of this format are made longer and do not require such a center secton.  Here is an example from Kuloy’s book.

First is the “under the saddle” rug.

And, below is the matching rug that would be placed on top of the saddle.

Kuloy calls saddle rugs that do not require an additional middle insert the “aristocrats” of this type and it may be that this “brought in” piece is one of these.  Tibetan saddle rug collectors would measure and know.

Synthetic dyes were adopted early by Tibetan weavers and so Tibetan pieces often have them.  I do not see any obviously, suspicious colors in this rug, if the red is natural.

Someone in the audience asked about the two holes in this saddle rug.

I think the question was what the holes were for, and if they were to hold the rug onto the horse under the saddle, why are there only two?

I don’t think we resolved it in the room, but Kuloy shows a number of similar Tibetan saddle rugs.  Some show no holes like this at all, some show four holes, but the most frequent usage is, in fact, two holes (look again at our Kuloy example above in this respect).  So a two-hole usage is a traditional feature.

The next brought in piece was the long textile below.

As you can see, it is a continuous piece with a wide simple-striped center and two end panels with very different intense designs.

Let me turn a complete end-to-end image 45 degree so that you can see the designs a little more closely.

Some thought it looked like a Shahsavan piece, but others were less sure of that.  Some thought it might be a kind of eating cloth, perhaps missing some borders.  Others thought it might be a bag of some sort, perhaps a type of grain bag.  It’s layout indicates that it was not a “cargo” bag, the sort of “mafrash” made by the Shahsavan and some Caucasian weavers.  My notes do not say what it’s owner said.

Perhaps the most specific indication from the audience was by Wendel Swan.  He has repeated his comments here in an email to me.


“Although this was said to be Shahsavan, the use of the weft wrapping technique called “chii” (seen as the white in the decorated bands), the colors and the presence of a small brocaded diamond all point to rather definitive attribution to the Kurds of the Caucasus.  That was my comment at the session and remains my belief.

“At the session, I said also that it was not a mafrash and I speculated to you that it might be a bag which would have been folded in half.  The Caucasus does produce some rather deep single bags.  A piece that is quite similar in size color and concept, having decorated ends and only stripes in the middle, can be found in Wright and Wertime’s Caucasian Carpets and Covers as plate 114.  They call that piece an Azeri chuval.  It might also be Kurdish, but it seems to lack any chii wrapping, so the Kurdish attribution would be less certain.

Here is the similar seeming piece from the Wright-Wertime volume that Wendel references.

The image is too large to get into a single scan.  Here are two so you see that the two ends are the same.  Below is the first half and end.

And here, below is a very similar other half and end.

I also looked through a few more Caucasian books a bit.  In Robert Nooter’s “Flatwoven Rugs and Textiles from the Caucasus” there are two more possible comparators.  Here is the first of these.  It is Nooter’s Plate 206.

Nooter describe this as a “runner or long bag,” from the “Sham Saddin” area in northwest Karabagh.  This area has been Armenian but is close to another that was Kurdish in the 19th century.

Nooter’s Plate 207 is very similar.

This piece is about a foot shorter than Plate 206 and is described as a long bag from the Borchaliu region which is near but north of Sham Saddin.  The people in Borchaliu are predominantly a distinctive variety of Azeri, but some Amenians lived in the region during the 19th  century. 

The next piece was the rug below.

This was described in the room as a “commercial” Hamadan rug, perhaps a Lillihan.  It was estimated to have been woven in the 1920s. 

Hamadans are are usually seen by collectors as “decorative” rugs, rather than of the sort to be collected, but the fact that both Willborg and Runge have published books on Hamadans that they believe are worthy of attention, shows how hard this line is to draw.

The next piece was the textile below.

This piece is heavily embroidered in silk. 

The owner said that it had been purchased in the 1960s.  There was speculation about the format.

Some felt that the “lappet-like” panels suggested that it might be a door decoration.

And some said it looked like Kutch embroidery from Gudjurat.

It is true that Kutch embroidery commands some collector attention.  Marla Mallett shows at least two items of it as I write.  First, there is this shawl border.

And there is this child’s hat.

There is heavy silk embroidery and that are mirror decorations.  I will leave to you whether there are further similarities.

In the room, at the TM, there was also a very similar Indian square hanging.



There was also a Central Asian embroidery.

 Very dense embroidery covering most of the surface, unlike that on Central Asian suzanis.  I do not think a more specific attribution was made in the room.

The next brought in piece was more familar.

The piece above is a large Yomut engsi.

Here are two closer looks.

The image above is of the center of the “hatchli” design of the field of this piece.

There image below is a detail of an interesting cross panel above the elem of this piece.

I mentioned that this handsome piece is quite large.  I once collected data on over 600 published engsis and found that size variations are greatest among those attributed to the Ersari and and the Yomut groups.

The next piece was a source of unexpected controversy.

Now for Turkmen collectors this is a familiar format and design.  Such pieces seem always to be well-composed and drawn and the designs both, in the field and, in this, the most usual border used, have visible graphic punch. 

In the room it was described as an “Ersari” piece with “ikat-derived” guls .  During the session’s introductions Dan Walker had recognized the presence of Hans Konig, the rug expert and writer. 

Mr. Konig, first, politely reminded us that recent research has moved us away from the term “Ersari” in the direction a “Middle Amu Dyra” usage.  The reason, he said was there were a great many different tribes living in the areas from which the rugs that have traditionally been called “Ersari” have come, and it has become increasingly clear that a single tribal designation for the rugs woven there cannot be supported.  And there has been some beginning success in determining what groups wove particular rugs in the M.A.D. area.

But Mr. Konig then made a further point that was more surprising.  He said that he had questions about the claim that the “guls” in such torbas as this one were in fact “ikat-derived.” 

He did not say more, but it was a tantalizing thought.  His suspicion sent me directly, when I got home, to the catalog for the Goldman exhibition of Central Asian ikats.  I did remember wondering, when I first walked through that exhibition, when I was going to encounter ikats that contained a semblance of something like this gul.  It didn’t happen quickly.

But in the paperback version of the Goldman exhibition catalog there are at least two pieces that seem to me to contain designs that are defensibly quite similar.

Here is the first one:

And here is the second:

Now similarity is mere taxonomy and does not demonstrate design source or development.  So, I’m very curious to hear more about Mr. Konig’s suspicions.

The next piece was a fragment that we were careful now to describe as Middle Amu Dyra. 

Here is a closer look at its left side.

This torba-shaped and sized piece had a chaotic field of different seeming designs that drew comments that perhaps it was a sampler.

It has clear borders at its sides.  A careful look at the two vertical details below shows that traces of top and bottom guard borders are also visible in both of them.

This indicates that this piece is, in fact, a torba-format bag face.

But what of the seeming chaos of the field design?  Well, I have a reasonable, English-language, Central Asian library and looked around it a bit.  In particular I looked at Thatcher, Jourdan and Loges.  It turns out that the devices in this bag are all part of the Central Asian design vocabulary that has until recently described as “Beshiri,” with the addition of one non-Turkmen device.

Let me deal with the latter device first.  It is the jagged device on the left side of this fragmentary torba.  Here is the image of the left side again.

There are “Beshiri” devices that seem similar.  Here, below is, Loges’ Plate 101.

This side treatment is similar but not satisfyingly so. The internal instrumentation, in particular, is different.  But there is another possible source that seems more credible.  I own a Central Asian, non-Turkmen bag, perhaps Uzbek, perhaps something else, with a device in it that is quite similar.  Here is that bag, oriented as it would be in use.

Now let’s turn this bag 45 degrees to see this design in the position in which it occurs on our chaotic M.A.D. fragment.

In this orientation this device seems to me very similar to that on the left side of our chaotic M.A.D. torba fragment, again repeated below for convenient comparison.

The white-ground zagged area is there and so are the “bar-bell” devices.

All the other devices in this brought in bag are in the traditional “Beshir” design vocabulary.  Here are some examples.  First, a black & white image that is Thatcher’s Plate 43.

These devices are said to have been adopted from non-Turkmen sources: the Persian “herati,” design in particular.  I say that here because this image may be the one that makes that possibility most most examinable.  But here are some additional pieces with similar devices.

The image below is Jourdan’s Plate 282.

Next is Loges’ Plate 103.

 The designs in both of the immediately preceding pieces have the devices used in our chaotic fragment but don’t exhibit its chaos.

The piece below is closest to the chaos of our fragment.

The beginning lack of regularity in the piece above hints a little at the possibility of the sort of chaos in this fragmented torba.

The next piece brought in was this Caucasian rug..

There was a suggestion in the room that this piece was south, perhaps Zakatala.  Someone else indicated that at least some Zakatala rugs are reputed to have S-spun, Z-plied wool.  I don’t think that was checked for during the session for confirmation.

Here are two closer images.

Someone said that this piece was “looser than a Moghan.”  This rug looked younger.

The next piece was also Caucasian.

This is a striking piece with its large-scale border contrasting with the relatively tiny intrumentation of its field.  The owner said it was a Sechour-Kuba piece.

Here is a closer corner.

Below is a long section of this spacious, colorful border with its abrashed green-green-blue ground. 

The scale of the border makes the field seem plainish but looked at more closely it has its own dense instrumentation.

This is a rug with really interesting and contrasting features.

Yet another Caucasian followed.


This is a “double-niche” design.  The owner attributed it to  Kuba-Dagestan.

The relatively large-scale main border was originally brown and white with occasional small bright red devices.  The brown has largely disappeared due to corrosion and the white now exerts a subtle, but marked relief effect against the visible structural threads.

Here is a detail of the field showing both niches.

The slight asymmetry of the drawing of the two niches adds interest.

Below is a closer image of the upper niche and the latticed field.

The color choice for the lattice devices brings life to the palette of this rug.  This effect is even better seen in the previous image that shows both niches.

The last piece of the day was this 20th century Turkmen flatwoven piece below.


 These are called “palas.”  They are tightly woven and sturdy, although this one is not as hard or as fine as the older ones often are.

A closer look at the weave of this one.


Despite the fact that such pieces are still being made, Pinner and Eiland point out in their Weidersperg catalog that we still don’t know enough about antique Turkmen palas to distinguish (for example) those made by the Tekkes from those made by Yomut weavers.

Mary Jo asked for questions, dealt with them, and adjourned the session.

Here are some images of the pleasant aftermath.

I thank Mary Jo for permitting me to share a virtual version of her “rug morning” with you.  I also thank her for looking at my work and saving me from the worst errors. Ultimately, though, the reporting here must be mine, mistakes and all.  Thanks, too, to Bill Storz who generously took an excellent set of notes for me.

I hope you have enjoyed this virtual version of this recent TM Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning.


R. John Howe

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