In the second part of her article, Shelly Zegart continues discussing quilt appraisal process. She talks about the importance of connoisseurship, as well as brings up a number of questions an aspiring apraiser should ask herself before undertaking this role. Shelly shares valuable insights based on her expertise in quilt appraisals.

Appraising Your Quilts, Part II

Originally published in the IQA Journal, International Quilt Association, Houston, Texas, Fall 1997


Are you thinking about becoming an appraiser?

Ask yourself:

  • How many years have you been handling, studying, and working with quilts and other objects?
  • Do you have a good visual memory stocked with infinite images of ordinary, fine, and superior objects?
  • Do you have a broad network of people who are willing to serve as resources for you?
  • Can you write descriptions of objects concisely and cogently so that there would be no mistaking it for another when defending your appraisal in a court of law?
  • Would you be able to defend your work in a court of law if necessary?

What is "connoisseurship"?

Appraisers of all types of objects should have a highly developed level of connoisseurship.

In May of 1993, at the Great American Quilt Festival in New York City, a seminar titled "Appraising Quilts--from Antique Quilts to Art Quilts" was moderated by Harmer Johnson, Past President of the Appraisers Association of America. I was among the group of panelists, which included Helaine Fendelman, Penny McMorris, Yvonne Porcella, and Gerald Roy. I was asked to discuss how to establish value and how to develop connoisseurship.

Value is a combination of factors which determine price. A list of factors which determine prices in relation to antique quilts include (information extracted from a course, "Appraisal and Valuation of Art," offered by New York University and taught by Helaine Fendelman, President of the Appraisers Association of America, Inc.):

  • The piece itself -- its intrinsic, artistic merit, pattern, form, color execution, and craftsmanship, i.e., the quality of the design and its workmanship.
  • Condition -- condition counts
  • Authenticity -- age, for example, new Amish are authentic but the aesthetic/fabric does not meet the standards of Amish quilts made in years past.
  • Size -- small in quilts is often more valuable than very large; however, large Indian pottery might be more valuable than smaller pieces.
  • Provenance -- history of ownership
  • Rarity -- how many are there
  • Historic importance
  • Marketplace -- timing, economic conditions, what is selling

Real value cannot be established without connoisseurship. A "connoisseur" is defined as "an informed and astute judge in the matters of taste - an expert" (American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Ed., c. 1983).

The development of connoisseurship is a lifelong pursuit. Every year one learns more. This is the one area in which age and experience has value; the older you get, the better you get. Knowledge is accumulated by constant looking and reading.

According to Charles Montgomery in his excellent chapter on connoisseurship in A History of American Pewter, the primary personal attribute of a connoisseur is a good visual memory stocked with infinite images of ordinary, fine, and superior objects. The connoisseur remembers especially those objects he/she has personally examined, but he/she also has in his/her mind published photographs of objects and facts connected with them. Invaluable to the student are photographic files that can be shuffled and rearranged for comparison.

Each connoisseur consciously and unconsciously looks at an object from many points of view to gather the data necessary to identify an object, to evaluate its condition and quality, and to determine its comparative success as a work of art. He/she judges the excellence of workmanship, the condition, proceeds cautiously, asks questions, considers answers carefully, and is objective.

A connoisseur of antique quilts studies master dyers’ books and other fabric resources, the beds on which they were placed, and the decorative arts and culture of each time period. He/she attends every possible show and exhibition, talks to colleagues in the field all over the country on a daily basis, looks at a lot of quilts, and is familiar with all the literature (good and bad).

How does connoisseurship apply to appraisals of antique quilts? In a difficult call, scholarship and connoisseurship enable the appraiser to set precisely the worth of a Baltimore album quilt at $150,000 or $250,000. Appraising is not only the identification of the category and the act of gathering information, it is knowing how to analyze it. If you are not able to make that kind of distinction, and you are preparing an appraisal of a quilt for donation to a museum, you are doing your client a disservice.

As another example, if you cannot look from across the room at two great Lancaster Amish diamond quilts made during the same period similarly quilted, same size, same kinds of wools, and know, because of the use of color, which is a $10,000 quilt and which is a $20,000 one, you should not be appraising Amish quilts.

With that example in mind, let’s take a look at contemporary art quilts. As more and more quilt artists look to the history of painting and painterly representations as inspiration, their quilts may fly in the face of the traditional quilt and might possess inferior workmanship, inferior fabrics, peculiar shapes. If you cannot see them in relation to modern painting because you do not have the art historical background to judge, then you cannot appraise contemporary art quilts.

Appraising is not a question of personal preference for a particular kind of quilt. Regardless of the aesthetic, the history and the workmanship must be measured against the daily wisdom of the marketplace which sets new values daily on everything in the world, including art objects. After all the connoisseurship is considered, if an appraiser is not linked to the material personally or through contact in the field on a daily basis, one has no business appraising.

Most quilts, as well as other art objects, are sold privately, although some are offered publicly through auctions. An appraiser must have access to that information. It is absurd to assume that an appraiser of homes can appraise if he or she does not know what houses have sold for in your neighborhood, your city, your region. It is easier to find out the value of a house because they are posted in realtor’s windows and newspapers every day across the country.


Information for this article was generously provided by Sally Ambrose, Barbara Brackman, Hazel Carter, Helaine Fendelman, Marilyn Henrion, Penny McMorris, Pam Pampe, and Victor Wiener.

About the Author

Shelly Zegart has her B.A. in Education from the University of Michigan and was a founding director in 1981 of The Kentucky Quilt Project, the first state documentation project. Her initial interest in collecting quilts expanded with the Kentucky state survey to a full-time involvement in the field. Zegart lectures on all aspects of quilt history and aesthetics. She has curated many exhibitions here and abroad, including an exhibition of Kentucky quilts in Australia.

Her background includes a study of art history and 15 years as a board member and chairperson of the oldest visual arts organization in Louisville, Kentucky.

She continues to act as an advisor to other groups conducting quilt surveys. In 1991-92, with fellow quilt project directors Jonathan Holstein and Eleanor Bingham Miller, she organized and produced "Louisville Celebrates the American Quilt," a group of events planned to illustrate and further the developments in the field over the past 20 years. In 1993 she co-founded The Alliance for American Quilts with Karey Bresenhan, Nancy O’Bryant, and Eunice Ray, for the purpose of developing The Center for The Quilt and, in cooperation with the Library of Congress American Folklife Center, The International Quilt Index.

Her most recent book, American Quilt Collections, Antique Quilt Masterpieces (published by Nihon Vogue in both Japanese and English in Spring of 1997), introduces 74 of the great public and private collections across the United States. The importance of each collection, its history and thoughts about its future are included in each two-page spread. Also featured is a stunning example of an antique quilt masterpiece from each collection.

American Quilt Collections is a thought-provoking, information-filled guide to the types of quilts and services that are available. It integrates new information about how, when and why some of the great public and private collections were formed and also explores curatorial concerns about displaying a quilt collection, giving access to scholars, and caring for these fragile textiles. It will "fill in the blanks" for collectors, quiltmakers, dealers, curators, scholars, and anyone interested in antique American quilts.

Zegart has built private and corporate quilt collections around the world. A member of the International Quilt Association and the Appraisers Association of America, Zegart appraises antique and contemporary art quilts. above: The appraiser of this dynamic quilt would have to have a background in art history to write a competent appraisal. It is outisde of most quilt characteristics.

Note: Article excerpts are reprinted with generous permission from publisher. All unauthorized use is illegal.

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