As antique quilt prices have climbed, interest in collecting quilts has grown proportionately. The number of collectors grows each year, and often many of the new collectors have questions. What to look for in an old quilt? What makes a good investment? How do you start a quilt collection? As a quilt collector, Shelly Zegart discusses a number of guidelines for aspiring quilt collectors.
Buying Old Quilts: A Guide for Quilt Collectors
The bidders shifted nervously in their seats as the next item was offered for sale: a 19th century appliqué quilt from Baltimore, Maryland. $17,000…$18,000…$20,000!
As antique quilt prices have climbed, interest in collecting quilts has grown proportionately. The number of collectors grows each year, and often many of the new collectors have questions. What do look for in an old quilt? What makes a good investment? How do you start a quilt collection? As a quilt collector I have developed a few guidelines.
Buy condition. Old does not have to mean torn and ragged. You can buy an antique quilt, even a 19th century one, in excellent condition. The same rule applies to quilts that are signed and dated. Unfortunately, a signed and dated ragged quilt is still a ragged quilt.
Quilting counts. I don't carry a ruler in my pocket to measure: the number of quilting stitches to the inch, but in general, smaller stitches and intricate quilting patterns add visual appeal and increase value. As a quilt dealer for many years, I have learned that well-quilted quilts sell. As a collector however, I have learned to break this rule. One of my favorite pieces has the following information embroidered on the bottom of the piece. "Curiosity Bedspread" made for the Sears, Roebuck and Company contest in 1935 by Mrs. Avery Burton from Duck Hill, Mississippi age 68 years" is not quilt at all! A charming well documented barnyard scene made this non-traditional summer spread irresistible. Some years ago I donated it to The Center for the Study of Southern Culture in Oxford, Mississippi.
Think thin. In general thin quilts are better than thick quilts with heavy batting (these are also called "fat" quilts). Again, I have ignored this guideline more than once. It depends on the kind of fat quilt. One of my special treasures is a folky cows quilt on feedsacks. Technically it is not very good, but it is a one-of-a-kind piece with naïve appeal and it makes me smile!
Buy from a reputable dealer. You will have a larger selection of better quality quilts from a knowledgeable individual. The quilt market is fraught with repros of every sort. People who have been in the business for many years and have seen thousands of quilts are expected to be able to discern the difference .When you buy from one of them you should receive a guarantee of authenticity.
Be an informed buyer. Read, visit museums with quilt collections, talk to other collectors. Look at as many quilts as you can before you actually spend your money. You will have a better sense of what you like as well as what is available in terms of both style and quality.
Be realistic. Of course it is fun to use and display your quilts. However using a quilt as a bedcover or wallhanging does shorten its life. If you want to make sure your quilt will be around for future generations to enjoy, save it for special occasions. When in doubt use only a textile professional for repairs and cleaning.
Buy what you love. This is perhaps the most important advice I can give a beginning collector. Twenty five years ago, I was a beginning collector. I knew nothing about quilts, but I had studied contemporary art. My interest developed when looking for art for the walls of my new contemporary home.
The marketplace. Aesthetics and form count much more than stitches, pattern name or history when you look at market prices realized for quilts.
The Reconciliation Quilt that sold in 1991 at Sotheby's for $264,000.00 is a prime example of a quilt that didn't fit the rules. Its subject was reconciliation after the Civil War. It had very little quilting, no known pattern, but was a unique design of appliquéd figures and phrases appropriate to the cause. It came from the family of Horace Greeley, the New York publishing family of the era, and was in unwashed unused condition. To the traditional quilt collector there would have been, in most instances, no resonance with this quilt .To the collector of American history and objects of this period it was a stunner , a must have, and fresh to the market as well.
The first quilt I ever bought hung on my family room wall for many years. It was a Carpenter's Wheel variation, a traditional pattern executed in subdued blues and browns. The quilting was neither fine nor fancy, just parallel lines running the length of the quilt. It was not an exceptional quilt, or a best of kind, nor was it like anything else in my collection. Nevertheless, I loved it. That is what collecting is all about.
The Art Institute of Chicago has acquired 24 of my most significant quilts. They will be exhibited in the Textile Department Galleries beginning in mid March 2004.
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