Collectible Spotlight: Selling Inherited Quilts

Some would say that there is no more American art form than a quilt.  Made by the earliest settlers, they have been around since the late seventeenth century.  They are also a common item to be passed down from generation to generation so you are likely to inherit one at some point.  However, quilts can be bulky and difficult to maintain.  When the time comes to give it away or sell it, here are some things to keep in mind when considering the collectability or value of your inherited quilt.

Condition

A leading collector Shelly Zegart points out that “Old does not have to mean torn and ragged.”  Just because a quilt is from the early twentieth or even early nineteenth century does not mean it has to be in bad condition.  Like most collectibles, condition matters, but how can you tell if it’s in good or bad condition?  Are there tears or holes?  Are there stains in parts or throughout the quilt?  Does it smell?  Saying “yes” to any of the above items will decrease the value of the quilt.

Another common condition issue for old quilts especially crazy quilts from the 1870s to 1900s is “split” or “shredded” fabric.  This condition is generally caused from dirt and grime affecting the fibers and causing them to break or tear, but it can also be caused by inherent vice from the original dying process. Shredded fabric is difficult and costly to repair which any potential buyer will take into account when trying to decide whether or not to bid.

*Note* Collectors prefer unwashed quilts.  If your quilt is stained, I would suggest letting the new buyer clean it rather than attempting to do so yourself or paying a hefty fee to a professional. 

Age & Provenance

As a general rule, older is better.  There are very few eighteenth-century quilts remaining outside of museums so you most likely have one from the nineteenth or twentieth century.  Of course, all rules are meant to be broken, and there are some significant exceptions to the “older is better” rule which brings us to provenance.

Quilt collectors want provenance, or a history of ownership.  The most valuable quilts will generally be in perfect condition, old, and have a recorded history of ownership with documentation.  To determine if your quilt has provenance ask yourself: Is it signed?  Is there family history associated with the quilt?  Was it tied to a certain event like the Civil War or Civil Rights?  Is there accompanying paperwork documenting who the maker was?

selling inherited quilts

Selling inherited quilts can have a major payout!  This one, attributed to Hannah Foote, Baltimore, Maryland c.1860 sold at Sotheby’s New York January 2004 for $72,000. Liveauctioneers.com.

Baltimore album quilts provide a good example of the importance of provenance.

Baltimore Album quilts are a regional quilt type made from the 1840s into the 1850s.  Each appliqued block was generally made (and often signed) by a different person before being combined into a larger quilt which was given as a gift and treasured by the recipient.  Many have found their way into museums like the Baltimore Museum of Art  and Colonial Williamsburg, but others still come to market like the beautiful 1846 example that sold at Pook & Pook for $28,000 in October 2011.  Highlighting the importance of provenance though is a similar quilt without documentation which sold for only $3,400.  In this case, provenance makes a $24,000 difference.  Album-style quilts continue to be made even today, but the early ones are still the most valuable making documentation essential.

Quality

Now quality may be the hardest thing to detect to the untrained eye, but it’s not impossible.

Think of it like looking at a well-made clothing garment.  Does the textile seem solid and of a good weight?  Is the design complex?  Does it have an overall balance?  How detailed are the quilting stitches which go through all the layers of the cloth?  Is the quilting pattern attractive?  Do the colors “go”?  Of course, some of these items are subjective, but good quality should shine through.

More questions?  Comment with your thoughts or additional tips for selling inherited quilts.

Collectible Spotlight is a series that features a variety of items that you may own, inherit, or collect with some easy tips to help you determine their value.  Want to see an item featured?  Feel free to message us with ideas!

About Rebecca McCormick
Rebecca H. McCormick is working on her MA in History of Decorative Arts. She is a Collector’s Series Auction cataloger at Quinn’s Auction Galleries. She has worked at the Texas Historical Commission and The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. She received her BA in History and Art History from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She lives in Vienna, Virginia with her husband and their two cats.

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