History and Care: The Importance of Provenance and Condition in Today’s Quilt Market

History and Care: The Importance of Provenance and Condition in Today's Quilt Market

By Brenda Hornsby Heindl

On the night my grandmother passed away, I learned that she had been trying to finish a quilt for me which she started when I was born. I will never sell it, and it always brings me an emotional tie to a family member who is no longer alive. The market for quilts can never meet the incomparable value of a quilt such as this, but the market for quilts in general has drastically changed over the past decade. Provenance, history, and condition continue to be the strong points in bringing high prices at auction, but the trends for popular designs has shifted.

At a 2016 Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates auction, lot number one, a fine pieced and appliquéd Lone Star quilt was the star of the show, bringing $9,360 (all prices include buyer’s premium). It was likely made by Mary Seeds Moon (born ca. 1806), mother of Emily Quail Moon (1844-1906), in Baltimore, Maryland around 1840, and had descended directly through the Moon family. The center of the quilt had five large pieced stars with appliqued chintz floral and bird designs, surrounded by a border of smaller stars, and a wide edge of printed chintz fabric. Previously exhibited and published as a Virginia-made quilt, further research prior to the sale resulted in the reattribution of the quilt to Maryland. The quality of the chintz fabric, retaining a strong sheen on the surface, and the overall condition of the quilt was quite good. The fine quilt stitching was incredibly detailed, including a horn of plenty design and feathered plumes. Without the detailed, recorded history and provenance, intricate design, and condition of this quilt, it would have never achieved the extraordinary price which it did.

Baltimore “album quilts” with their signature blocking of elaborately implemented floral designs and intricate quilting seem to have retained their value and their popularity over the past decade. A signed and dated 1845 example of a Baltimore “album quilt” having open-work basket with lyre and bird; compote featuring watermelon and other fruit; cornucopia wreath with urn and bird holding “The Fountain of Health” banner, sold at Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates in 2005 for $30,800. Comparably, in 2013, Pook & Pook Auctions sold a comparable intricate Baltimore “album quilt” for $29,160.

Between 2005-2008 Amish-made quilts from Southeastern Pennsylvania having bold colors and large patterns such as the diamond or sawtooth-diamond pattern were selling between $5,000-15,000, sometimes more. Many were made in the late 19th and early 20th century, but continued to be produced throughout the 20th century. Galleries were selling these quilts at even higher prices, and many of the top quilt collectors sought out the best and brightest quilts for their collection. This trend and popularity seems to have come to a close by 2010, and the prices for these quilts has dropped dramatically. In 2016, an Amish quilt with bright purples, blues, greens, and black, in circular motifs and intricate stitching, brought $468.00. Few Amish quilts have a tendency in the last five years to bring over $2,500. The influence of eBay as a selling platform cannot be ignored with quilts, particularly with Amish designs, and perhaps the flood of the market from this caused the drop in prices achieved, or perhaps itis a changing trend of popularity.

Color and design appear to continue being a popular trend, but perhaps broadly moving toward a different era away from 19th century “album quilts” and more into the 20th century. In particular are pieced quilts made with innumerable hexagons in an array of often pastel colors, popular in the 1920s and 1930s. These quilts have been fetching between $1,500-3,500 at auction in the past several years, and the trend for “vintage” 20th century patterned quilts with pastels has been on the rise. “Kit quilts” from the 1930s to 1950s with designs by Marie Webster and others, which were made from pre-cut patterns and often machine-stitched, have also been very popular. Their more recent production gives them the opportunity to be in better condition, have less use, and the often pastel colors and elaborate floral designs give them more strength in the current market.

Condition has and always will be one of the biggest concerns in the value of a quilt. A beautifully designed circa 1850 Baltimore “album quilt” in poor condition and stained sold at Pook and Pook Auctions in 2013 for $2,673, showing that even the most popular design is impacted by the condition. With our auction house in Virginia, we are often asked to sell quilts that have strong provenance, but are in poor condition, and we either advise the families to donate them to museums related to the region of the provenance, or to keep them as the prices we estimate are not in any way satisfactory to what the potential consigner may have been hoping for. Like the changing trend of no longer restoring furniture, it is often advised to only stabilize textiles rather than put them through drastic restoration techniques such as peroxide, bleaching, or blueing for lightening stains and brightening white fabrics. New studies on these techniques have shown that over time the original stains may return and begin to deteriorate the fabric where the treatment was used. Acid-free box and paper storage, little exposure to light, and a controlled environment are still strongly recommended.

Where condition may be overridden is when it comes to provenance. The location of the sale also plays a large role depending on the provenance of the item; however, with Internet sales becoming increasingly common, it is certainly not a necessity. Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates is located in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, between Staunton and Harrisonburg. We specialize in southern decorative arts, and particularly Virginia, so when we have the opportunity to handle a quilt passed down in the same family since the 19th century, it is often a pleasure for the staff to see and document such an item, but it is also an opportunity for our customers who may specifically collect items from the surrounding counties.

In 2012, a quilt descended in the Shoemaker family of Harrisonburg, Virginia, sold for $977.50. On the back of the quilt is stitched “Mary Jane Shoemaker,” and the quilt likely dated from the mid-19th century. It was an identifiable pattern, a lotus-blossom variant, with trapunto-style multi-petaled flowers separating the leaves with a vine-and-flower border in red and green. The condition included issues with deterioration of the red fabric, including one entire flower head, some areas of staining, and a small nail polish stain and spot. Clearly, the quilt had been used over time, but the strong history that had been preserved with the piece made it a sought-after item in the sale.

At Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates we advise people to look less at the prices achieved ten years ago and to look at comparable prices from the past five years. The financial value of quilts may never return to its heights of ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, but they were always meant to be comforting, admired for the work and devotion put into them, and enjoyed.

Jeffrey S. Evans is the president, principal auctioneer, and co-owner of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates Auctions in Mount Crawford, VA. He has been handling and selling textiles since 1979 and was author and co-curator of Counterpanes and White Work of the Shenandoah Valley, the catalogue for the Virginia Quilt Museum exhibition of the same name, displayed February 1 through May 12, 2012.

Brenda Hornsby Heindl, head of the Ceramics Department at Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates, has been involved in textile production from a young age, researching primarily Appalachian textiles since she was at Berea College in Kentucky as an undergraduate. Brenda is also a graduate of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture.

History and Care: The Importance of Provenance and Condition in Today’s Quilt Market