Thursday, January 25, 2007

1830s Slave Quilt - $40k - $60k

I LOVE watching Antiques Roadshow. Each season there seems to be old quilts brought in for appraisal. Here's a photo of one slave quilt made in the 1830s. The quilt was from a Mr. Polk's estate. Mr. Polk was a slave owner. The current quilt owner, Danny from Walterboro, South Carolina, had also purchased inventory documentation from Mr. Polk's estate as well to substantiate the quilts provenance. The Nancy Druckman of Sotheby's in New York examined the quilt in a 2004 episode... and estimated the auction value to be from $40,000 - $60,000!
Do you have a piece that you'd like to have the Antiques Roadshow appraise? Tickets for the 2007 have JUST opened for online requests. The show will visit: Baltimore on June 16, Orlando on June 30, San Antonio on July 14, Louisville on July 28, Spokane on Aug 4, and Las Vegas on Aug 18. Gotta go see what's up in the attic.....


Anonymous said...

This quilt was the subject of some outrage among quilt historians when it appeared on ARS - not just because of its astronomically high valuation (it's hard to pay more than $10,000 for a 19thc quilt), but because as quilt historian Barbara Brackman and others have observed, the quilt itself indicates it could not have been made during the period claimed.

(1) The quilt's tan fabric would orignally have been red, colored with one of the synthetic dyes introduced after 1870.

(2) The fabrics are all plains rather than prints - the reverse of what you'd see in an antebellum quilt.

(3) Rather than being unique, the motif (generally referred to as Pine Burr) is common throughout the South after 1875, but not found before then.

(4) That's also true of the fan quilting, unique to the South and virtually nonexistent before the 1880s.

Like most "folk art" appraisers, the one on ARS either didn't observe these clues or ignored them, preferring to take the owner's "provenance".

But what of that provenance? Is it a detailed description of the quilt? (Remember also that only rarely do we know what 19th century quilters called their block designs.) Or, as is typical with household inventories, is it just a mention of "a" quilt? Or is it simply evidence that the family from which this quilt were slaveowners? We're never told. But ARS typically displays such documentation along with the object being appraised; why didn't we get to see it? Did the owner forget to bring it along?

It is also important to note that the owner of the quilt, Danny Drain, displays it at his privately-owned "slave relic museum", and thus has a vested interest in promoting this as slave-made. But if the three "freed slaves 1870" photos on his site ( are any indication, Mr. Drain's dating is highly unreliable. The clothing worn by the photos' subjects (none of whom look more than 30 years old), as well as the photographic type and frames, all date to 1895-1905.

Certainly Mr. Drain's quilt could have been made by a former slave. But blurring the distinction (as Gladys-Marie Fry has done) between these quilts and the few that we know were indeed slave-made does the study of African-American quilts no favors, and as Cuesta Benberry noted more than 15 years ago is liable to raise doubts about all the scholarship associated with this subject - which is not something those of us who take it seriously need.

-- Leigh Fellner

Chris Paul Moore said...

For the record, the quilt featured on the Antiques Road Show has a distinctive African motif honoring Xango (Shango), a religious deity who is often invoked by believers for his influence on male potency and fertility. Xango is regarded too as the god of thunder or war – like the Roman god Mars, who is honored in the name of the month just passed, March. The Xango motif, known by religious practitioners (and quilters) by a variety of names, represents a belief system that predates the U.S. antebellum era, and likely predates our 2000 year old common calendar.
The point is that the Drain quilt has a cultural importance and historic significance that transcends myopic scholarship to a viewer who seems most genuinely annoyed that a quilt made by a slave could have an “astronomically high valuation.” To argue so vehemently against the veracity of a slave-made quilt makes perfect sense from descendents of a culture that so vehemently expunged artistic, religious, and cultural expressions of African Americans for a very long time. Are quilts perfect history? I think not, but many quilters and historians alike are coming to find a multitude of layers, orthodox and otherwise, in the cultural expressions of enslaved and free African Americans.
Historians are finally coming to find too that sewing circles and quilting (by white and black women, free and enslaved) was critically important to the anti-slavery abolitionist movement, and the women’s movement, too.
Long before the Mayflower, Xango partisans arrived in the Americas, mostly aboard slave ships. They built the early colonies in the New World, and they almost always had to mask their African culture – but in a variety of creative and phenomenal ways. Perhaps our 21st century interest will lead to a deeper exploration of our history – and its many many myths – and truths.
Christopher Paul Moore

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Mr. Moore can explain how the slave who made this quilt got hold of fabric colored with a fugitive synthetic dye which did not exist until the 1870s. Time travel?

- Leigh Fellner

Anonymous said...

Ms. Fellner is unquestionably correct regarding both the textiles and the pattern used in this quilt. Any knowing historian of textiles and/or quilt patterns would agree. Ms. Brackman is the leading American authority on these subjects.

Such an appraisal value for such a quilt is outrageous, even were it accompanied by documentation of provenance and proof it were made by a specific person. But lacking that documentation, it is a travesty.

However, the quilt might have been made on the plantation of a family named Polk, even by a person who had been enslaved as a child---but made sometime around 1890-1910. The Polk family of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana had large land and slave holdings.

WHICH "Mr. Polk"? is the question. Can the owner provide the historical data?

The Lamar Polk estate (Rapides Parish, LA) included quilts that were sold by an antiques dealer within the past 20 years. It is reasonable to assume quilts, particularly in this poor condition, were parts of other Polk families' estates or were given away as worn out.

Even then, the fan quilting pattern would suggest it were made under the guidance or influence of a white quiltmaker.

This claim lacks merit on all points. As someone who has researched quilts associated with the Polk family and the South, I would be interested in the real story, the one that can be documented.

Gaye Rice Ingram

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