Appraising – The Big Picture

Do you ever wonder what appraising is all about, or why you would want to have a quilt appraised? Don’t you just add up the cost of your materials? Can’t you just decide how much you want to make per hour and multiply that by the number of hours you put into it? Well, no. But hang on. I am going to help you understand what an appraisal is, why you need one, who should do it, and what they’re looking at.

As many different kinds of quilters as there are, there are that many kinds of quilts. And that many ways of making them. And you know, each and every one of those quilts has value. It might be sentimental value, financial value, historical value, or decorative value. It might be all of these. But each one has a value. It’s my job to find that value.

In short, a quilt appraisal is a written document that determines an objective value for your piece, whether newly-finished or family heirloom. It includes written documentation substantiating that value, and requires an unbiased opinion from an educated professional. It is at once both art and science.

I’ve had people ask me if appraisals are worth the money. I ask them, “How would you feel if you mailed your quilt off to Paducah and it never got there? Would you want to be reimbursed for it?” Most of us would. If so, you need an appraisal. If you decided to sell a quilt, would you want to sell it for what it’s worth? Thought so. You need an appraisal.

Before you come see me, you might want to know why you need to have your quilt appraised. There are three basic kinds of appraisals: Insurance Replacement Value, Fair Market Value, and Donation Value.

Ninety-five percent of the appraisals I do are for Insurance Replacement Value–including those done just for curiosity. These determine a value to replace your piece with one of “like and kind,” or what it would take to replace your quilt if the need arose. If you’re planning to enter a major show, you’ll need an appraisal of this kind to go along with your entry (or you’ll pay a fee to cover the cost of the appraisal at the show). But even if you’re not planning to show the quilt, remember: Houses burn, pipes burst, things get stolen. Stuff happens.

If you lose a quilt, you can go to your insurance agent and ask for reimbursement, but most insurance agents will reimburse you for the cost of a blanket, not the value of a work of art. You can buy a blanket at Target, can’t you? If you think your quilt is the same as a Target blanket, don’t bother with an appraisal. Take the thirty bucks from your insurance agent. But if you consider that two or three yards of good-quality fabric can easily cost more than that, or that you’ve spent years learning your craft in order to make your quilt, you need an appraisal. (For specific information on scheduling quilts on your particular policy, please call your agent.)

Fair Market Value appraisals are for quilts you plan to sell. This kind of appraisal describes a value that would be mutually agreed upon between a willing and knowledgeable buyer and willing and knowledgeable seller when the item is exposed to the open market for a reasonable period of time. It isn’t a guarantee of a sales price, but is an educated determination by an appraiser who has knowledge of the current market.

Donation Value appraisals are required to satisfy the IRS requirements for donations. You’d need this if you were donating a quilt or wanted to establish a value for estate planning.

So, you’ve decided that you do want to have an appraisal. You’ve decided what kind of appraisal you want. Do you drag your quilt to the nearest quilt shop and ask them what it’s worth? How about the local antique mall? How about that woman who is always buying all those dusty old things? No, no, and no. This is a job for the professionals. Your local quilt shop will know how much all that fabric you bought cost, and they will certainly be familiar with the different techniques you’ve used, but they probably won’t know how those numbers contribute to the overall value of your quilt. The local antique mall might be able to give you an idea how much quilts like yours have sold for, and they might have an idea of age, but they won’t be able to objectively identify a piece’s historical importance. And what can the old lady with the dusty stuff know about a Modern quilt, or an art quilt? All of these folks have just tiny parts of the big picture. Yep, Big Picture. Using that term makes me feel like a suit. It makes me laugh. Humor me. A knowledgeable appraiser will see all of the parts of the Big Picture.

How do you find an appraiser? Google to the rescue. Go ahead, try it. Type in “quilt appraiser” and see what you get. You are looking to find someone who has a certified designation from a recognized appraisal society and is subject to specific standards. For example, I am certified by the American Quilters’ Society, and am governed by standards of the Professional Association of Appraisers of Quilted Textiles, and by the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice. What does that mean? It means I have to pay attention to the rules and all the legal stuff.

There are currently just over 100 AQS-certified appraisers in the U.S. and Canada. To find one in your area, visit http://www.americanquilter.com/quilt_world/appraisers.php?state=&offset=0.

While there are certainly other people who are knowledgeable about appraisals, some have not been tested and are not accountable to any overarching organization. Many insurance companies will not accept their appraisals for a claim. You can rest assured that AQS-certified appraisers have undergone stringent testing on their knowledge of textiles and appraisal practices. Don’t be afraid to ask for an appraiser’s listing of qualifications and affiliations.

There are usually AQS-certified appraisers available at shows, from small local shows to the majors. Check the show website to see if there will be an appraiser (and if there won’t be, suggest they find one), and make an appointment.

What happens next? You let the appraiser see your quilt. A reputable appraiser will always insist on a physical inspection of the piece. Photographs, no matter how close or how still you hold your iPhone, can never tell the whole story. Make sure that the appraiser will actually examine your quilt before you hand over your hard-earned money. (Expect to pay between $40 and $50 for a written appraisal.) Think twice about an appraiser who asks you to send photos or to mail a piece to them. Quilts have value, remember? You want to know the true value of yours and still own it.

Most often, I will meet you with clipboard in hand, ask you a few questions, and then start making notes, measuring, and photographing your quilt. But while I’m scribbling away, what am I looking at? Everything. Really. Big Picture, remember? I am looking at everything from what kind of fabric you used to how wide your binding is. (Here I’m sure you’re thinking, “Oh, I see. Quilt Police.” If you are, just stop it.) A lot of clients get skittery when they bring me something new to appraise, worrying that I’m going to notice that all their corners aren’t perfect, or that there’s a bump in the binding. Psssh. I probably will notice, but I’m not going to send you to Remedial Quilting. I see a lot of quilts and there is one thing I know for sure: Nobody, but nobody, is perfect. Besides, I’m not looking to point out your mistakes. If I’m wearing my Girl Appraiser clothes, I’m only recording the facts and determining the value of your quilt, not whether it should have a ribbon. My job is to be objective, record the facts, and determine the value as it is today. Right here, right now.

If I am looking at a new quilt, some, but not all, of the things I’m looking at are pattern, types of materials used, techniques employed, and level of workmanship. Not judging, remember? I will also ask you what shows the quilt has hung in, whether or not it’s been published, and whether or not it’s won awards. I’ll determine whether or not your piece is an original design or made from a pattern, and will have someone hold it vertically so I can see its visual impact. All this time I’ll be taking notes. I rarely want to know how much time you’ve actually put into the quilt because that gets taken care of in other ways.

You won’t ever see most of the notes I take. The truth is, you couldn’t read them anyway, but you will get the results in the form of an appraisal package in about three weeks. Why three weeks? Once I’m home from the show, I’ll take the information I recorded when I had your quilt in hand, determine the current costs of materials, the going rate for the same techniques at similar levels (for example, longarm quilting in allover style, done moderately well; amazing hand-quilting; or fusible machine applique–each one is different and is evaluated separately on its complexity, execution, and skill), and look at all the discretionary factors that your quilt comprises. Many people assume that I just add up the cost of materials and the time it took to make a quilt. If it were as easy as that, we would all be appraisers, and not great ones at that. Through the magic of a calculator and some wicked math skills, I’ll turn all this information into dollar values, compare the data to what is happening in the market, and determine the value of your quilt.

The process for appraising an antique quilt is similar, but involves a few other bits of information. First and most important to an antique textile is condition. This is probably the hardest concept for most people to understand. If, for example, you find a Grandmother’s Flower Garden from the 1930s that isn’t in tatters, you might say, “It’s in great shape for its age,” right? Not exactly. When you look at thousands of quilts, you need a concrete means of identifying condition. I have markers that I note for different levels of condition so that I can determine where each quilt falls on the scale. It’s easy to be dazzled by a fun pattern or great color, but personal preference is not part of the equation.

Although I emphasize condition with antique pieces, it’s important with new ones too. Opening up a quilt, whether new or old, and having cat hair, funky smells, or bugs–dead or alive–spring out at me like some textilian jack-in-the-box is not my idea of fun. And yes, it happens. If you’re concerned about smells in an antique quilt, ask me. Otherwise, remove the cat hair, shake the spiders out, and then come see me. We’ll all be happier. Oh, and please don’t wash an antique piece until we’ve had a chance to talk. I’ve seen far too many pieces ruined by a person’s desire to clean something.

As with new quilts, I’ll look at the fabrics, in this case to see how old your piece is. Fabric dating is usually the first thing would-be appraisers want to know about, and the subject of textile history most learn first. While I can’t tell you that a quilt was finished on Saturday, April 13, 1922, I can get pretty close, at least within a few years. I’ll also look at how the quilt was made, determine the pattern, note the level of workmanship, and see if there are any surprises (like a polyester batting in an 1860s quilt or red acrylic yarn ties in a 1900 comforter. Both, if you’re wondering, indicate that the piece was finished long after the top was made.) It’s crucial to understand the trends, techniques, and regional variations in quiltmaking over the last couple of hundred years, and how all of these things fit into social and political history before you can determine what the data means for the value of a textile. Yeah, it’s like being back in school, but with way cooler tools than textbooks. Every quilt is its own puzzle.

If you know it, it’s helpful to note a quilt’s provenance. (What’s that, you say? Provenance. Say it: Proh-ve-nonce. Sit up straight and say it like you’re French. There you go.) Provenance is a fancy word for the quilt’s story, who made it, where it’s been in its life, and how you came to own it. While provenance doesn’t usually do a lot for value, to me it’s the real heart of a quilt’s existence. The story of its life. Quilts do tell stories. This is one thing that really keeps me in love with what I do, learning the stories and the people behind the quilts. Each and every one is different and they are all fascinating. Some pieces, because of a variety of circumstances, can’t tell their stories. That’s sad. And this is why you need to label your work. It’s your gift to the future.

So now you have some of the pieces of the Big Picture of quilt appraisals. You understand that you need an appraisal because quilts have value and because stuff happens. You know that what kind of appraisal you ask for depends on what you plan to do with the piece. You’ve learned how to find someone qualified to do the job, and what to expect when the time comes. So what are you waiting for?

(c) 2015, Lori East

  • AlyceB

    Wow, that’s really interesting! I’ve never really understood the quilt appraisal process and just assumed it was pretty much materials + labour + a bit more = fancy appraisal certificate. Thank you for sharing!

    • Lori East

      You’re welcome, Alyce! I’m glad it helped clear it up for you. I think lots of folks see it as some mysterious process and, while, it can get complicated, it’s not so hard to understand.

  • Christi

    I have an appointment at the KC show with you and am so excited! Do I need to bring anything but the quilt?

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