The Appraisal of Art Quilts

August 4, 2009

The Appraisal of Art Quilts
AKA: Nailing Jell-o™ to a Tree
By Teddy Pruett
Appraiser Certified by the American Quilter’s Society in 1994

You make art quilts and you need an appraisal. You spread your quilt on the appraiser’s table, and nothing can be simpler from your end of the equation. But it isn’t so simple for the appraiser who has to reach into a deep bag of options and legalities and attempt to form the perfect recipe for your appraisal.

The reason for the appraisal must be established. Most of the time the appraisal is for insurance purposes, so let’s focus on that for this particular discussion. The simplest explanation for what the appraiser is doing is that she will look at your quilt in depth and try to assign a dollar value to everything she sees. This is known as a “cost to reconstruct” appraisal. We will assign values to reconstruct a quilt as closely as possible in like and kind with similar materials and contracted labor of similar skill. This approach allows us to value a quilt at more than simply cost of materials. This appraisal is the one used for most newly constructed quilts, whether original quilts or a quilt made from a commercial pattern.

The easy part is assigning value to materials. Fabrics, beads, batting, stabilizer, phototransfers – anything physical is pretty easy to determine. You might want to keep records of unusual expenses. I once appraised a quilt with hand carved African figures that were quite expensive, and yet another one embellished with sterling silver!

Next, the appraiser will look at the labor involved. Unless you sell your quilts (I’ll get to you later) the IRS and governing powers have determined that you make quilts for your own pleasure, as a volunteer effort, and your labor is worthless. The “cost to reconstruct” helps us to get around this antiquated ruling. The appraiser will determine the method of construction. Needle turned applique by hand will more than likely be valued higher than raw edge by machine. Maybe. Not always. Hand beading may be valued on a per-bead basis or as an overall amount. Hand painting, hand dying, anything you have done to create your quilt will be analyzed and valued. Extensive hand quilting may be valued higher than machine quilting. Or not. This is more difficult than valuing materials, but still doable for an experienced appraiser.

So – what is the big deal with appraising art quilts? What is an art quilt, anyway? What happens if your idea of an art quilt is not the same as the appraiser’s? It may be your quilt, but it is HER appraisal! I once had a young woman ask for an appraisal on her art quilt. It was a very small, very common watercolor quilt. There was very little material to value, very little labor, and certainly nothing original, and I explained it was not worth my fee to have it appraised. She was indignant, and we had quite the discussion over her “art.” I refused the appraisal, and she is probably still telling people that I am inept. Your appraiser must be immune to your ego – she can’t place a value on it!

The definition of art has been argued for centuries, and I’m not jumping in. So, for now, let’s say “original design” and continue on. I may allow what I call a “design fee” – it’s a way to throw you a bone for the time you spend designing on the computer, or playing with graph paper or making sketches. Some artists make an original life sized cartoon, then copy it over several times to use in construction. I can add value for that or for any other process that I can document.

The hard part comes with the intangibles. If you place your quilt on the table and it takes my breath away, it is pretty likely that most folks will have that same response. How do you place a value on that sucking-in-of-breath or the jaw-drop? Are you a new quilter who is doing amazing things right from the beginning, or are you a seasoned, awarded quilter with a long, documented resume and an instantly recognizable name? How is that valued? Has this particular quilt traveled, been awarded, appeared in books or calendars? What is that worth?

Some appraisers may compare your quilt with those of other art quilters who work in a similar size and style who sell their work. That offers a comparable value in some instances, but I don’t personally use that method very often. You may have a pile of quilts that look just like Caryl Bryer Fallert’s, but that does not mean they are worth the same amount of money. Most buyers are not buying the quilt, they are buying her NAME, and all the look-alikes and knock-offs are just that. Back to “cost to reconstruct” with no frills or add-ons for the imposters.

If you have a record of sales, and tend to create similar pieces, you can use your sales records as proof of value for appraisals.

I have been appraising for seventeen years, have appraised thousands of quilts, and sometimes even get a bit of an attitude about how skilled I am in my profession. But some art quilt appraisals can bring me to my knees in humility and self pity, because there is one thing uppermost in my mind – I am responsible in a court of law for anything and everything I write in an appraisal. Every time I sign a form, I ask myself “What will I tell a Judge, an attorney, an insurance adjuster?” With so many years of experience behind me, I may look at your quilt and immediately know that it “should” be $500 or $5,000 or whatever. But how do I justify that? The attorney doesn’t care what I think – he only cares what I can prove and document.

I’ve scarcely touched the tip of the actual process of appraising, but it’s important that you realize there is no easy formula. This article relates my own personal experience and viewpoint, and I do not speak for other appraisers who may approach art quilts in a different manner. There are countless approaches, no easy answers, and no easy appraisals on new quilts. It is very complicated and full of “it depends.” Be kind to your appraiser. The appraisal may be for YOUR quilt, but it is HER expertise, HER knowledge, HER reputation, and it is HER butt on the line!!

Teddy Pruett


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