Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The stuff of legends, part 4: the "Slave Quilt" on Antiques Roadshow

Couldn't anyone see the quilt wasn't made in the 1830s? 

Things that make you go hmmm: the "Slave Quilt" segment on Antiques Roadshow. The memorable segment first aired in 2003 and also appeared on episodes in 2013 and 2016. It is infamous among quilt historians and anyone with basic knowledge of textile history. The information about the quilt is clearly incorrect, and it raises questions.

Why didn't any of the Antiques Roadshow experts see the red flags? Couldn't anyone see the quilt wasn't made in the 1830s? Fourteen years after the segment first aired, why hasn't the Antiques Roadshow corrected it, or at least pulled it from the line-up?

(If you haven't seen the appraisal, click here to view it.)

The quilt was supposed to be made in the 1830s, according to the owner. Looking at the images in the video, especially the details, the quilt was clearly not that old. It appeared to be from the last quarter of the 19th century, 1875-1900 period. Slavery was abolished in 1865.

So...let's consider the physical characteristics:
  • solids rather than prints
  • strong reds from synthetic dyes
  • unstable/unmatched greens*
  • fugitive dyes gone tan
  • complex geometric patchwork
  • elbow/Baptist fan quilting, medium/sparse density
  • machine-applied binding, approx. 1/2" wide
*Note: in the video, the owner referred to blue fabric. The fabric appears to be green in the video.

click to enlarge - look closely at the machine-applied binding
Other than being made of cotton, the physical characteristics do not in any way correlate with quilts made in the 1830s. What would we expect to see in the 1830s?
  • imported copperplate printed fabrics
  • finely woven fabrics
  • Turkey red print fabric, often with condition flaws
  • basic geometric patchwork; also wholecloth and appliqué 
  • refined, elegant design
  • fine finishing details, narrow bindings
  • mostly hand work including piecing

...it is also important to consider the bogus provenance...

All signs pointing to the 1870s or later would ordinarily end the discussion, but it is also important to consider the bogus provenance. According to the owner, the quilt was supposed to be one of the quilts listed in a Polk estate record from 1864. The record did not include specific information about the quilts or who made them.

The pattern was supposed to be an African design, and that's plausible. However, the design also relates strongly to trends in patchwork quilting at the time, the last quarter of the 19th century. Several four-pointed sawtooth star designs, beginning with "Philippines" by Ladies Art Company in 1901, appear in Barbara Brackman's Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns.

Complicating the issue, the quilt was included in exhibitions and was featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue for "Jubilee, The Emergence of African-American Culture" from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research library of the New York Public Library. When the quilt appeared on the Antiques Roadshow, the error was immediately and embarrassingly apparent. The object and its provenance were simply not well-vetted.

Things that make you go hmmm...

Antiques Roadshow is a television show. The producers call the shots, but they need to take much greater care with quilts. The "Slave Quilt" debacle is only one example. I have gone to four Antiques Roadshow "On Tour" events, and each time the appraisers assigned to evaluate quilts had some knowledge of quilts, but they were clearly not quilt experts.

Her first question really should've been, 
"Bill, what are you doing here?"

The last two times I attended, in 2016 and 2017, the appraiser at the "Textiles and Rugs" table was a perfectly lovely lady from Louisiana who was a textile conservator. I felt bad for her, because she was flying by the seat of her pants with quilts, trying to appear authoritative but falling way short in the information department. Oddly, she had the same opening question both times, and it was almost an assumption-- "was the quilt passed down through the family?" Her first question really should've been, "Bill, what are you doing here?"

At this point I am not sure what to do about the "Slave Quilt" on the Antiques Roadshow, or the larger problem-- the producers' apparent problem with quilts. I suppose I could write a letter to them, but I honestly don't think they care what I think. Friends have told me to become one of their appraisers, but I think I can say "no thanks" to that. It's not a paying gig, I'm not looking for a job, and I can think of many other ways I want to spend my summers. Sadly, all I can really do is say, "that sucks" and move on, but I hope readers will understand not everything they see on the Antiques Roadshow is true.


  1. I took an elegant late 19th century velvet crazy quilt to an ARS event and was totally blown off when the "expert" said it was commercially made. I could accept that some of the embellishments could have been commercially made but saw no other evidence.

  2. Thanks for this article! When I first watched the RoadShow video I questioned the colors and I did not think that it was an African design....I too looked at Brackman's wonderful book.

    Of course, I am a quilt history enthusiast...not an expert...so I was thrilled to read this post....I do feel that RoadShow should correct their information...so perhaps a letter from you (as an expert) would, at the very least, open communication. It reminds me of the Underground Railroad mis-information...

  3. Unfortunately, I think most people believe everything they see on television. It has become increasingly apparent that the Roadshow needs an appraiser who is well versed in quilts. I have contacted them many times with questions and concerns regarding some of their quilt appraisal. I have received only one response. It was a "potholder" quilt made in Maine and the method of construction was never mentioned. I think he responded to my comment because he was truly interested to learn about this method. Pam Weeks has since been in contact with him and has gained information on the quilt. I wish all appraisers would be so appreciative of quilt historians. We can all learn from our fellow professional and amateur sleuths. Thanks for sharing.

  4. How do you know they don't care? Maybe you could write a letter and see what the reaction is.

    1. Years of observations and four Roadshow events I have attended in person told me everything I needed to know, but it's their problem-- not mine.