Dealers & Collectors

In the May 1972 edition of Quilter’s Newsletter, the only nationwide publication devoted to quilts at the time, editor Bonnie Leman began her article on New York City antique dealers Kate and Joel Kopp by writing,

“Thanks to a lot of publicity given to quilt shows and quiltmakers during the last year or two, quilts have become a hot item among dealers and collectors.”

The attention Leman references includes Abstract Design in American Quilts, both at the Whitney and in its U.S. and European traveling variations, as well as quilt-focused articles in national magazines. The Kopps opened America Hurrah Antiques in Manhattan’s Upper East Side in the late 1960s and offered antique quilts, tops, and blocks from the day they opened until they closed their shop in 2000. Top antique quilt dealers like the Kopps were trend setters: they handled important pieces, they helped establish the quilt market, and they promoted the idea of quilts as art, as something desirable and collectible. 

The market wasn’t limited to antique quilts, however. When the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC hosted Abstract Design in American Quilts in 1972, women from a Galax, Virginia quilting group demonstrated quilting in the gallery and sold quilts in the gift shop. The quilters and the Renwick both recognized the commercial opportunity created by having quilts hang in a national museum. So did other quiltmakers whose communities possessed generations-long quilting traditions. The Freedom Quilting Bee, for example, a cooperative founded in 1966 by Black women in rural Alabama, sold quilts to high-end department stores such as Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue for resale, and The New York Times covered the group and generated public interest in the women and their work.

Collectors flocked to these sources and built important groups of quilts. This included Ardis and Robert James of Chappaqua, New York, whose collection eventually numbered over 1000 pieces and comprised a comprehensive antique American collection, an impressive group of studio quilts, and even some examples of quilting and patchwork from around the world. In 1997, the donation of the James Collection to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln established the study center that eventually would become the International Quilt Museum.