Monday, December 12, 2016

Unraveling Antique American Samplers

QUESTION: I love to do cross-stitch needlework. I’ve been admiring antique samplers and would love to start collecting them. But I’ve heard there are a lot of fakes out there. How can I be sure I’m buying the real thing?

That’s a reasonable question in light of today’s antique market. Samplers in particular fetch high prices, especially at Americana shows. There’s a good chance that the unsuspecting buyer discovering a single one in an antique shop will be taken, through no fault of the dealer. Most antique dealers can’t tell real samplers from fake ones. It’s only those who specialize in such things that can truly tell the difference.

According to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, the earliest known American sampler was made in Plymouth Colony around 1645. Over the next two centuries, women created samplers as a way to save different types of stitches or designs they might want to use sometime in the future.

An example of a 19th-century young girl's needlework could show the extent and quality of her education as well as her religious and moral convictions. Schoolgirls from wealthier families used more expensive threads and learned more complicated designs or stitches while those from poor families used samplers almost as resumes of their abilities in an effort to gain employment in doing sewing.

Today, collectors consider samplers works of art, as well as insights into the past.  Subject matter ranges from a simple alphabet to complex landscapes, Biblical scenes and passages, as well as birth/death/ marriage records offering valuable genealogical information. In the past, collectors overlooked samplers as ordinary exercises in needlework, but today, they’re highly collectible and can command extremely high prices. For example, a sampler, sewn by New Jersey schoolgirl Mary Antrim sold at Sotheby’s for a over $1 million in 2012, while another fetched over $611,000 in 2003. Some sampler makers used only thread and needlework to create them while others used watercolors and paper and added  embellishments like seed pearls or beads.

There are plenty of samplers being made today specifically intended to deceive unwary collectors in this lucrative tens-of-thousands to hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars market. The safest way to buy a sampler, of course, is through a reputable dealer who has a well-established reputation in sampler authentication. On the other hand, the riskiest way to purchase one is through an online auction site or an unknown online seller. Without being able to closely examine the fabric used and other details, there's no way to know for sure if a sampler is real or a fake.

So what are some ways to tell a fake or reproduction sampler from the real thing? One of the first thing to check is fabric discoloration. Old fabrics can darken in spots or brown to some degree in general, but much of this depends on what type of fabric the woman used and where it has been stored over time.

There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to sampler age. However, there are a couple of basic things to look for to make sure the browning is authentic. Many times, fakers will add browning to fabric by staining or darkening the fabric with tea or coffee. If a sampler browns, it tends to do so naturally around the edges near the frame, but blotchy browning should raise a cautionary flag. Also, if the fabric is wrinkled as if it were twisted or bunched up and the brown spots seem to follow that pattern, there's a good chance the browning has been added deliberately.

There have been a few cases where the actual date sewn onto a sampler has been altered to make the piece appear older—a "9" changed to an "8" or a "6" changed to a "0."  If there's no evidence of stitches having been removed from the fabric and the piece is important enough, a genealogical search can be done to determine the dates of the needleworker's' life. If the sampler includes her age, would she have been of the correct age during the year sewn into the sampler.

Collectors interested in samplers from a particular region or school will find it easier to use style and thread type to authenticate them. By studying designs and types of thread used in a particular region or school throughout the years, when they came into use and  when they stopped being used, it’s easy to date just about any sampler. Certain designs or stitching styles may also be more prevalent in a particular region, a certain school, or during a specific time period. On the other hand, some designs or stitch styles may not have been used at all by a particular school.

As with any antiques or collectibles in today’s market, it’s buyer beware. Being educated about samplers is the best defense to being taken.

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