Follow the Stories | El Paso, TX (2012)
School Daze: Understanding Schoolgirl Needlework
In 1807, a 12-year-old schoolgirl named Mary Antrim stitched a house and garden scene into this silk-on-linen needlework sampler. 200 years later, in January of 2012, the sampler earned over $1 million at auction, setting a record for schoolgirl artwork.
When a guest named Ruthann arrived at ROADSHOW's 2011 event in Pittsburgh with four samplers by a young girl named Mary McNair, Michael Flanigan valued the group at $15,000, largely because in schoolgirl needlework, it is incredibly rare to see multiple pieces by the same maker.
The 1787 sampler that Scottie brought to ROADSHOW's 2011 event in El Paso was special, because it not only included the name of Scottie's ancestor who stitched the needlework — Debbe Poor, but it also included another clue about the sampler's history, a town name — "Andover in the county of Essex."
Scottie wants to keep the Debbe Poor sampler in the family, so Michael Flanigan provided an insurance value for the piece, which he estimated at $40,000, but when school needleworks are as well documented as Scottie's, Flanigan explains, they are impossible to replace.
In 2012, when your young daughter brings home her school artwork, it will most probably find pride of place on the refrigerator behind a magnet commemorating your trip to Disney World. Eventually it may go in a folder or a closet to be packed away until you move or she does. In 1807, 12-year-old Mary Antrim brought home her needlework picture of a house and gardens filled with animals, trees and a young woman on a horse. Someone, presumably in her family, was proud enough of it to have it put in an arch-shaped wooden frame with her name and the date in calligraphy in the arch above the work, and set two cast-brass handles on it so it could be hung on the wall.
In 2012, when a needlework sampler by a 12-year-old girl sold for over $1 million, the world of schoolgirl needlework was forever changed.
This past January, at the Sotheby's sale of schoolgirl needlework collector and scholar Betty Ring's collection, a dealer from Woodbury, Conn., named David Schorsch thought so much of Mary Antrim's work that he paid $1,070,500 for it, setting a world record for schoolgirl needlework. One would be safe to say that Mary Antrim, at age 12, is the youngest artist ever to have her work sell for a million dollars, even if it took 200 years for it to happen. The world of schoolgirl needlework is forever changed.
Collecting the Artwork of Children
Schoolgirl needlework is unique among the things we collect in that it is the work of children, specifically young girls, and the work typically stops when the girls grow up. To collect and study these is to always collect the early years — there is no middle or later period, no mature work, and most often, not even more than one. So in August 2011, when Ruthann arrived at the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW event in Pittsburgh with four pieces, all by Mary McNair, and three of them dated 1823, we were, of course, ecstatic. Three of the four were the standard letters and numbers, but the fourth, on a gauze-like background, was a large and wonderful picture of a house and trees, with flowers surrounding a verse. The three plain ones enhanced the value of the fourth and vice versa, but the market value still hinged on the big picture. We gave them a probable attribution to Chester County, Pa., just west of Philadelphia.
After the appraisal aired in the Pittsburgh, Hour 3 episode of ROADSHOW, , an astute viewer, familiar with the needlework of Bucks County, north of Philadelphia, wrote in to say that she thought one of the simpler McNair samplers rang a bell. She checked census records and found that there were three McNair families in Bucks but none in Chester County. She also discovered that one of these McNair families had a daughter named Mary, born around 1809, who would have been of school age in 1823. Could this have been our Mary McNair? Perhaps.
We followed up with Ruthann, the samplers' owner, who informed us that the house where the samplers were discovered was, in fact, in Bucks County — another clue. We don't yet know for sure if this young Mary from Bucks County is the same Mary McNair who carefully stitched her name into samplers we saw in Pittsburgh. We also still don't know where Mary went to school, or if she even did. We do know she created at least four surviving needlework samplers — three in 1823 — and that is as rare as it gets. If the big picture had been as small and plain as the other three they would be just as rare but with a fraction of the market value.
When valuing schoolgirl needlework the picture comes first and the rest is secondary. Knowing the who, when, and where is helpful, but the graphic impact of the piece is of prime importance. When Mary Antrim’s piece sold for a million dollars the buyer, David Schorsch said that "it clearly fell into the folk art camp," that "it spoke to another market." He was not concerned with who Mary was or who taught her he was enchanted by the masterpiece of folk art she created.
The Andover Sampler
When Scottie, of Golden Springs, Texas, came to the 2011 ROADSHOW in El Paso with a family needlework from 1787, we had a moment of déjà vu. Back in 2007, at ROADSHOW's event in San Antonio, a guest had brought in a wonderful needlework that had descended in her family and had been worked in the first decade of the 19th century in Newport, R.I. While it doesn't seem odd for someone to come to Pittsburgh with a needlework from the Philadelphia area, we didn't expect to find such early needlework in the Lone Star State, outside of a museum or Betty Ring's collection in Houston. So when it happened again in El Paso, it was evidence that lightening can indeed strike twice in the same place, or at least the same state.
Scottie's piece of needlework had come down through her family from 1787, and while rare on its own, it also included the name of the maker — Debbe Poor. Even better, below Debbe's name the sampler reads, "Andover in the county of Essex." Andover is a common town name, but having the county too removes all doubt that this is the Andover north of Boston near the New Hampshire border. The only other information we could want would be the name of the school or teacher. A quick perusal of Betty Ring's bible of schoolgirl needlework scholarship, Girlhood Embroidery, revealed no known work from Andover. Had we just added a new chapter, or at least footnote, in the history of Boston-area school needlework? Had we made the descendants of Debbe Poor "rich"? Almost though not quite, on both counts.
On the first question, while there aren't any other known pieces this early that are documented to Andover, Nancy Druckman, fellow ROADSHOW appraiser and the author of the Betty Ring sale catalogue, feels that Debbe Poor's work relates to a group of pieces traditionally associated with the towns just west of Boston. Was Debbe Poor at school in one of these towns, or was there a school in Andover that the other girls came to? Scottie knew nothing about her ancestor that would help unravel this part of the mystery.
On the second question, while we did not make the Poor descendant rich — Scottie wants to keep it in the family, so she was interested in the value for insurance, not sale — school needleworks, when they are as well documented as this one, are impossible to replace. There is no such thing as one just like it. So when valuing these for insurance purposes we have to look for comparably documented pieces, not just comparably graphic ones. As with so many other appraisals on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, we have opened an area for scholars to explore, appraisers to consult, and we hope, for viewers to enjoy.
See the See the El Paso, Texas (2012) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
For more on this subject, see:
Childhood Embroidery American Samplers & Pictorial Needlework 1650-1850, by Betty Ring, Knopf, New York, 1993.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Folk Art category:
Unraveling a Needlework Mystery
Dancing for Eels Explained
Who Painted This Adorable Baby?
Bellamy Eagles: When Values Soar
Hunting for Duck Decoys
J. Michael Flanigan is owner of J.M. Flanigan American Antiques, in Baltimore, Maryland. He has appraised furniture and folk art for ANTIQUES ROADSHOW since the series' first season in 1997.