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Knock, Knock. Who's There? It's Bruce Mann, the Quilt Peddler, Delivering His 19th-Century Wares

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Did you hear the one about the traveling salesman and Lauren Bacall? Bruce Mann is his name, and he’s no ordinary drummer. He carries his samples in green garbage bags, talks like a sociology professor and travels more than 50,000 miles a year in a yellow Ford van acquiring and peddling antique American quilts to a carriage-trade clientele that includes, besides Bacall, Freddy Plimpton, Tammy Grimes, Phyllis Newman and assorted Kennedys.

The delicate hand-stitched patchwork and appliqué that Mann deals in are fast becoming popular collectibles in this country. “Quilts are identified as the American folk art,” Mann, 35, claims. “I see many modern collectors moving toward them. They are a great investment.”

Mann came to an appreciation of quilts only after starting out to be a novelist and ending up writing advertising copy. “That was the low point in my life,” he recalls. “I determined I would never do anything just for money again.” In a break for freedom, he opened a small antiques business in Louisville, Ky. He stumbled across a cache of quilts in 1970 at a homestead auction in southern Indiana, paying $320 for 50 of them. It’s an astonishing price in today’s market, where a single quilt can fetch more than $1,000. “At that time there was a limited awareness of quilts,” he explains. “I bought them on impulse, because they were lovely, and I figured if there wasn’t a market for them, I’d at least keep warm.”

Today Mann combs the Middle West in search of family heirlooms. “I go to auctions, flea markets, village fairs, I bang on doors, I ask everyone I know,” he says. “I check out estate sales, I travel constantly and I write to people I don’t know. I’ve done anything and everything to get a good quilt.”

Mann specializes in quilts from 1850 to 1920. Some of the older examples, he finds, still have seeds in the batting from the homegrown cotton used. Quilts proliferated after 1820, he notes, when mass-produced (and inexpensive) cloth became available. No two quilts are alike. “There’s just no end to how inventive the women were,” Mann exclaims.

Mann himself is not a collector. “I love them, and I pass them on,” he says. His prices are about half the going price in galleries and antique stores. Although one or two of the quilts in his current inventory of 180 are priced at $1,000, most of them, each representing more than 100 hours of work, sell for $200 to $300.

One of Mann’s regular customers, actress Phyllis Newman, owns more than 25 quilts—all blue and white. “I have been collecting them for 12 years now and could open a store,” she says. “To me they are works of art. I don’t know how Bruce does it, but he’s always got the best.”