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Fig. 1: Yokuts bottleneck basket, attributed to Mrs. Dick Francisco, ca. 1900–1920. Sedge, dyed bracken fern, and redbud. H. 4 1/2, D. 7 1/4 in. Courtesy of the author.

Increased public exposure to the beauty of antique Native American art has inspired an ever-growing number of people to start collecting in this broad field. When defining a focus, there are several considerations unique to collecting Native American art. Familiarity with these points will help in understanding the specialty, refining techniques for assessment, and strengthening a collecting approach.

General Background

There are common cultural misconceptions when it comes to collecting Native American art. Among these is the belief that Native American art is a narrow specialty. In fact, it is quite broad, with hundreds of tribes, from the Hopi of the Southwest to the Seminole of Florida, each with its own unique history and culture—there was never one Native American way of life.

Fig. 2: Iroquois beaded whimsy, dated 1923 in beads, with “fast” and “boat” in beads on opposing sides. Velvet, silk, seed beads. H. 3 1/4, W. 8 1/4 in. Courtesy of the author.

Moreover, traditional native cultures did not have the same concept of art as we understand it. Items were not made specifically for their aesthetic value but as objects of beauty to be appreciated within the context of daily use. Only after commercialization were objects made as art, to be sold or traded without regard to purpose or function.

In addition, distinctions between objects made for daily or ceremonial purposes can be unclear. For example, the Yokuts Indians in California originally wove bottleneck baskets for use in ceremonies and later made them for sale. How can the market differentiate between the two when the form and style of the basket are the same (Fig. 1)?

Fig. 3: Transitional Navajo rug, ca. 1890–1910. 95 x 50 inches. Naturally and synthetically-dyed handspun wool. Courtesy of the author.

Another common misconception is that European Americans destroyed Native American cultures as a result of contact and conquest. Certainly there were cataclysmic cultural results, but Native American identity and pride did in fact survive. Initial contact between Native Americans and others began hundreds of years ago. By the eighteenth century, however, European Americans had extensive, regular interactions with tribes in the eastern United States.1 Western tribes experienced repeated clashes with non-native forces, first with the Spanish in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and then with European Americans in the nineteenth century, forcing removal of tribes to missions and reservations. The process was finalized by the 1880s, with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad system and the “resettlement” of the Plains Indians to reservations.

As tribes accommodated themselves to the dominant European American culture, they began to make objects that they could sell or trade, many of which contained both traditional and borrowed motifs. This outlet helped provide a means of livelihood for native people; in the nineteenth century, for example, the Iroquois made curios to sell to tourists at Niagara Falls (Fig. 2).

Fig. 4: Zuni frog jar, ca. 1890–1910. Clay. H. 9 1/2, D. 12 1/2 in. Courtesy of the author.

The majority of Native American artifacts on the market are from Western tribes. Most of these objects date from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Unlike earlier pieces that were used until worn out, the post-1880s objects were often collected new and then preserved. These actions were a result of the Victorian era’s conviction that Native Americans were a “Vanishing Race” and that their material culture needed to be preserved for posterity.

Responding to the urge to collect Native American goods, American-owned curio shops, including the well-known Fred Harvey stores, opened along the Western railroad lines. Native people also brought their wares to the railroad stations to sell directly to tourists. Traders marketed old and new objects through catalogues to buyers in the East. In fact, traders often initiated designs and marketed specific types of wares that they felt would sell, such as requesting Navajo weavers to make rugs rather than blankets, thereby directly influencing the design and types of objects that native people produced (Fig. 3).

Collecting Considerations

The following criteria will help define collecting decisions. These points can impact the value and marketability of any object. Stay informed, for what one assumes determines value may in fact be different than how the marketplace determines value.

*The period in which the object was made. (Age may or may not determine value.)

*The area and/or tribe from which the
object came.

*The type of workmanship used to create the object. (Coiling is more desirable than twining, for example.)

*The materials out of which the object is made. (Even within the same period, some materials are preferred over others.)

*The historical importance of the object.

*The documentation that accompanies the object. (Accurate provenance, such as the name and history of a maker, is rarely found with antique Native American objects; it was not something early collectors considered important.)

*The rarity of the object.

*The design motifs on the object. (Objects with human figures and American flag motifs, for example, often bring higher prices than earlier objects that contain traditional geometric motifs.)

*Legal criteria. (The sale of specific objects made by Native Americans may trigger certain federal and state legal issues. Examples include objects that violate endangered species laws, title questions on certain ceremonial objects, and objects excavated illegally [The Migratory Bird Act (originally passed in 1918); Native American Graves and Repatriation Act of 1990; and the American Antiquities Act of 1906]. Working with a reputable and knowledgeable dealer can help protect you.)

Early collectors also impacted the design or types of goods sold. In some instances, the quality of manufacture actually improved under a patron’s support and encouragement. For example, Abe Cohen, owner of the Emporium in Palm Springs, California, provided for certain weavers’ daily needs, thereby freeing the women to concentrate solely on their basketry weaving, which led to the development of a new globular form of basket (degikup) and superior quality of weave.

Because many people in today’s society recognize the injustice of what happened to native cultures upon conquest, they also presume that most objects were seized from their makers without compensation. While there were certainly some objects taken from battlefields and sacred areas, the majority of antique items offered in the marketplace today were originally acquired by barter or direct purchase from their native owners. Trade, in fact, provided a means for native peoples to support themselves in a market economy while remaining within their cultural boundaries.

What to Collect?
Defining a collection within the field of Native American art can be difficult at first. Working with an established, reputable dealer is important when making critical collecting decisions. Be sure to work with a dealer who specializes in the field and who will fully represent and warrant in writing all objects he or she sells.

As in all fields of collecting, aesthetics should be the starting point—buy what you like. A collection will eventually define itself if you purchase objects to which you respond. Reach for the highest quality that is within your budget, because value always rests with quality in workmanship, condition, and aesthetics.

Collecting antique Native American art offers many possible avenues of focus. Options include type of manufacture (pottery [Fig. 4]) a tribe (Penobscot), a period (Historic Pueblo), an historical event (the introduction of the horse), a type of object (musical instrument), or a design motif (the human figure). Also, geography can be a defining boundary as can type of workmanship (twined versus coiled baskets). Of course, within any chosen focus there can be further choices.

Marcy Burns has been a collector of antique Native American art for over thirty years and a dealer for eighteen years. She is a member and former president of the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association (www.atada.org) and a member of the Antiques Dealers Association (ADA), both of whose members fully warrant in writing all objects they sell.

Collectors’ Corner is a regular feature that presents useful information for collectors learning about antiques and fine art.

  1. Some of this contact brought with it adventurers who collected objects for display in their homelands. Major collections from this period are located primarily in England, Finland, Russia, and Central European countries. The earliest American collections were formed in the nineteenth century by explorers, such as Lewis and Clark, and by early New England seafarers who traveled to the Northwest coast. The Peabody Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum in Cambridge and Salem, Massachusetts, respectively, are prime locations of these early collections.

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