Indian art, artifacts are now high-priced collectors' items

February 07, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

Although tepees along the trail have given way to turnpikes, Indian traders are still heading west. Their destination: the Annual American Indian and Ethnographic Art Show and Sale at the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael, Calif., Feb. 20-21. For the growing number of dealers and collectors of Indian art and artifacts, it's the year's first major stop on an annual circuit that includes important shows in Chicago and New York, and auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's in New York, Butterfield & Butterfield in San Francisco, and Skinner in Bolton, Mass. The high point on the Indian trail is in Santa Fe in mid-August, with a week of shows, sales and seminars.

"Americans are becoming increasingly aware of the cultural heritage of the first inhabitants of this continent," said Will Channing, a Santa Fe dealer and auctioneer. He was one of four dealers offering Indian blankets, peace pipes, wooden carvings, beaded buckskin clothing, pottery, jewelry and woven baskets at the elegant Winter Antiques in New York in late January.

Gone are the days of John Wayne movie stereotypes.

A heightened sensitivity to the history, faith and artistic traditions of American Indians is evidenced in a spate of new books, museum exhibits, films and school programs, which have catapulted Indian culture into the limelight and inspired many to covet its artifacts. Maya Angelou's inaugural poem is bound to spearhead even greater interest, as will the impending construction of the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington.

Unlike other segments of the art market, which fell from the mountaintop during the recession, prices for tribal artifacts have remained steady or increased. Dealers and auctioneers say their biggest challenge is finding good material. Collectors say it's having enough money to buy it.

Collectors are keepers

Once in private collections, few objects are returning to the marketplace. "Many collectors are holding onto their material, passing it down to their children, who share their interest," said Marcy Burns, a dealer in Glenside, Pa., who will be exhibiting at the Marin show.

One challenging issue, which will continue to inspire heated debates at shows, auctions, scholarly conferences and museum exhibitions, is a 1990 federal law to protect the integrity of Indian burial grounds. It's currently aimed at federally funded institutions, such as museums: They're required to return spiritually important ceremonial artifacts to the tribes from which they came. Few in the marketplace will discuss the repatriation law on the record, although most agree with its spirit. The smoke signals are unclear on whether collectors, dealers and auction houses will comply voluntarily with the law to avoid finding themselves subject to it in the future.

The bulk of Indian art and artifacts on the market today dates from after 1850 and generally was made for traders and tourists. Despite commercial origins, these items can bring strong prices, particularly if they're aesthetically appealing, rare or in excellent condition.

However, many collections focus on implements and accessories that Indians made for themselves. They're considered rarer, artistically purer and better made. Not surprisingly, they fetch the highest prices.

Expensive moccasins

Sotheby's auction of American Indian art in New York last November showed just how heated the competition can get when early material in excellent condition comes up for sale. A pair of late-18th-century Eastern Great Lakes porcupine-quilled and beaded hide moccasins, with colors as bright as the day they were made, sold for $77,000. Found among old clothes at the bottom of a trunk in the Earl of Harroby's English stately home, Sandon Hall, they had the added cachet of a documented provenance.

Indian beadwork, a craft begun after Europeans introduced glass beads to American Indians in the 16th century, is a hot corner of the market, but prices vary. Kim Martindale, the Marin show's organizer, will be offering a pair of circa 1880s Cheyenne beaded moccasins for $1,600. Ted Trotta, of Trotta-Bono in Shrub Oak, N.Y., has a rare late-19th-century North Plains beaded rifle scabbard priced at $9,500.

Keep a lookout for fakes when buying beadwork. Because the hides and sinew used to fashion Indian beaded clothes and accessories were so delicate, most pre-1850 examples haven't survived. And, many post-1850 pieces have deteriorated beyond repair. Sometimes, salvageable parts are remade into new items; other times new materials are "distressed" to look old. (Reputable dealers guarantee their merchandise's authenticity and generally take back questionable items. Even experienced collectors ask for a written bill of sale with an item's description.)

Baskets in demand

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