It's best to specialize when collecting Indian artifacts


August 15, 1993|By Sally Solis-Cohen and Lita Solis-Cohen | Sally Solis-Cohen and Lita Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

Q: What's the best way to start collecting American-Indian art and artifacts?

A: With so many tribes and so much material available, it's important to choose one area, such as baskets or beadwork, learn it well and specialize, advises dealer Marcy Burns, P.O. Box 181, Glenside, Pa. 19038, (215) 576-1559. Start by reading books and visiting museums, she adds.

A notable new exhibition, "The Flag in American Indian Art," at the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown, N.Y., includes over 100 artifacts from two private collections.

For an overview of this market, Santa Fe, N.M., is the place to be this month for a festival of antiques shows and auctions, and a two-day Indian Market, where American Indians offer newly made wares. The events, attracting collectors and dealers from around the country, began August 11 and continues through August 22.

Increased interest in American-Indian culture and heritage has kept prices high for tribal artifacts. There's generally strong competition for good quality California baskets, Navajo blankets and rugs, Plains Indian beaded buckskin clothing, wood carvings, pottery and jewelry. Items by Eskimos or Northeastern U.S. tribes sometimes are overlooked and undervalued.

Most American-Indian art and artifacts on the market today date from after 1850 and generally were made for traders and tourists. Aesthetic appeal, rarity and condition determine price. Dealers and auctioneers say their biggest challenge is finding good quality material; collectors say it's having enough money to buy it.

Prices for California baskets generally start around $500 for very small ones, and rise quickly into the thousands, according to Ms. Burns. So-called "Germantown" rugs, woven by Navajos with commercial wools, are available in the $800-to-$1,200 range, although finer examples can sell for around $4,000 to $30,000, she added.

Beware of fakes when buying beadwork. Old parts can be remade into new items, and new materials distressed to look old. "Buy the best quality you can afford from a knowledgeable dealer who guarantees authenticity," recommends Ms. Burns. "Start where your heart is and don't buy for investment."

Q: How valuable is my limited edition dinner plate made to commemorate Dwight D. Eisenhower's first birthday as president, on October 14, 1953?

A: Prices for Eisenhower birthday plates by Castleton China of New Castle, Pa., have been escalating, according to presidential china collector Set Momjian, who usually spots these souvenirs priced $75 to $100 each in good condition, although occasionally they turn up at flea markets for under $50. Ike was the only president to have a souvenir plate made celebrating his first birthday in the White House. These plates were presented to those attending a birthday party for Eisenhower given by the Pennsylvania Republican Party.

Mr. Momjian knows of no plans for a similar commemorative for President Bill Clinton, who is celebrating his 47th birthday this week on August 19th.

' Solis-Cohen Enterprises

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