Santo Domingo or Kewa? A scarce Southwest pottery attracts new fans

In the collecting world, scarcity can be an asset. Lack of abundance can make an object feel more prized to the collector and more valuable to the dealer. And while Santo Domingo pottery doesn’t yet rank with San Ildefonso or Santa Clara in the Pueblo pottery collecting hierarchy, its relative rarity among American art pottery makes finding an early piece that much more satisfying.

In the early 1900s when the Pueblos around them were making pottery for the tourist trade, the artists of Santo Domingo Pueblo focused on jewelry making and kept their pottery for use at home, so finding a pre-1900 pot is a challenging pursuit.

Kewa Pottery jar

Kewa, aka Santo Domingo pottery, polychrome jars are made near Kewa, N.M., located between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. This jar, which dates to around 1930, is decorated with orange and black paint over a cream slip, each side with a bird, alternating with large-scale V-shaped devices, embellished with scalloped and dotted motifs. It is accented with a low strap handle. The entire piece is just 7 inches in diameter. It sold for $478 on Sept. 16, 2011, at a Heritage Auction Galleries sale.

“We’ve been collecting Pueblo pottery for a long time, and we’ve cataloged about 3,000-plus pieces. The only pre-1900 piece [of Santo Domingo pottery] we’ve found is pictured in our book,” said Allan Hayes, co-author with his wife, Carol, of Pottery of the Southwest: Ancient Art and Modern Traditions. “Santo Domingo didn’t really do any [early] tourist pottery.”

That said, Heritage Auctions did sell a large, circa-1890 Santo Domingo Polychrome olla (jar) in 2006 for $7,767 (inclusive of buyer’s premium).

Which is it: Santo Domingo or Kewa?

The Kewa (pronounced KEE-wah) people settled the Pajarito Plateau area of New Mexico, southwest of Santa Fe, as early as the 1200s. A conservative people, the Kewa traded with other Pueblos but mainly kept to themselves and maintained their own traditions.

When Spain entered New Mexico around 1600, it sent two types of emissaries: conquistadors and missionaries. The soldiers quashed resistance to the rule of the Spanish crown, and the monks worked to convert the native peoples to Catholicism. As part of their efforts, they renamed many of the Pueblos for the saints. In short order, Kewa Pueblo became ‘Santo Domingo.’

In 2009, following the lead of other New Mexico Pueblos, Santo Domingo opted to revert to its traditional name, Kewa Pueblo. In many shops and auctions today, you’ll see the two names used interchangeably.

Makers, Marks and Market

Kewa pottery vessel

This large storage jar depicts the classic Kewa Pottery form with the typical globular shape of late 19th century examples. The main body is decorated in a negative use of lozenge forms with interconnected six point stars on the shoulder and a row of scallop designs on the neck. The underbody is red. There are two dramatic fire clouds on the side indicative of the primitive firing technique. It stands an impressive 17 inches high by 17 1/2 inches wide. This piece was owned by Parsons Fine Art of Taos, N.M. It sold for $7,768 in September 2006 at a Heritage Auction Galleries sale.

Kewa Pueblo’s pottery reflects its conservative values. This means Kewa pottery hews to traditional geometric decoration. Also, because Kewa pottery was made primarily for home use, its form reflects its function.

“Santo Domingo makes solid, thick-walled pottery,” Hayes said. The base color typically will be cream-colored slip painted with red or black. Sometimes pots have a red or black background painted with thin lines of cream slip, an innovation credited to the Aguilar sisters, Felipita and Asuncion. This reverse-painted pottery has become highly sought-after, with circa-1910 examples fetching upward of $8,000 in a retail setting. Few examples of Aguilar sisters pottery come up at auction. A review of the LiveAuctioneers and Heritage Auction Galleries websites show just one Aguilar vase auctioned over the past six years. This 11-inch tall vase, which had been repaired, realized $7,000 in 2006.

Other early Santo Domingo potters include Monica Silva and Santana Melchor. Born at Santa Clara Pueblo, Silva married into the Kewa Pueblo in the 1920s and brought with her the black-on-black pottery identified with Santa Clara, though she also is noted for her fine Santo Domingo-style polychrome pots. A large, early jar by Silva may command as much as $9,000 in a retail setting. A smaller, later Silva bowl realized $2,100 at auction by Cowan’s in 2011.

As the decades slipped by, Santo Domingo potters became more savvy about marketing their wares. Beginning around the 1950s, Melchor began to sign her pieces – a previously unheard-of practice. Melchor’s pots are more plentiful and priced well. A signed circa-1960 jar sold in 2010 at auction by Allard for $475. An unusual signed redware jar realized $600 when auctioned by Michaan’s in 2011.

About that Signature…

Santo Domingo Kewa pottery

Made around 1920, this Kewa Pottery polychrome jar is painted in a deep red and black over a cream slip, each side with a bird confronting a floral element. At 7 inches high, the jar brought $239 at a June 2008 Heritage Auction sale.

Whether looking at pots at auction or in a gallery, you’ll frequently see the phrase “attributed to” a particular artist. So, how do you know for sure who made a particular piece? Good question.

“Except for a few pieces, where the artist had learned writing in school, no signatures or handwriting appear on Pueblo pots until some guy first talked to Maria Martinez (of San Ildefonso Pueblo) and said, ‘Hey, sign this pot,’” Hayes said. “Until about 1930, most potters weren’t signing. At Hopi, for instance, they put marks or symbols on pots as signatures. At Acoma, it was considered egotistical to sign your pots. Those were only signed ‘Acoma NM’ until the 1950s. By the 1960s, signing became universal. Prior to that, other than some Santa Clara and San Ildefonso pieces, pots weren’t signed.”
That doesn’t mean you won’t find a signature on an old Santo Domingo pot, however.

Because the Kewa people primarily produced pottery for household use, you may, indeed, find a penciled signature on the bottom of a chile bowl or other utilitarian piece. Why? Because like modern-day potluck participants, the bowl’s owner wanted to make sure she got it back after using it during a Pueblo ceremony or gathering. Caveat emptor: When it comes to signatures on the bottom of Pueblo pots, it may not signify a maker at all.

It’s a Great Time to Jump In

Santo Domingo Kewa pottery bowl

Kewa Pottery is known for its tan slip ground and this 1930 polychrome bowl shows its patina nicely. The interior displays a pair of birds, each perched on a diamond form, alternating with foliate elements. The exterior is decorated with a broad band enclosing a ring of geometric elements beneath the rim. At 11 inches in diameter, the bowl sold for $1,500 during a May 5, 2012, sale at Heritage Auction Galleries.

Despite its relative scarcity, Santo Domingo pottery makes a fine entry point for collectors new to Pueblo pottery or those looking for a bargain. “This is absolutely a great time to buy,” said Terry Schurmeier of Cowboys & Indians Antiques in Albuquerque. “Pueblo pottery is selling for about 50 percent of what it was selling for 10 years ago. But the market will come back. There’s always an interest in good, historic pottery.”


Santo Domingo or Kewa Pottery Resources


Elizabeth Hanes is a registered nurse and a freelance writer in Albuquerque, N.M., and is a fan of both Western American memorabilia and, ironically, Mid-century Modern design.

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