Collecting North American Indian artifacts

Northwest Coastal Painted and Carved Wood Mask, Tsimshian, second half 19th century (Northwest Pacific Coastal). This item was the high of the Sept. 10, 2005 Skinner Auction at $259,000, as apparently the provenance was solid and the age of the mask important, as well as the articulating mouth. The mask is a cedar form with both an articulated lower jaw and articulated eyes, part of the articulation device remains on the mask. It is in a form with both human and bird features. It has red lips and nostrils over a graphite-like black pigment. The outer edge of the mask is decorated with cedar bark bundles nailed to the edge, patina on mask from use, 14 inches high. Provenance: Collected by Garnet West in 1952 from Rev. Shearman, Kitkatla Reserve, Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Note: "Over 200 years old, worn by Chief Gum-I-gum, meaning 'Brave Man.'"

Unlike many other material cultural items from European and American societies with which collectors are familiar, Native American artifacts are much more difficult to locate for a variety of reasons including the following:

• Scarcity of items.

• Legal protection of items being traded.

• A more vigorous collecting of said artifacts by numerous international, national, state, regional, and local museums and historical societies.

• Frailties of the items themselves, as most were made of organic materials.

• A more limited distribution network through legitimate secondary sales.

Let’s briefly examine each of these five factors.

Scarcity of Items

There is no need to attempt to construct history in this brief introduction to collecting, but it still must at least be recalled. The first European contacts of major significance was, of course, in three major points in what is now considered the Americas:

• The West Indies and eventually the Southeast Coastal region

• The Eastern Woodlands in the Northeast

• The Southwest.

In each of these regions, the Europeans’ early contact left significant cultural footprints, and in the Northeast, did the greatest immediate cultural damage leading to a large scale decay of traditional societies and destruction of significant amounts of material culture, in addition to carrying out relocation and ultimately causing cultural disintegration.

Fewer imprints were initially made in the Southeastern United States, as the occupation was primarily exploratory in nature and not long-lived until a much later period. Thus, traditional cultures and their material culture survived more than in the Northeast.

The Southwest had a similar experience to the Southeastern United States, with the exception that missionaries influenced the area much earlier, and some significant agricultural practices were borrowed from the Europeans that had a major impact on native cultural practices, namely the raising of sheep and the harvesting of wool. The wool later led to one of the most significant and recognizable of all Southwestern artifacts, the beautiful woven blankets.

Later, the introduction of horses created another cultural revolution coming in from the Southwest and changing Plains culture forever as well. One major difference between the Southwest and artifact survival compared to other regions (except parts of the Intermountain and California regions) is the climate. Due to the arid climate, artifacts had a greater tendency to survive into the current period. In addition, the pottery techniques of the region were more developed and highly honed compared to many regions, which contributed to the larger numbers of these fragile pieces surviving into today’s society.

Legal Protection of Native Artifacts

In the late ’60s there were few, if any, laws in most states to protect the cultural heritage of our native societies. Along with the Red Power movement, and the Civil Rights movement in general, came a better understanding of the importance of these sites and the related artifacts by all parties concerned, including state and national legislators. Today there are artifact preservation laws in nearly every state or territorial jurisdiction and at the federal level.

Consequently, this has changed the difficulty level of finding artifacts on the “open market,” as their legal status has indeed changed from items freely traded to items controlled by a variety of laws.

Vigorous Collecting of Artifacts

Native American material culture has not only fascinated newcomers to America but it has also captivated peoples the world over. This intense interest has been translated to large scale early and ongoing collecting of Native American artifacts worldwide by scholarly bodies including museums, ethnographic societies, and universities.

Frailty of Items

Many of the material cultural items used by Native Americans—with the exception of stone tools and weapons—were very frail due to the organic nature of the objects. Of course, there were exceptions, such as the copper items made in the northern region of the Great Lakes in what is now Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, stone tools and weapons, obsidian points found from both pre-historic and historic periods, certain early trade items made of iron and later steel, glass beads, other trade items, etc. But, for the most part, items of reed, cloth, bark, low fire ceramics and other organic materials cannot be expected to survive the test of time, especially in the areas east of the Mississippi River where the ravages of heat, cold, and moisture quickly ruin such items if not protected from the weather. Again, the arid regions of the Southwest have the advantage for preserving cultural heritage, due to the climate and lack of population pressure until relatively recent times.

Limited Distribution of Items

The preceding four factors have led to a relatively small group of major auction houses handling the vast majority of items that does come up for sale in the legitimate market. There are four major auction houses that hold these precious pieces: Allard Auctions Inc., Cowan’s Auctions Inc., James D. Julia Inc., and Skinner Inc., and most items would not be sold unless passing through their doors. It is difficult indeed to go to the usual online sources such as eBay or Yahoo auction sites and find items that are both authentic and legitimately for sale. It does happen, but it is rare compared to artifacts from American society or even 17th century European society.


In sum, it is far more difficult to find these items than most, for at least the five reasons discussed above. However, it is still possible to find some types of Native American items through the traditional sources of online auctions, auction houses in local communities, antique stores and malls, flea markets, trading meetings, estate sales, and similar venues. The most likely items to find in the above ways would be items made of stone, chert, flint, obsidian, and copper. Most organic materials will not have survived the rigors of a marketplace unless they were recently released from some estate or collection and their value was unknown to the previous owner.

Another problem, of course, with finding items on the “open market” is the great possibility of intentional fraud on the part of the seller. That is the beauty of buying from one of the auction houses previously mentioned; often provenance in not only given, but also significant documentation is frequently available proving the item’s origin and legitimacy. When paying hundreds of dollars for an item, this is no small thing.

However, not all frauds are intentional. There are many items that are fake, or at least not of the origin believed by their owners, due to the role of folklore, mythology, and traditional stories that are not based in fact. In any event, buyer must always beware. Exercise caution whenever you are about to purchase an item, and remember to always do your homework. It will pay off in the long haul.

Photos from Warman’s® North American Indian Artifacts.

More Images:

Zuni Olla, circa 1880 (Southwest). Shows use, no cracks, no damage or restoration, museum quality piece, 11 inches by 15 inches. Allard Auctions Inc., Aug. 13, 2005, $16,000.
Great Lakes Beaded Cloth Man's Outfit, Ojibwa, circa 1900 (Great Lakes). This set consists of a bibbed shirt, half leggings and breechcloth all trimmed in metallic and glass seed beads. Provenance: Charles Pierce collection. Skinner Inc., Sept. 10, 2005, $2,937.50.
Quilled Cloth Bag, Cree, first half 19th century (Plateau Region). Made of blue trade cloth with silk appliqué details, decorated with tightly loomed geometric quillwork with quill wrapped hide loops and white seed bead spacers below the panels. It has a braided cloth strap and is lined with cloth ticking. An old paper label says "This Indian bag was made by squaws and used by Titian Peale during Longs Rocky Mountain Expedition in 1819-1820." The reverse of the paper says "Holmesberg Feb. 4, 1876." The bag has some minor loss and is 10-3/4 inches long. Provenance: Supposedly purchased from the direct descendants of the Peale family by Wesley Crozier of Red Bank, N.J. Exhibitions: Monmouth (N.J.) County Library. Skinner Inc., Sept. 10, 2005, $94,000.
Two Cherokee Carved Wooden Masks, both by Will West Long, 20th century (Southeastern Woodlands). Left: Animal hair atop head, incised teeth, traces of pigments and some cracking, 10-1/2 inches high. Provenance: collected in South Carolina. Skinner Inc., Sept. 10, 2005, $1,175. Right: Ten-inch-high mask with carved snake atop head and incised teeth with some traces of pigmentation. Provenance: Purchased directly from carver at Ravensford, N.C. in 1941. Skinner Inc., Sept. 10, 2005, $2,232.50.
Rare Southeastern Beaded Cloth Sash, Creek, second quarter of 19th century (Southeastern Woodlands). Sash panel is 26-1/2 inches long. Black trade cloth backed with early velvet and beaded on one side. The drops are natural dyed wool with white pony beaded edging and tassels at the ends that appear to have once been braided. Some bead loss and minor damage. Provenance: Given in the 19th century by Native Americans in Oklahoma to Rev. B. F. Tharpe for services rendered and then descended through his family. Skinner Inc., Sept. 10, 2005, $10,575.
Pictorial Coiled Basketry Bowl, Yokuts, circa late 19th century (California). Flared form pictorial bowl with four rows of two color rattlesnake design and a top row of humans holding hands in alternating colors, some restoration done to this piece, 7-1/2 inches by 17-1/4 inches in diameter. Skinner Inc., Sept. 10, 2005, $14,100.
Plains Painted Wood-and-Hide Drum, 19th century (Plains). This walking bear image drum has on the opposite side a circle and dot, hide stretched over wood frame, hide strap, 19 inches in diameter. Skinner Inc., Jan. 29, 2005, $58,750.
Navajo Late Classic Period Wearing Blanket, circa last quarter 19th century (Southwest). Tightly woven banded pattern with background in raveled cochineal-dyed red and aniline-dyed light red, separated by ivory stripes, overlaid with deep indigo blue and ivory zigzag and stepped motifs with indigo blue and blue-green stripes, minor wool loss, 70-1/2 inches by 46 inches. Skinner Inc., Sept. 10, 2005, $35,250.
Winnebago Loom Beaded Bandolier Bag, circa last quarter 19th century (Great Lakes). Tabs have remnant silk ribbons, framed, some bead loss, and 33 inches long. Skinner Inc., Jan. 29, 2005, $3,055.

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