Collecting North American Indian artifacts

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.

Summary

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.

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