Important American Indian Art

The art of native Americans has been long undervalued in the auction market.

That neglect ended June 4, 1997, at the Sotheby's auction where several major lots sold for multiples of their high estimates.

The very successful auction was helped by a fine advance story in The New York Times by Rita Reif, Sunday, June 1, 1997, and the provenance of many of the pieces.

Reif, interestingly, noted in her article that "a practice now universal at the major auction houses" was "not using provenance to determine estimates." She might have added that the auction houses have in recent years taken a decidedly tough stance against ambitious estimates in an attempt to lower the rate of buy-ins.

(The issue of estimates is a touchy one for consignors. One the one hand, they are eager to have estimates as high as possible in the hopes of impressing prospective buyers with the worth of the object in question. On the other hand, they are fearful of a lot not selling and not only having to pay the auction house an extra fee for that but being saddled with a work that has now been publicly "burnt" and therefore much, much, much harder to sell for several years.

Even more disconcerting is the not infrequent auction house policy of entering a contract with consignors for an agreed-upon estimate and then calling them up closer to the actual auction and giving an lower estimate, thereby trapping the consignor in a difficult situation. Such problems are particularly evident in falling markets where the auction house senses a declining market. The market now, however, is not declining.)

The art that stood out was from the Northwest, generally some of the most popular and sophisticated.

Lot 216, an early Nuu-Chah-Nulth (Nootka) wood face mask from the collection of Adelaide DeMenil had been estimated at $75,000 to $95,000 and had been one of two illustrations in Rita Reif's article. It sold for $525,000 including the buyer's premium.

The quite magnificent, 200-year-old, fierce-looking mask, whose wood grain closely follows the contour of the face, has an Oriental flair and was formerly in the Dresden Museum.

The other illustration in Rita Reif's article and the cover illustration of the Sotheby's catalogue, lot 266, a Tlingit ceremonial coat, Chilkat, also fared remarkably well. It had been estimated at $60,000 to $80,000 and sold for $497,500. About 100 years old, the coat's condition was pristine and vibrant with the traditional pale blues, yellows, blacks and white that the Tlingits often used in their very attractive, almost moderne, patterning and abstractions. It also came from the DeMenil collection.

Another DeMenil piece, lot 234, a Northwest Coast wood pipe a bit over 9 inches long and sculpted in the shape of a raven had been estimated at $15,000 to $18,000 sold for $134,500. The stunning piece has a rich brown patina and is decorated discretely with abalone shell plaques.

Another mask, not quite as spectacular as lot 216, but nevertheless very awesome, lot 228, was one of the stars of the auction from the Wellman Collection. It had been estimated at $50,000 to $75,000 and sold for $123,500. It is a Tsimhian mask, Nishga, possibly a shaman's mask, and is black face with vermilion lips and eyes born ribbons that once secured bearskin eyebrows and moustache.

One of the Wellman pieces that proved a disappointment and did not sell was lot 199, a charming Salish ceremonial mountain sheep horn rattle that was shown in a black-and-white photograph at the front of the catalogue being held by Dr. George S. Heye, the founder of the Museum of the American Indian, at the East Saanich Reservation in Vancouver in 1934. It had been estimated at $30,000 to $40,000.

Another surprise at the sale was lot 82, a very large and important Plains Pictorial Hide, Northern Cheyenne or Sioux, with a series of episodes from the life of "Kills-Eagle), a chief, whose account of the events of the Battle of the Little Big Horn were reported in The New York Herald, according to Sotheby's. It had been estimated at $35,000 to $45,000 and sold for $40,260, but it was as wonderful a hide as one could imagine and should have sold for much more. It was sold by the Philbrook Museum of Art to "benefit the Acquisitions Fund."

A Great Lakes Ceremonial Club, possibly Chippewa, lot 21, of the classic "gunstock" form sold for $18,400 and had been estimated at $6,000 to $9,000. It was a dramatic piece of fine sculptural quality,

The concha belts, kachina dolls, wampum, squash blossom bridal necklaces, woven baskets and blankets that are standard fare at such actions did well at the lower price categories, but the auction, number 7002, certainly will raise appraisals at fine collections around the country.

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