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Pre-Columbian Art


2 PM, Wednesday, May 17, 2000

American Indian Art


10:15AM, May 18, 2000

Sale 7476 (both auctions)

By Carter B. Horsley

This season Sotheby’s has combined the Pre-Columbian and the American Indian art auctions into the same catalogue and under the same sale number.

In the catalogue’s "Specialists’ View" column, Stacy Goodman and David Roche of Sotheby’s, wrote that "Sotheby’s is pleased to present the Art of Americas with the Pre-Columbian and American Indian art sales in a combined catalogue format." "The relationship between the two fields has long been recognized by scholars and curators around the world; numerous similarities can be found in the art, mythology, rites of passage and the cosmological view of the indigenous peoples of the now U. S. Southwest and those of Mesoamerica. Our sales will be offered consecutively with Sotheby’s sale of African and Oceanic Art as part of a week-long celebration New York of the Art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas," they continued.

Presumably, the combination of Pre-Columbian and American Indian art into one catalogues was a cost-cutting decision, and the above comment hints that perhaps Sotheby’s might also combine its African and Oceanic Art auction catalogue into an even huger catalogue to reflect its "week-long celebration" of what might have been once described in pre-politically-correct times as "primitive" cultures. The catalogue for this sale is a hefty 284 pages, about evenly divided between the two departments so it does not seem to reflect a decision based on the scarce number of lots being offered. While it is true that there are some cultural similarities between the Pre-Columbian and American Indian art departments, in fact there are very little stylistically and object-wise. Most collectors specialize because there is so much to learn, study, view, see, handle, and reflect upon. Both departments cover many different cultures and broad sweeps of history. Someone who collects moccasins may not be interested in buying stone temples and vice versa. People who collect Peruvian feather costumes may not collect American Indian headdresses.


For those attending auctions for a while who have cherished the catalogues for reference and enjoyment in their libraries, the catalogue combination may cause some consternation. Furthermore, heftier catalogues may require the purchase of larger Prada bags, or whatever, to lug them about. Such quibbles aside, it should also be noted that the American Indian Art section of the catalogue, which is at the back, is divided into two parts - contemporary and traditional, reflecting the significant market that has developed for more recent art by American Indians, usually dating from about World War II. While the newer art certainly is richly steeped in the traditions of the artists’ forebears, it is decidedly different in finish and rarity. While much of it is impressive, much of it also appears to be more self-consciously commercial, or, if one can dare suggest it, more tourist-oriented. It is not schlock, but it is definitely different from the more authentic and older material. It is akin to the illustrative fantasies of Frederick Remington as opposed to the earlier artists such as Alfred Jacob Miller or George Catlin who went out West decades before. Ideally, the contemporary work should have its own catalogue.

In any event, these departments are offering this season a wide variety of objects that should afford temptations to most collectors although there seems to be a scarcity of very major pieces.

Pre-Columbian Art

Lot 92, Olmic incised jade figure, Middle Preclassic, circa 900-600 B.C., 5 ¾ inches high

The most interesting piece in this auction is Lot 92, an Olmec incised jade figure, Middle Preclassic, circa 900-600 B.C., that is 5 ¾ inches high, shown above. This finely carved green jade figure has bright red markings over much of his chest, his abdomen, his thighs and the right side of his face. The aesthetic effect of these markings is subtle, mystic, mysterious and elegant, indeed, almost surrealistic. The catalogue provides a line drawing that makes the markings easier to comprehend. Such asymmetrical markings conjure the warpaint of many American Indian tribes, of course, but here the markings are symbolically representational rather than decorative patterns.

The figure is described in the catalogue as "standing confidently portraying an idealized mature figure ritually charged by the incising of symbolic supernatural motifs on the face and body, the slender torso curving below the hips in the meditative stance of once slightly bent legs, wearing a triangular loincloth high on the waist, the straight back with broad sloping shoulders flexed slightly backwards, with strong sternum and muscular neck, the face with powerful and confident expression in the fully modeled features, lips parted showing upper gum, aquiline nose pierced at the septum, soft cheeks showing slight folds and age lines rising into swelling lower lids, recessed eyes with incised arching upper brow, carefully modeled ears pierced at the lobes, the right side of the face finely incised with a front image of a were-jaguar ‘Olmec dragon’ with cleft head, upturned eyes with circular pupils, medallions on the cheeks, with narrow straight and scrolled bands descending along the cheek, the supernatural imagery continued on the torso with a larger frontal image of an agricultural diety with similar rectangular cleft head with central sprouting element, upturned eyes, gaping mouth and faintly incised crossbands within, surrounded by a band marked by four squares, with two profile heads incised over the right pectoral each with sharply backward curving craniums and open downturned lips, a hand incised on the left side of the chest, and faint aces of a profile diety head on the left thigh; in variegated, rich blue-green jade, the fragmentary arms and legs recarved in ancient times with fingers and toes, the right arm drilled for attachment of an arm."

Now that’s a sentence! Actually, a run-on sentence, but they are allowed when described such objects, of course.

This is truly a highly desirable object and has a very conservative estimate of $50,000 to $70,000.

Another Olmec piece is Lot 88, a carved blackware bottle, las Bocas, Puebla, Early Preclassic, circa 1200-9000 B.C. It is incised and deeply carved with a fantastic double-headed serpent, its sinuous raised body swirling over the vessel from the base upward, with diamond-shaped motifs (associated with the ‘Olmec Dragon’) along its back The 9 ¼-inch high piece, shown below, has an estimate of $50,000 to $60,000.

Moche appliques

Lot 9, pair of Moche appliques, Loma Negra, circa 300 B.C. to A. D. 300, 4 1/2 inches wide each

Lot 9, a pair of early Moche gilt zoomophic appliques, Loma Negra, circa 300 B.C.-A.D. 300, shown above delightfully scary. Each is 4 ½ inches wide and the catalogue states that they were "probably attached to a wooden ceremonial object. It has a conservative estimate of $10,000 to $12,000.

Gold pendant, Parita, Azuero Peninsula

Lot 63, gold double figural pendant, Parita, Azuero Peninsula, circa A.D. 800-1500, 6 1/2 inches wide

For those with more money to spare, of course, there is Lot 63, shown above, a large coclé gold double figural pendant, Parita, Azuero Peninsula, circa A.D. 800-1500, 6 ½ inches wide. The "densely cast ornament with two saurian-headed warriors standing side by side, each with slightly bowed muscular legs and long wire-like toes clenched around a bar, each head turned sharply and holding a ceremonial club with a trapezoidal blade in the outside hand, a shorter segmented implement grasped by the inside hands," is quite spectacular and much more interesting than most of the gold pieces that appear at auction. It has a conservative estimate of $60,000 to $90,000.

Chimu Silver Effigy Beaker

Lot 42, Chimu Silver Effigy Beaker, circa A.D. 1100-1400, 11 5/8 inches high

Lot 42, shown above, is a stunning and large silver Chimu effigy beaker, circa A.D. 1100-1140 that has an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000.

Valdivia stone figure

Lot 45, Valdivia stone figure, circa 2300-2000 BC, 8 inches high

Less awesome, but very startling is Lot 45, shown above on the right, a Valdivia stone figure, circa 2300-2000 B.C., that is 8 inches high, shown above. This work, which has an estimate of $8,000 to $12,000, is carved on all six sides with four depicted an identically stylized figure with columnar body, truncated grooved legs, and head with recessed facial plane, projecting eyes, the ends each carved with a similar face. The pale green-gray stone piece is remarkably abstract. Other such works are usually not so rectilinear as this and Lot 44, also shown above, on the left, is more typical. It is 18 ½ inches high and has an estimate of $18,000 to $22,000.

It is interesting to compare the design of Lot 44 with that of Lot 32, a Chimu slit-tapestry poncho, circa A.D. 1300-1500 as the depicted stylized felines in an animated anthropomophic posture bear a similarity with the Valdivia piece. Lot 32 is 23 ½ by 32 ½ inches and has a very modest estimate of $5,000 to $7,000.

Another wonderful textile is Lot 28, a Nazca panel, South Coast, circa A.D. 500-700. This 50 ½-by-8 5/8-inch slit tapestry is complete and continuous and divided into five units, each of which is vividly colored in intricate designs. This impressive lot is conservatively estimated at $4,000 to $5,000.

A Huari polychrome figure, Central Coast, circa A.D. 700-1000, Lot 22, is particularly striking. The 25-inch high work, which has an estimate of $8,000 to $12,000, is most impressive for its unusually long torso, its abstract patterning, the figure’s extremely thin arms and hands encircling her small and very high breasts and the strong, resolute and powerful expression of the face that is banded in white, an altogether intriguing piece.

Quimbaya figures are among the most lovable of all Pre-Columbian objects with their tubular limbs, flat faces and general expressions of salutation and greetings. Lot 48, shown above, is a pair of them, circa A.D. 1000-1500, one 14 3/8 inches high, and the other 13 ¼ inches high. These have striated headbands while most such figures have perforations across the forehead and others often have earrings or nose rings as do some Lots 211 and 212 in this auction. This lot has an estimate of $5,000 to $7,000.

See The City Review article on the Spring 1999 auction of Pre-Columbian Art at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the November 1998 Pre-Columbian Auction at Sotheby's


American Indian Art

The first part of the American Indian Art auction is referred to as session three in this "sale" and consists of "contemporary" pieces, Lots 401 to 593 with the exception of lots 573 to 580 which consist of very wonderful ceramics that are many centuries older.

This session is highlighted by the Jim Jennings Collection of Contemporary Southwestern Ceramics, which includes a 10 ¼ inch diameter dish with a large fish by Maria Martinez (1887-1980) and Popovi Da (1921-1971), San Idelfonso, which has an estimate of $12,000 to $18,000 and a very striking dish, which has an identical estimate, by Tony Da (born 1940), also San Idelfonso, that is orange and depicts an avanyu with undulating body, backswept plummage and lighting shooting from its gaping mouth, accented with four turquoise nuggets. An avanyu also is depicted in Lot 526, a attractive but less dramatic and detailed red vessel by Jennie Trammel (born 1929), Santa Clara, which has an estimate of $2,500 to $3,500.

T;linglit polychrome wood effigy bowl

Lot 689, a Tlinglit polychrome wood effigy bowl, seven inches long

The fourth session, which starts at 2 PM, Thursday, May 18, 2000, consists of Lots 594 to 761 and is highlighted by a green-dyed Kiowa hide dress, Lot 597, which has an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000, a Hunkpapa Sioux hide shield depicting a mythical "raptor", Lot 625, which has a similar estimate, a delightful Ute toy cradle, Lot 626, that is 39 inches long and has an estimate of $3,000 to $5,000, an early classic Navajo man’s wearing blanket, Lot 634, that has an ambitious estimate of $100,000 to $150,000, a Navajo transitional pictorial blanket, Lot 649, that depicts a steam locomotive and six windowed cars and has an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000, a Jemez Pueblo shield of buffalo hide, Lot 679, that has a "horned sun" that is a powerful sign, "breaking above the horizon" and has an estimate of $25,000 to $35,000, Lot 680, a Salish polycrome wood sculpture, 28 inches high, from the June Bedford Collection of Northwest Coast Art, that has a modest estimate of $12,000 to $15,000; Lot 687 a Twana wood burial canoe, 14 inches long, from the same collection, which has a conservative estimate of $4,000 to $6,000; Lot 689, shown above, a Tlinglit polychrome wood effigy bowl, seven inches long, in the form of a frog, which has a conservative estimate of $8,000 to $12,000; Lot 702, a Kwakiutl polychrome wood model totem pole, 46 inches high, that has a conservative estimate of $7,500 to $9,500; and Lot 703, a Tsimshian wood figure, 18 3/4 inches high, that has a conservative estimate of $5,000 to $7,000 and has a circular base with a highly stylized frog topped by a humanized avian creature with its wings in an enveloping posture, shown below.

Lot 703, a Tsimshian wood figure, 18 3/4 inches high

Lot 703, a Tsimshian wood figure, 18 3/4 inches high

Other highlights include Lot 712, a Tlingit fighting knife, 15 1/4 inches long, that was once in the collection of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation in New York, and has an estimate of $25,000 to $35,000; Lot 713, a 13 1/4-inch high Northwest Coast twined and painted basketry hat, probably Nuu-chah-nulth, that has an estimate of $15,000 to $20,000; Lot 715, a Nuu-chah-nulth polychrome wood facemask, 10 3/4 inches high, that was once in the collection of the Museum of Natural History in New York and also the Dresden Museum in Germany and has an estimate of $15,000 to $18,000; and Lot 717, a Haida polychrome wood chair that has an estimate of $35,000 to $55,000.

See The City Review article on the Fall 1999 American Indian Art Auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Spring 1999 American Indian Art auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Spring 1998 American Indian art auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Spring 1997 American Indian Art auction at Sotheby's

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