American Indian Art

Sotheby's, May 19, 1998

By Carter B. Horsley

The Important American Indian Art Auction at Sotheby's on May 19, 1998 is large and consists of two catalogues, one for the Balovinus Collection of the Art of the Northern Plains, Plateau and southeast, and the general catalogue, whose cover is shown above.

Both catalogues and the auctions contain a wide range of very good material, highlighted by Lot 627, the cover illustration of the main sale, shown above, a Yup'ik Esimko wood plaque mask, possibly lower Yukon or Bristol Bay/Kuskokwin Bay area, that is estimated at $400,000 to $600,000. It was on exhibition but withdrawn from the auction.

American Indian Art has long been grossly undervalued, but that is beginning to change. The auctions were not completely successful and as many of the major works did not sell and prices were generally on the low side with a few exceptions. Almost a third of the lots offered did not sell, a high percentage.

The 23-inch high and 21-inch wide mask was exhibited in the "200 Years of American Sculpture" exhibition at the Whitney Museum during the nation's centennial in 1976 and comes from a private collection. In the catalogue for that exhibition, Norman Feder noted that such masks were made for shamans and "were used in pantomine dances reenacting the shaman's travels through the spirit world." "Eskimo masks are some of the most inventive and powerful examples of sculpture to be found anywhere in the primitive world," he added.

In an essay in the Sotheby's catalogue about the lot, Dorothy Jean Ray noted that "as important as gestures in the dance was the movement of undulating feathers and appendages on masks and clothing, or in the hands. She said that the mask "appears to have a twin in the American Museum of Natural History" and that they "were perhaps used as matched pairs in festival dances." The museum mask, she noted, "differs in having a hoop surrounding it, several more stylized seals, and an arrow-like ornament at the top. Such paired masks were unusual, but not rare," she said, adding that the museum's mask was collected by George Hornton Emmons and came to the museum in 1914. "Only the man who made this mask can tell us where to fit in the many festivities, but, by itself, it is unique, and doubly so should the two masks prove to be a matched pair. If so, they are the largest such pairs on record," she wrote.

Another very fine Eskimo piece is lot 628, shown below, a conical walrus hide headdess with ornamental baleen strips that was collected in Nome, Alaska, and is estimated at $18,000 to $20,000. It was on exhibition but withdrawn from the auction. The catalogue notes that another cone-shaped hide hat is in the British Museum, but it is decorated with sculpted ivory toggles.

There are several fine blankets, some carrying estimates in the six figures, which is rather high. Lot 336, for example, is "an early Classic Navajo Man's Poncho-style Serape that is estimated at $350,000 to $450,000 and the catalogue quotes a source, Herman Schweizer, as maintaining that it was the "finest" blanket in the collection of the Fred Harvey Company, which was "founded in 1876 to manage eating houses and later on dining cars for the Santa Fe Railway" in Albuquerque. The Sotheby catalogue said that "the provenance and aesthetic merits of this bayeta poncho place it at the highest level of 19th Century Navajo weavings." The geometric patterned blanket includes imported cloth. It failed to sell.

Of far more interest and worth is Lot 354, the "Little Sister" rug of the remote Navajo village of Chilchinbeto near Monument Valley. The 28 by 26 foot monumental rug is being sold by the people of Chilchinbeto to raise funds for its health clinic. The village has a larger rug, "Big Brother," 36 by 26 feet, that it is not selling. This one required about 81,000 hours of weaving on a single loom that was specially constructed as a community project.

It is estimated at only $250,000 to $350,000 and hopefully will be acquired for much more by some collector of "Western Art" and donated back to the village. It failed to sell, although Sotheby's indicated after the sale it would try to sell it privately. It was designed by Charles C. Billy and woven by Helen Charlie, Kate Lee Charlie, Jane J. Charlie, Bessie Red Moustache, Helen Begay, Rose Austin, Joann Singer, Susie Young, Lillie Yazzie and Lita Kith. "At the time of this weaving," the catalogue noted, "all of the weavers were over the age of 50. Two of the weavers are deceased."

The general catalogue begins with 39 lots from the collection of Ida and Hugh Kohlmeyer of New Orleans. Ida Kohlmayer, who died last year, was an artist who had studied with Hans Hofmann and was on the staff of the Newcomb Art Department at Tulane University. Among the interesting lots in her collection, which contains numerous Kachina dolls, are 199 and 200, small Mojave red-on-buff clay dolls that date from "precontact" times and are estimated at $800 to $1,200 and $1,500 to $2,000, respectively; and lot 228, a Navajo painted cloth dance headdress that is very distinctive and estimated at $1,800 to $2,200. Lot 199 sold for $1,750. Lot 228 failed to sell.

This auction has several wonderful woven baskets including a group of large Apache baskets from around the turn of the century, Lots 478-492, that are extremely decorative and interesting and should do quite well. Lot 481 is one of the better ones and is estimated at $20,000 to $30,000, but some others, such as lot 487, carry estimates as low as $1,800 to $2,500. Lot 481 failed to sell. There are several very strong California Mission Polychrome basket designs, including Lot 511, which depicts several insects and is estimated at $10,000 to $15,000. It sold for $13,800.

The auction has a few fine examples of Northwest Coast Indian Art including Lot 555, a chief's ceremonial headdress from the collection of Adelaide DeMenil, that is conservatively estimated at $40,000 to $60,000 and should go higher. It sold for $71,250.

Lot 557, a Tsimshian Wood Portrait Mask, Nishga, is mesmerizing and highly refined and also conservatively estimated at $40,000 to $60,000, although it is not as ornamentally original and colorful as Lot 555. Lot 557 failed to sell.

Another museum-quality piece is Lot 559, "an Early Northwest Coast Ceremonial Wood Oil Dish, probably Haida, or Southern Tlingit, that is estimated at $125,000 to $175,000. This 13 1/2 inch long, oval bowl with curving rim and resinous patina depicts a frog on one side and an abstract bird on the other and is an extremely powerful work of art. It sold for $140,000.

Another fine work is Lot 560, a beautifully carved Northwest Coast Bentwood Bird-Form Food Bowl, Probably Tlingit, that is estimated at $45,000 to $65,000. It failed to sell. Unlike many Tlingit box bowls, this one has delicate wings projecting from the sides and a protruding avian face.

Another very sculptural Tlingit piece is lot 580, a Mountain Sheep Horn Bowl in the shape of an eagle that is estimated at only $7,000 to $9,000 and was exhibited at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1984. It sold for $43,700.

The auction has a fine group of colorful, large tobacco bags from several different tribes that hopefully will be bought by one collector although they are individual lots, 661-668, with estimates in the four figures. The bags should make one-name Madison Avenue designers give up, to say nothing of two-initial designers.

The auction begins with 198 works from the collection of Wayne Badovinus in a separate catalogue. The excellent catalogue contains a very moving essay by Mr. Badovinus on collecting and an interesting essay by Paul M. Raczka on the collection.

"Many of the pieces in Wayne's collection seem in immaculate condition....For many people this would seem to show that they are not very old. However, the majority of these pieces were not in non-Native collections very long. Anyone who has had the privilege to collect directly from native people, or has been around them very long knows the reasons behind this. These pieces were kept in immaculate condition, carefully tucked away in trunks, to be used, and repaired, when needed. They were not hung on walls, slowly gathering dirt and grime. There were many times when I personally watched Crow and Blackfoot women carefully scraping their white bucksin dresses or men's buckskin outfits with the lid of a tin can. Dirt and grime were scraped away and white clay was rubbed into them to bring them back to the clean, new, fresh appearance that was desired. No one would consider wearing a 'dirty' buckskin outfit, no matter how old it was. In fact, one time at my store in Alberta, I had a Blackfoot woman bring in a set of 1860's parfleche containers. When I asked her why they were damp, she replied that they were too dirty to bring in before she cleaned them. Where Euro-Americans wanted 'patina,' Native people wanted 'newness' and cleanliness,'" Raczka wrote in the Sotheby catalogue.

There is a wonderful group of very colorful and geometrically patterned parfleche envelopes, Lots 97-102.

Perhaps the most desirable is Lot 103, shown at the left, a Plateau fringed and painted parfleche flat case, possibly Crow or Nez Perce.

The 11 1/2 inch wide pouch has 55 inch long fringe and is absolutely stunning. it is estimated at only $2,500 to $4,000. It sold for $3,162.

Among the many fine clothing examples is Lot 119, shown below, an Upper Missouri/Plateau beaded hide war shirt, possibly Blackfoot or Assinibonine.

This masterpiece of fashion would do Fortuny and Chanel proud, indeed, probably turn them green with envy.

The perforated shirt was often wore by male members of Bear cults.

It is estimated at only $35,000 to $45,000. It failed to sell.


Some of the most spectacular pieces are a group of Northern Plains/Plateau dance headdresses, Lots 147, 148 and 149, shown in the catalogue photograph below along with Lot 146, the Plateau beaded implement.

These "hair roaches" are constructed of long panels of deer hair, graduated strands of yellow-tipped pocupine's hair and a thick mane of animal hair down the middle tightly bound in a tapering form. The catalogue notes, for Lot 148, the second from the left below, that the "flat circular hair roach pattern may have been developed by the Pawnee, who used it as part of military society regalia," adding that the "Blackfeet began using it late in the 19th century as insignia of the Kaispa or Hair Parters, a social club for young men." For Lot 149, shown at the right below, the catalogue noted from a 1986 book description of a similar item that "The form of these animal-hair roaches, or dancers' headdresses, originated along the Missouri River and gradually spread to the western plains. The open-V shape of these examples was fashionable with young Crow men, who wore them for recreational dancing. The alternating colors of the example at right (similar to the present example) may be a maker's trademark. Feather roach crests stood erect inside each headdress to add motion and color to the ornament."

Incredibly, these roaches are estimated at only $2,000 to $3,000 each. They are extraordinary sculptures/works of art of fascinating and great power. Lot 146, the beaded implement, sold for $2,070. Lot 147 sold for $2,300 as did Lot 148. Lot 149 failed to sell.

One spectacular exception to the rather disappointing sale was Lot 579, a Tlingit Ivory Dagger Hilt from the collection of Adelaide DeMenil. The 3 3/4 inch high work had been estimated at $12,000 to $18,000 and sold for $140,000.

The auction's results were puzzling as a handful of lots did well but many fine works were inexplicably passed and although some had been estimated too high, like the rugs, others were museum worthy and "reasonable" given the pretty robust state of the art market in general. This auction had a fair amount of contemporary art in it, which may have detracted from the more authentic, earlier works.

The Native Americans have lost many battles, but long may they live.

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