New Perspectives on Collecting Indian Artifacts

Expert collectors share ideas
on acquiring affordable ethnographic material

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In today's collecting world, many museums as well as would-be or even advanced collectors are priced out of the market. Because it has become modish to collect historic and contemporary Native American art, and because of the high prices garnered for some rare examples (now recognized as national treasures), many people infected with the "collecting bug" are left in the dust at shopping or bidding time.

At recent ethnic, folk and tribal art exhibits and sales, it was evident that some of the public viewed the exhibitions as merely a museum event. Admission price paid, they would admire the proferred objects, painfully aware that the prices were beyond their reach. Only a few years ago, these same people would have bought a "treasure of the day"--something dear and loved to be added to an assemblage already at home. To the young collector, the collector with limited funds and particularly to those who feel they are out of the running, we offer the following words of counsel and encouragement.

"Artful" or "visual" objects are those to which greatest attention is paid and for which the highest prices are paid. Advanced and seasoned collectors who are primarily interested in historic Indian art and less interested in contemporary, often insist upon two considerations: condition of an object and its relatively early date of manufacture. Ironically, these considerations leave a veritable trove and a multitude of beautiful but "not quite perfect" examples to choose from for those who have a limited budget for collecting. Likewise, many desirable and information-laden objects which are "too recent"--and which are reasonably priced--are ignored and left on gallery shelves. When someone says, "If only this olla were forty years older," our response might be: "Well, buy it and wait!"

The Search for Understanding

Scant attention is usually given ethnological material. Snowshoes, fire-making equipment, hide-tanning implements, packing cases, saddlery, everyday clothing, hunting gear, stone tools, food-preparation utensils and animal traps may not have obvious artistry. They may, however, have beautiful form, may reveal fascinating uses of raw materials, may show unusual construction techniques or may exemplify a truly ingenious adaptation or variation resulting from centuries of trial and perfection. Surely these objects can lead to an engrossing study and an understanding of the everyday aspects of living in a tipi camp, a wigwam village or a pueblo. Indeed, perhaps this is the most important slant of any collection: the search for understanding of not only the objects, but also of the peoples and cultures that produced them.

Assorted utensils (left to right)
Buffalo hide mortar, flat stone and maul; spoon made from buffalo bull horn; mountain sheep horn spoon

Used can be beautiful!

How many times have we heard: "It's a lovely piece; if only it didn't have that little ding!"? That "little ding" may reduce the value and price of the object in the opinions of many collectors; but at the same time, that "imperfection" could make it affordable--while still valued--for the more cost-conscious collector. It may even serve as an important addition to a Study Collection: objects whole or fragmentary gathered for their research value. In fact, that ding may be considered a bit of tolerable wear or "patination" (called by one friend, "artistic dirt"). The ding could even be explained as an attractive indication that the piece was actually used by the people who produced it. Sometimes hard, obvious wear on a piece can add considerable charm and romance, affecting the way in which we view and appreciate it. Several collectors known to the authors actually seek such battered examples and have been able to build admirable collections.

Navajo cradle board frame (early 20th C )
Santo Domingo individual chile bowl (circa 1960)
Apache basket with horsehair handles
(circa 1920)

If an otherwise fine piece has some damage or restoration, does it really have to matter greatly to someone who would very much like to live with and enjoy it? A basket may have a stain, a few broken stitches, a small hole, break or scorched area. Rather than necessarily diminishing the basket's intrinsic value, such blemishes may create a good art value for the person who is dollar-conscious. The wonder and fascination of collecting Native American art should be nurtured and educated, not nipped in the bud.

A frequent question regarding pre-1900 Plains Indian beadwork, is the origin of the beads. (This also refers to the art of many other cultural areas whose tribes did bead work.) The small glass beads, called "seed" beads, are from Europe--especially Italy, Czechoslovakia and France--imported specifically for trade to Indian people. These minute, doughnut-shaped decorators are worked into captivating motifs by peoples all over the world. North American Indian groups easily translated their original decorative techniques and media, such as painting, porcupine quillwork and moosehair embroidery, into similar patterns employing beads.

Beads themselves tell a great deal about an object. Not only is the technique with which they are applied to a skin or cloth surface an index to a piece's origin, but also the color quality, finish, luminescence and shape of the beads themselves offer important clues. For example, post-1900 seed beads tend to be of brighter, but more opaque color quality, not as muted as are most of the shades made earlier. These recognizable post-1900 beaded pieces are not as prized by some collectors. Consequently, objects of this genre are more abundant, and are usually priced reasonably. Surely, few pains were spared by the craftsperson despite the fact that older bead types were not available at the time he or she created the object. Such well-wrought pieces deserve attention and respect, and a place in a proud collection.

Beaded bad/sheath
Sioux knife case
and small pouch (circa 1915) illustrating the use of beads of the era

There is great satisfaction and joy in being a collector/researcher of historic and contemporary Native American art and material culture. High prices need not deter one from owning delightful objects. Ethnological examples and blemished pieces can build a rewarding collection, as can those pieces too recent to be historic, but too old to be contemporary. Much of the pleasure is in the pursuit and the study of collectibles. Happy hunting and research!

Text and photography by Benson L. Lanford and Robert W. Gilmore

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 3

Related Pages

Antique Indian Silver Jewelry article
Collecting & Change in Native American Baskets article
Collecting Indian Pottery article

A Personal Look at Navajo Weavings article
A Sacred Place: Meditations on Corn article
Women's Work: Creating Beauty article

Collector’s Resources


Cowboys & Indians Antiques | 505-255-4054
The Navajo Rug, LLC 535 Los Ranchos Road NW | 505-897-5005
Wright's Indian Art | 505-266-0120

Santa Fe

Morning Star Gallery | 505.982.8187
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture | 505-476-1250
Native American Art Appraisals, Inc. | 855.622.2462
Nedra Matteucci Galleries | 505-982-4631
The Rainbow Man | 505-982-8706


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