the Winter Clown
the Mud Head Clowns
Man's Wearing Blanket
Germantown "Sampler" Blanket
Energetic bidding for some exceptional lots marked Sotheby's auction of American Indian material on Dec. 4, 1997. The sale totaled $4,366,628 for 368 of 484 lots sold (76 percent by lot), a record for any American Indian auction.
Particularly notable was a splendid selection of Zuni and Hopi kachinas and dolls, dating from the 1890s to 1920, from the collection of Alan Kessler, the Photo-Realist painter who has showed at O.K. Harris gallery in New York. Originally made for children to teach them about the different deities, these works of carved and painted cottonwood were often highly ceremonial. Many of the pieces soared past their presale estimates.
Top lot of this group was the dancing Salako Mana doll, which went for a record $265,000 (est. $85,000-$125,000) to an anonymous telephone bidder. The sheer size and monumental quality of this piece, with its animated posture, elaborate "tableta" headdress and much of it's original paint, singled it out as a star exhibit.
A highly stylized Rio Grande doll depicting the Winter Clown, brightly colored in yellow and blue and with an icicle horn tufted with animal hair on its crown, sold for $80,000 (est. $65,000-$75,000). Such figures were keepers of tradition, using humor to communicate beliefs that were nevertheless deeply felt.
Also notable was a striking figural group of two Hopi Mud Head Clowns, depicted wearing black kilts and sack masks, with one crouched on the shoulders of the other. This unusual pair sold for $31,000 (est. $14,000-$16,000).
As has been the case in recent years, Navajo rugs and blankets brought exceptionally good prices. An exciting moment came when fierce bidding for an early classic Man's Wearing Blanket pushed it up to $390,000 (est. $180,000-$220,000), a record for a serape at auction. This piece, combining unraveled worsted wool in bright crimson with hand-spun wool in natural ivory and dyed indigo, was notable for its fine tight weave. Navajo weavers would unravel commercially produced cloth to obtain their yarn, since they preferred its bright unnatural dyes to the natural pigments they traditionally used.
Another top lot was a Germantown "Sampler" Blanket, which sold for $90,000 (est. $25,000-$35,000). This piece sparked much interest, since it includes 25 squares of remarkable designs, including two pictorial images of trains and steers. As a whole it represents a virtual catalogue of the designs used in this period.
The pottery prices were stable but not flashy. Of the older material, a Zuni Polychrome Jar decorated with three large scalloped rosette medallions in black on white slip, sold at its low estimate of $15,000. Of the more recent objects, works by the San Ildefonso Pueblo potter, Maria Martinez, continued to be popular with collectors. Her blackware plate, a shallow flaring form with an exotic and unusual fish motif, went for $23,000 (est. $12,000-$15,000). A polychrome jar, signed by Maria and her son Popovi, sold for $18,000 (est. $8,000-$12,000).
Some beautiful paintings from the Helen Harding estate reached record highs. The Merging of Mystical Men and Masks, an undated acrylic on board, sold for a record $25,000 (est. $7,000-$9,000). A Santa Clara Pueblo native, Helen sold her first painting when she was six years old and participated in Inter-Tribal Ceremonial Exhibitions from the age of nine.
Of the Northwest Coast material, a Haida Wood Feast Bowl estimated at $18,000-$22,000 went for a whopping $55,000. This is an especially well carved example in the form of a seal of abundance. Large bowls of this kind were of symbolic importance.
A Tsimshian-style Haida Mask held its estimate at $36,000. The high price can be attributed to the highly stylized form, the shiny surface (the result of wearing) and the contemplative, otherworldly expression of the face.
Prices given here are at the hammer, and do not include the auction-house commission.
GABRIEL DESAI is a New York auction reporter.