Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  

sotheby's $3.4 million sale of american indian art

by Amy Page  

The catalogue with an
illustration of a Yup'ik Eskimo
wood plague mask,
withdrawn from the sale

Contemporary Navajo rug Chilchinbeto
bought in

Northwest coast carved and
painted wood storage chest
probably Haida

Prehistoric Haida black stone
tobacco mortar

Tlingit ivory dagger hilt

Plateau beaded hide war shirt
probably Nez Perce

Plateau beaded
and fringed hide dress
possibly Yakima
   It was supposed to have been the sale of sales. Sotheby's auction of American Indian art on May 19 included a single-owner collection, together with a myriad assortment of property from just about every Indian culture from the Southwestern United States to Alaska. But despite a marathon three-session sale of more than 700 lots -- which eventually daunted even the most passionate devotee -- the results were decidedly mixed.

"Middle of the road pieces are selling for more than I could get for them," said Santa Fe dealer Josh Baer, adding "but wonderful things are not selling." The total for the day was only $3,376,941 and many of the lots remained unsold.

The field of American Indian art has been weak in the past few years, except at the highest level, where competition between collectors can be fierce. This time, however, many of the top lots, including all of the textiles that were valued at more than $200,000, were bought-in.

Among the casualties was an Early Classic Navajo man's poncho style serape (est. $350,000-$450,000) that came with a distinguished provenance. It was in the personal collection of F.J. Huckel, the director of the Indian Department at the Harvey Company, who was responsible for the sale of more than 6,000 Navajo blankets between 1901 and 1936.

In the last sale of Indian material, a similar blanket, without the Huckel provenance, was estimated at $180,000-$220,000 and soared to $431,500. It's a psychological fact that people will bid higher when the estimates are lower than when they feel, as was the case in this sale, that things are overpriced.

Another failure was a monumental contemporary Navajo rug composed of 25 weaving frames woven in complex patterns (est. $250-350,000). The proceeds from the sale of the rug were to benefit the Chilchinbeto Health Clinic on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.

And to top it all off, the star of the sale, the piece illustrated on the front cover of the sales catalogue -- a Yup'ik Eskimo wood plaque mask that was in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975 -- was withdrawn, reportedly because of authenticity problems. The mask carried a pre-sale estimate of $400,000-$600,000, and, if it had been sold, could have set a new record price for American Indian art sold at auction. The current record auction price is $525,000, paid at Sotheby's two years ago for a Nootka wood face mask.

Now for the good news. There continues to be strong interest in top material from the Northwest Coast tribes, including the Nootka, Tsimshian, Tlingit and Haida peoples who lived in what is now British Columbia or Alaska. Some of the best pieces that are coming on the market belong to Adelaide DeMenil, a philanthropist who, with her husband Edmund Carpenter, an anthropologist, formed a collection that is particularly strong in Northwest Coast material.

The couple had always bought material to donate to museums, but they were prompted to sell instead because of a 1990 law that gives American Indians the opportunity to reclaim their heritage from federally funded institutions. This means that most museums are unable to guarantee that all donated American Indian materials will remain in their collections. Various pieces from the DeMenil collection have been in the last few sales at Sotheby's.

Pieces from the DeMenil Collection included the three top lots of the sale, each of which attracted spirited bidding. Chief among them was a carved and painted wood storage chest, probably Haida, carved with totemic patterns, which sold, to Josh Baer, for $183,000 (est. $75,000-$100,000). A Prehistoric Haida black stone tobacco mortar, carved with the combined attributes of a beaver and a human figure, soared over its $40,000-$60,000 estimate to sell for $173,000. Even more spectacular was a carved Tlingit ivory dagger hilt that fetched $140,000 (est. $12,000-$18,000).

Sotheby's had for the first time a single-owner collection of Northern Plains, Plateau and Southwest Indian art. The collection, formed by Wayne Badovinus, included many beaded pieces, many of which sold within the pre-sale estimates. Nothing went crazy. The highest price, $74,000, was paid by a collector for a Plateau beaded hide war shirt, probably Nez Perce (est. $65,000-$85,000). A Plateau beaded and fringe hide dress, possibly Yakima, that once belonged to Louis Comfort Tiffany, made the second highest price, $46,000 (est. $40,000-$60,000).

The major problem with the sale is that there was far too much material for a relatively small market to absorb. Some of the consignors would undoubtedly have been better served if Sotheby's had suggested that they hold off selling until next season. The sale felt weak and there was a definite lack of energy in the salesroom as lot after lot after lot of low-priced material came and went.

AMY PAGE writes frequently about art, antiques and the art market.