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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Jewelry > Expert Tip: Buying Antique Native American Jewelry

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 Native American & Other Ethnographic Art: A Brief Overview


Some people consider ethnographic art to be primitive. With a few authentic exceptions, I feel this is a misnomer that borders on a slur. True, at first glance, the techniques and subject matter may not always seem refined judged by Western criteria. But "primitive" suggests something that's crude, unsophisticated, or naοve — adjectives that overlook the dignity or significance that imbue many pieces.

Consider the following story. Each time I recount it, I get chills, since it illustrates how ordinary artifacts can have great spiritual significance — and reflects the excitement and wonder of discovering a unique work of art.

Recently, while preparing for an auction of ethnographic art, I received an email from a gentleman in Florida. He had attached an electronic image of a circular Native American shield, and he wondered if it might be worth anything.

I was intrigued: The shield was painted with animal figures and geometric motifs, and likely from a Southern Plains tribe. Judging from the designs, which included a pair of Federal-style eagles, it appeared to be from the late 1800s, perhaps made for trade or ceremonial purposes. It was a good piece — nothing extraordinary, but appealing enough to be worth $4,000 to $6,000 at auction. I emailed the gentleman back with my preliminary appraisal, and invited him to send the shield my way if he was still interested.

A package arrived a few days later, and its contents held a surprise. The images in the photo — of eagles and other motifs — were not an integral part of the shield. Rather, they were painted on a thin buckskin cover, which in turn was laced over the shield. I eagerly picked up the phone and called the owner.

You see, when a warrior painted an object — especially one that could literally save his life — the images chosen were neither whim nor decoration. Rather, they would often represent the spirit world, and be full of power and significance. A warrior might adorn his shield with images of his guardian spirit animal — something he would have seen first in an initiation rite known as a vision quest — bringing him strength and insight. A shield cover was often attached to protect the shield's "real" image; at propitious moments — such as in preparation for a battle — the warrior could remove the cover and expose its power when he needed it most. And now, as the phone rang, I wondered what power might lay beneath this shield's cover.

The gentleman in Florida answered the phone. I thanked him for sending the piece and asked his permission to remove the cover.

"What cover?"

He had owned the shield for years, and had always assumed that the lashed-on cover was the actual face of the shield. He was flummoxed when I explained there might be something underneath of great importance, and readily agreed to my request.

I carefully undid the lashing and removed the cover — revealing a fully painted shield, in pristine condition. The imagery showed an indigo crescent moon on a yellow background, and, auspiciously, a pair of bear paws, likely the original owner's spirit animal. It was magnificent.

I concluded that the shield was from around 1870 and made of buffalo hide; the shield cover was likely made some 20 years later, perhaps when the shield was traded or handed down as an heirloom. When the pair came up for auction, they commanded $57,500 — roughly ten times my preliminary estimate.

Of course, not every item can tell such an extraordinary tale. But as you learn more about Native American art and the people who made it, you'll soon realize that many authentic pieces were crafted with a sense of purpose and power — enhancing not only their dollar value, but also their metaphysical value.



Cecilia Henle - Hunt
Cecilia Henle
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