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Chatelaine's Antiques and Appraisals Magazine > Jewelry > Expert Tip: Native American Art

Native American Blanket

Selection of Native American Art


Some people consider ethnographic art to be primitive. With a few authentic exceptions, I feel this is a misnomer that borders on a slur.



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 Native American & Other Ethnographic Art: A Brief Overview


Collecting indigenous art also known as ethnographic or tribal art can be aesthetically and sometimes financially rewarding. For instance, not long ago, some clients of mine had found a beautiful 19th-Century Eskimo mask at a garage sale in Seattle. It was marked "$10." They offered $5. The owner accepted, and threw in a photo dated from 1923, showing some old mountain man with the mask in Alaska which enhanced the value of the mask even more. In 1999 we sold the mask for $48,000.This couple was lucky; neither knew anything about Eskimo masks, nor had any special interest in them.

Indeed, ethnographic art isn't for everyone. Typically, my clients are well traveled or have even lived abroad, and appreciate cultures other than their own. Consequently, they have a ready-made taste for ethnographic art and a deep respect for each piece they collect.

If you live in the United States, you'll find the market is largely dominated by Native American art from the U.S. and Canada, including Eskimo art (known in Canada as Inuit art). However, the term "Native American art" often encompasses work by Mexican Indians and other Latin American cultures, including the ancient Incas and Mayans. (For this article, we'll concentrate on works from the U.S. and Canada the most popular indigenous art, in terms of supply and demand - but we'll also touch on other regions of the globe.)

As with any art, you should buy what you love, and know what you buy. But ethnographic art is a huge field, encompassing countless cultures, periods, and artifacts and it can takes years to become an expert in even just one area. Furthermore, popular objects are often faked. For instance, it's not uncommon to find "Navaho" rugs that were actually made in Mexico, "Southwest Native American" baskets made in Pakistan, Eskimo and Northwestern masks that have been artificially aged, and other forgeries or misrepresented works.

So what's a beginner to do? Here are some key guidelines:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the market. Visit the library (some book suggestions are listed later in this article). Take note of what you like, and what sort of prices those items command.
  2. Find a trustworthy auctioneer or dealer. Auctions previews, in particular, provide a wonderful way to learn more about ethnographic art, without feeling any pressure to buy. Not only can you see the objects in person, but assuming you're dealing with a reputable dealer a trustworthy expert will be on hand, happy to answer questions.
  3. Be cautious of galleries that cater to tourists. While many ethnographic art dealers are honest, some especially those in highly touristed areas specialize in extorting obscene prices for mundane or even fraudulent works. A reputable dealer or auction house has no interest in ripping you off, since they hope to cultivate a lifelong relationship with you.
  4. Be aware that conventional qualities don't always apply to ethnographic art. For instance, bigger is not always better; with some artifacts, a smaller example might be more valuable. And rarity, while often desirous, can pose problems: When a truly unusual piece of Pre-Columbian pottery comes along, for instance, it might be very valuable or it might prove difficult to sell, because collectors could be wary of buying something without a precedent.
  5. Don't be put off by minor damage. Since we're talking about old and ancient works, it's natural to find signs of wear and tear. (In the case of objects meant to have been worn, such as masks, no such telltale signs might suggest a fake.) Minor chips, nicks, and tears can turn a beautiful and expensive object into a beautiful and affordable one.
  6. Be on the lookout for works that have been improperly cared for or "restored." Excessive humidity, for instance, can warp woodwork or foster mold or rot, especially on an item made of animal skin; too little humidity can cause cracks. Direct sunlight can fade the color of any object. And older silver objects, such as jewelry, acquire a dulled and highly valued patina; cleaning them might return their luster, but dramatically cut their value. (Always be sure to consult an expert before cleaning any valuable artwork.)

Considering the immense scope of ethnographic art, of all these guidelines, the second is certainly the most important. In fact, as long as you deal with a respected, established source, you have nothing to fear.

Finally, as you learn more about the field, you'll find there are qualities to some ethnographic works that are shared by no other art form, as this next story illustrates...




Carol Grigg - The Meeting
The Meeting
Carol Grigg
Buy This Art Print At AllPosters.com

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