The Naskapi painted hide hunting coat, in the manner of an 18th-century riding coat, has a high collar, narrow waist, and flaring peplum. It's made of tanned caribou hide and painted in red, cream, and black. The front and back are decorated with symbols, probably of caribou. Estimated at $250,000/ 350,000, the 39" long coat sold for $278,500 to a phone bidder. It is one of two such coats in private hands; others are in museums. It came from a French collection.
The Nez Perce beaded and fringed war shirt of finely tanned mountain sheep hide with open sides and partially sewn sleeves is decorated with blue pigment and overlaid on each arm with hide strips set with tiny glass seed beads. The shoulders have a pattern of rectangular panels enclosing a diamond design, and the rectangular bibs on the neck are stitched with linear designs against a red wool cloth ground on buffalo hide. It is decorated with rows of dyed quill-wrapped horsehair pendants and white ermine drops. The sleeves, cuffs, and corners have cut hide fringe. It belonged to Chief Joseph, the last of the great Native American warrior chiefs. He was born in Oregon in 1840 and died in September 1904. The shirt was given to his cousin, well-known warrior and chief Peo-Peo-Tholekt, who passed it on to his nephew Jesse Redheart, who is pictured wearing it in a photograph, 1940-50. Estimated at $400,000/600,000, it sold for $482,500 on the phone.
This Northwest Coast whalebone club, probably Haida, has a pierced circular pommel, grooved grip, and expanding blade and is finely carved with a killer whale with flaring nostrils, parted lips, bared teeth, and pointed oval eyes. Collected by John Moresby from the Skittaget tribe, it came to market from his family. It sold for $104,500 (est. $25,000/35,000) to a collector on the phone, underbid by Donald Ellis in the salesroom. Ellis said it was a "nice buy" and that he had sold a better one for considerably more last year.
Sotheby's, New York City
by Lita Solis-Cohen
Photos courtesy Sotheby's
David Roche, Sotheby's American Indian consultant, said the 158 lots in Sotheby's May 16 sale came from 40 different consignors from all parts of the U.S. and from abroad.
Front and center at the presale exhibition was a Naskapi painted hide hunting coat in the style of an 18th-century French riding coat with a high collar, narrow waist, and flaring peplum. Made of tanned caribou hide and painted with an elaborate design representing caribou antlers and trees, it once was in a French collection. "There are only two of these coats in private hands," said Roche. "Most of them were taken back to Europe. There is a similar one, likely by the same hand, at the British Museum."
The Naskapi of Quebec and Labrador hunted caribou and used the skins for tents and clothing. In the summer they wore these stylish painted coats; the hunters said the coats gave them spiritual strength. The coat, estimated at $250,000/350,000, sold for $278,500 (includes buyer's premium) to a phone bidder. Similar coats have sold for considerably more.
The hunting coat was not the most expensive piece of clothing in the sale. A Nez Perce beaded and fringed war shirt that once belonged to Chief Joseph sold to a collector on the phone for $482,500 (est. $400,000/ 600,000). It was made of sheepskin with open sides and decorated with blue pigment, beadwork, ermine tails, and fringe, with the tail of a mountain sheep in front. Chief Joseph died in 1904, and the shirt was passed down to his cousin Peo-Peo-Tholekt, a distinguished warrior and chief, who died in 1935. Then it passed on to Peo-Peo-Tholekt's nephew Jesse Redheart, a horseman, who was pictured in a color photograph in the catalog wearing the shirt, 1940-50.
A Haida painted wooden doll was the most talked about discovery in the sale. Consigned by the Woburn (Massachusetts) Public Library, the 19" tall doll is realistically carved with breasts and genitalia, now covered up with a 19th-century shift made of yellow on red printed fabric. Estimated at $50,000/70,000, she sold for $254,500 to Donald Ellis of Dundas, Ontario, and New York City, a dealer who spent more than $1 million at the sale. Ellis's purchases accounted for about a third of the $3,248,128 total for the 74 sold lots. (More lots failed to sell than sold, 82 in all, for a 47.4% sold rate by lot.)
Ellis bought two Yupik masks, documented in a 1920's photograph showing them hanging in pairs on the wall of a store in Bethel near Bristol Bay, Alaska. He paid $74,500 for each of these abstract, surrealistic Eskimo dance masks. They are expressive works of art but not in perfect condition.
Ellis keeps the market for Northwest Coast material buoyant. Long a fixture at the New York Winter Antiques Show, Ellis has announced that he will not return. He prefers to sell American Indian material at an art show, not an antiques show. He said he will show at the salon show in London in October at the time of the Frieze Art Fair in Regent's Park.
Dealers in Native American baskets, Navajo rugs and blankets, and pottery did not step up and buy. Most of the baskets and pottery remained unsold, including the cover lot, a masterful Mono Lake Paiute polychrome basket by Carrie Bethel, circa 1960, with a hefty $300,000/500,000 estimate. It is thought to be the last basket Bethel made. A monumental (27Â¼" high x 26" wide) Apache coiled pictorial storage jar or olla, decorated with figures and animals, also remained unsold (est. $100,000/150,000).
Roche said, "The market is very selective." He was pleased that several rare examples with extraordinary provenance did well. "Midrange material had a tough time," he sighed.
A Crow beaded and fringed hide mirror bag (est. $25,000/45,000) sold for $31,250. A Crow beaded and fringed hide tobacco bag (est. $25,000/45,000) sold for $23,750. Half a dozen beaded pouches, dresses, and cradles failed to sell. There was no interest in parfleche containers, the rawhide envelopes painted with abstract designs.
The market for American Indian arts did not seem robust. There were buyers for most of the very best, but few buyers for the rest. Roche remarked that there were five American Indian sales this spring and too much middle-range material for the market to absorb in these recessionary times. For those with some money in their jeans, it seems like a good time to collect American Indian arts. Overall, prices are well under prices at the top of the market, back to the levels of five and seven years ago.
For more information, contact Sotheby's at (212) 606-7000; Web site (www.sothebys.com).
The Red River MÃ©tis hide moccasins, each embroidered with trailing flowers and trimmed with fur, 10" long, from the Herbert G. Wellington collection, were illustrated in the landmark catalog for Sacred Circles: Two Thousand Years of North American Indian Art, a 1976 exhibition in London. Estimated at $1500/2000, they brought a surprising $8125.
Until the discovery of this doll in February, there were only four others known. The artist, known as the "Jenna Cass" carver, is considered one of the great Haida artists of the 19th century and is known for having carved a mask in similar style. The 19" tall Haida doll is carved from a single piece of wood and polychromed. Her head is hollowed for use by a shaman to put in magic materials. She is finely detailed: an extended lower lip from wearing a disk labret; painted large eyes beneath thick arched brows; hair fastened with spruce gum; and realistically carved breasts and genitalia, which are covered up by a two-piece shift of printed red cloth, made at a later date. The doll had been collected in Puget Sound by Captain William Martain in 1828 and was a gift to the Woburn (Massachusetts) Public Library by a descendant of the captain. A similar doll is at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and another is at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. Estimated at $50,000/70,000, it sold for $254,500 to dealer Donald Ellis of Dundas, Ontario, and New York City, for a client.
The 6Â½" long Mississippian stone effigy pipe in the form of a bird has an old label reading "Steatite Bird effigy Pike Wayne County Kentucky." It sold for $17,500 (est. $7000/10,000).
Probably originally worn by an Apache scout, this western Apache beaded and fringed, tailored hide shirt was made in the manner of a U.S. Army officer's military coat and sold for $92,500 (est. $30,000/ 40,000).