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Andy Williams’s Navajo Blankets and Arts of the American West

Lita Solis-Cohen | May 21st, 2013


This Northwest Coast polychrome wood headdress (est. $175,000/225,000) sold for $425,000 to Vancouver, British Columbia, and New York City dealer Donald Ellis, bidding in the salesroom. At 10½" high, it has flaring nostrils and exaggerated wide-set, pointed oval eye rims beneath thick arching brows. It is painted in black with vermilion red details, the teeth and eyes are inset with plaques of brilliant abalone, and it has additional plaques of abalone on the periphery. Once owned by Adelaide de Menil and Edmund Carpenter, plus two other subsequent owners, it was the highest-priced lot in the sale.


Constructed of finely tanned bighorn sheep hide in a classic style with open sides and sleeves, overlaid across the shoulders and down the arms with beaded strips, this Crow beaded hide war shirt, 41" high x 54" wide across the sleeves (as illustrated), sold for $341,000 (est. $200,000/300,000). It is finely sinew-sewn with light blue beaded fields edged in soft green, has alternating greasy yellow and translucent red rectangular panels, is trimmed with long pendants of white winter ermine (replaced) bound with red wool cloth, and the rectangular cloth bib is decorated with dark blue seed beads and brass shoe buttons. It has typical cut fringe and the remains of black-painted decoration on the front and back.


Navajo Classic woman’s shoulder blanket, 48" x 63", $81,250 (est. $35,000/55,000). It is finely woven of handspun and raveled wool in natural ivory and dark brown, rich indigo blue, and deep cochineal red, with a woman’s chief-style second-phase design, composed of eight sets of parallel bars overlaying four banded panels against a typical striped background. Andy Williams collection.


There was keen competition on the phones and in the salesroom for this 44" x 65" Navajo Late Classic woman’s blanket, and it sold for $17,500 (est. $5000/7000). Woven with handspun wool in natural ivory, gray, and dark brown with top-dyed black, indigo blue and green, and aniline red, it has a woman’s chief-style design, composed of nine squares, each enclosing stacked triangular devices, overlaying striped panels, all against a banded ground. Andy Williams collection.


Pueblo Indian Girl and Firelight, a pair of signed 8" x 10" oils on panel by Eanger Irving Couse (1866-1936), sold in the salesroom for $68,750 (est. $20,000/30,000).


Finely woven in sedge and variegated willow with a panel of triangles beneath the flaring rim, this 15" high x 20½" diameter Miwok geometric coiled bowl from the collection of Dwight and Lorraine Lanmon sold for $22,500 (est. $5000/7000).


Starting the auction of the Andy Williams collection on the right foot, this 52" x 31" Navajo double saddle blanket, twill-woven of handspun wool in numerous aniline colors with concentric zigzags, sold for $13,750 (est. $1500/2000). The buyer, phone bidder L0042, bought ten lots in all.


This 72" x 51" Navajo pictorial blanket of finely woven handspun wool, with pairs of black and white horses with brands on their hindquarters, set against a red and pink shaded ground, sold for $28,125 (est. $7000/10,000). It was the trade’s favorite, but the trade was outbid by a European collector on the phone. Andy Williams collection.


Two Paiute polychrome pictorial coiled and lidded baskets by Lucy Telles (1885-1955) sold to a collector on the phone for $167,000 (est. $70,000/100,000). Possibly made as a pair, each is a tightly woven globular form of sedge root, bracken fern root and redbud on willow foundations, and each is decorated with butterflies, flowers, and hummingbirds; each lid is centered with a large butterfly, and one with a flower. They measure 6¾" high x 10¾" diameter and 6 7/8" high x 11¼" diameter.


Toward the end of the sale, 17 lots of southwestern jewelry from the collection of Judith Hollander were offered. This 32" long Zuni silver and turquoise squash blossom necklace by Leekya Deyuse, with 16 blossoms set with blue gem turquoise carved as leaves, sold for $23,750 (est. $6000/7000).

Sotheby’s, New York City

Photos courtesy Sotheby’s

It’s called the celebrity factor. Crooner Andy Williams’s collection of 61 Navajo blankets was 100% sold at Sotheby’s New York on Tuesday, May 21, for a grand total of $978,506 with buyers’ premiums, nearing the $992,000 presale high estimate without buyers’ premiums. Nine of the top ten lots went to private buyers on the phones; the other went to the trade in the room.

When the sale ended, David Roche, senior consultant in Sotheby’s American Indian art department, was handed one white glove by auctioneer Brad Bentoff—apparently a tradition throughout the auction industry when a sale is 100% sold. It was “the first white-glove auction at Sotheby’s New York this year,” said a pleased Roche as he slipped into an elevator after the sale.

The Navajo blankets were only a small part of Andy Williams’s collections. Earlier in May, his modern art collection brought $53.1 million at Christie’s New York, well over the $30 million expected. His Willem de Kooning  untitled (XVII) oil on canvas sold for $9.756 million, and his Jean-Michel Basquiat mixed media on paper Furious Man sold for $5.724 million, an auction record for a Basquiat work on paper. At Skinner in Boston in March, Williams’s folk art collection sold for $2,471,725.

The Navajo blanket on the cover of Sotheby’s catalog, a first-phase chief’s wearing blanket (est. $200,000/300,000), sold on one bid to a phone bidder for $221,000 (including buyer’s premium). The dealers and collectors who examined the blanket found the weaving coarse and its condition poor, and they wondered whether the buyer had bought it from the illustration on the catalog cover. He did not. He saw it in person, according to the members of the trade who talked to him in the salesroom the following day when he asked them why he got such a bargain. He knows that first-phase blankets are rare.

A fresh and superb example at a John Moran auction in California in June 2012 had sold for $1.8 million to Vancouver, British Columbia, and New York City dealer Donald Ellis, who, after having it cleaned, offered it for $2.8 million at various shows. Ellis had appraised another first-phase chief’s blanket on the Antiques Roadshow for $250,000 to $500,000; that one was a Ute first-phase without the coveted red-dyed wool in it. As in any field these days, there is a huge difference in price among good, better, and best.

Williams’s Navajo Classic woman’s shoulder blanket, a chief-style second-phase design, provoked more competitive bidding. More finely woven, it comprises eight sets of parallel bars overlaying four banded panels against a typical striped background. A Texas collector in the salesroom, someone who left a bid with the auctioneer, and bidders on the phone competed for it, and it went to a phone bidder at $81,250.

Billy Pierson, a jockey who turned art advisor, helped Williams put together his collection of Native American textiles over a ten-year period, 1975-85. According to a Pierson essay from a catalog for a 1997-98 exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum, reprinted in Sotheby’s catalog, Williams gave half his collection—all his Saltillo, Rio Grande, Chimayo, and Pueblo textiles, which were less valuable than the Navajo weavings—to the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The collection that sold at Sotheby’s was what he kept.

The Navajo textiles generally sold within estimates. A Navajo Classic woman’s dress in two panels, tightly woven in brown, indigo blue, and lac and cochineal red, sold for $43,750. A chief’s Classic second-phase man’s wearing blanket fetched $34,375. The most spirited bidding was for a Navajo pictorial blanket with pairs of black and white horses with brands on their hindquarters, set against a red and pink background; phone bidders and dealers in the salesroom competed, and it sold for $28,125 to a European collector bidding on the phone.

If the Late Classic Navajo woman’s manta had been in better condition, it would have brought much more than $25,000. A rare and stunning design with a wide variegated blue band flanked by parallel bands of red and darker blue, it had extensive repairs in the lower dark indigo band. That held the price down.

Williams had three Yokuts baskets. A polychrome pictorial coiled bowl, woven with a band of alternating male and female figures holding hands in a dance formation, sold for $50,000—a strong price in today’s soft basket market. Another pictorial coiled bowl with a pair of rattlesnake bands alternating with rows of male figures brought $25,000, and a Yokuts coiled bottleneck jar with rattlesnake bands and trimmed with quail feathers (replaced) sold for $7500.

Collectors and dealers who came from the West and the South wearing jeans and shorts stayed on for Sotheby’s Arts of the American West sale the following afternoon, May 22, which combined Western American paintings with a collection of contemporary Native American pottery and traditional Native American arts. Although it brought a total of $3,888,064, only 146 (55.7%) of the 262 lots offered were sold. Some lots of quality performed well, but apparently much was overestimated for a weak market.

“It was hard to estimate,” confessed David Roche. “In some cases there was just no bidding. Would a lower estimate have made any difference?” he wondered. Some Northwest Coast material, a very early ledger book, a Crow beaded war shirt, and some Western paintings sold over their estimates, but many of the lots seemed to bring prices well below those of a decade ago in this highly selective market.

The sale opened with a pair of appealing Paiute polychrome pictorial coiled and lidded baskets by Lucy Telles (1885-1955). Woven with designs of butterflies and flowers, they were not overlooked and sold to a collector on the phone for $167,000 (est. $70,000/100,000). Nearly half the baskets offered in the auction remained unsold.

The private collection of Dwight and Lorraine Lanmon was an impressive group, dramatically displayed in its own gallery. The Lanmons moved to Santa Fe in 1999 after Dwight Lanmon completed a decade as director of the Winterthur Museum. Once settled in New Mexico, they began their intensive study of Pueblo pottery, which they had been collecting for 20 years. In the 13 years they spent in Santa Fe, Dwight Lanmon wrote four books with Francis Harlow that documented the potters who worked at the Zia, Santa Ana, Zuni, and Acoma Pueblos. Now the Lanmons have moved to a retirement community in Scottsdale, Arizona, and sold their collections. They had sold 16 major pots to Mark Zaplin of Zaplin Lampert Gallery, Santa Fe, and then sent the rest to Sotheby’s for sale.

Francis Harlow wrote a short essay about the Lanmon collection in the catalog, explaining how Pueblo jars can be identified and dated and pointing out the success of their exuberant and often rhythmic designs. Some of the pots were attributed to famous makers. Harlow also discusses the early black-on-white pots, the ancient ones with graphically powerful designs.

Of the 39 lots in the Lanmon ­consignment, just 22 sold, and some sold below their estimates. One of their favorite Acoma polychrome jars, a finely painted one with burnished orange and black stylized leaves and flowers, sold for $43,750 (est. $40,000/60,000) and was considered to be a good buy. An 8" high Acomita polychrome jar decorated with a frieze of foliate motifs beneath a scalloped band, collected by Colonel James Stevenson in 1879 or ’80 for the Bureau of American Ethnology, sold for $15,000 (est. $25,000/35,000)—another good buy. A 9" high Acoma polychrome jar painted with concentric rectangles flanked by abstract avian motifs sold for $21,250 (est. $15,000/20,000). A 13th-century Socorro jar geometrically decorated in black against a grayish-white slip with a large scrolling device—a dramatic graphic design—sold for $15,000 (est. $20,000/30,000). Two other black-on-white geometrically decorated jars failed to sell.

Before the sale, dealers worried that there were just too many pots on the market. “Bonhams in San Francisco were very smart to get their telephone-book-size catalog out the week before Sotheby’s sale so that people could decide if they wanted to save up for that sale or spend at Sotheby’s,” said New York City dealer Eleanor Tulman Hancock.

The Bonhams sale on June 3 was a middle-market offering that garnered a total of $2.25 million for 524 lots, about $1.6 million less than what Sotheby’s got for 262 lots. It seemed as if there was too much on the market at the same time for a recovering market to absorb.

Lanmon said he is not worried about selling his pots that failed to sell at Sotheby’s. They are illustrated in his books and are well researched, and he has consigned them to New York City dealer Marcy Burns, who will offer them over the next year, he said.

The highest prices at Sotheby’s were paid by Vancouver, British Columbia, and New York City dealer Donald Ellis for Northwest Coast material; he spent more than a million dollars. “I never look at estimates. I just bid what I think something is worth,” said Ellis, who is known for his keen eye. He buys Native American material as art and offers it at art shows, such as the Frieze Art Fair in London in October. Ellis paid $425,000 for a Northwest Coast polychrome wood headdress inlaid with abalone (est. $175,000/225,000) and $125,000 for a Northwest Coast polychrome wood transformation mask (est. $125,000/175,000).

The contemporary pottery collection of Jane and Bill Buchsbaum brought disappointing results and few high prices. A San Ildefonso Pueblo globular jar by Tony Da (1940-2008) with polished sienna slip and an incised lizard with a large turquoise cabochon inset on its back, flanked by additional turquoise cabochons and heishi decoration, 4 7/8" high x 6" diameter, sold for $43,750 (est. $35,000/55,000). A San Ildefonso Pueblo jar by Maria Martinez (1887-1980) and Popovi Da (1921-1971) decorated with a feather and stepped design in red and black on a cream slip, signed on the base “Maria/ Popovi 766,” sold for $31,250; it was pictured on the catalog cover. Of the 55 lots in the Buchsbaum collection, 26 sold.

David Roche thinks that dealers and collectors will look back at this sale and be sorry that they did not take advantage of good buying opportunities. He liked including Western paintings, offering flat art and three-dimensional arts together. He said more people came to have a look, and there were more phone bidders than in the past. He sees the market on an uptick, but the recovery is slow. The fact that nearly $4.9 million worth of Native American and Western art was sold at Sotheby’s on May 21 and 22 indicates that there is indeed a market for it, and Sotheby’s will hold another auction next May.

For more information, contact Sotheby’s at (212) 606-7000; Web site (www.sothebys.com).

An early Cheyenne ledger book of pictographic drawings, the oldest known ledger book of Plains Indian drawings, sold for $185,000 (est. $30,000/50,000) to Vancouver, British Columbia, and New York City dealer Donald Ellis, who said he bought it for a foundation. Known as the Bowstring Warrior Society Ledger, it comprises 34 pages, each drawn in graphite pencil and colored pencil (black, yellow, and red) on paper and depicts various accounts of warfare and ritual, including a unique depiction of a horse mask used in battle against the Pawnee and 16 different shields. Attributed to Medicine Water I, Lame Bull, Alights on the Cloud, and possibly eight other unknown artists, the 5½" high x 3½" wide book was created in the 1850’s by the Southern Cheyenne Bowstring Warriors.

Bowstring refers to the warriors’ lances, decorated with a cord of sinew (similar to a bowstring) that was threaded through the quills of feathers; the colorful, individual patterns on each lance helped the warriors keep track of each other in battle. The society’s colors were black and yellow, those of a thunderstorm, and the members painted the upper part of their arms and their bodies yellow and their lower arms and legs black.

The book was given to a seven-year-old white child, Ambrose Asher, who was captured by a band of the Cheyenne, ransomed and saved by Chief Black Kettle, and then adopted by a member of the Bowstring Society, possibly Lame Bull. After being returned to his people in 1864, Asher was cared for by the family of Lewis and Sarah Giberson in Denver City, and when he was sent east to live with his grandmother, he left behind the book given to him by his adoptive Cheyenne “father.” It was cared for by successive generations of the Giberson family before being consigned to Sotheby’s. A long description of the book and its history by scholar Mike Cowdrey appears in the on-line catalog, and a condensed version is in the catalog.

This 88" x 84" Navajo pictorial blanket or rug woven with handspun wool in natural and aniline colors was a favorite. It has a sand painting design, probably a depiction of the Male Shootingway Chant, with four trapezoidal elements trimmed with feathers, enclosing four horned figures, representing in turn the night sky, sun, moon, and black and yellow wind. One of two weavings not from the Andy Williams collection, it was consigned by a private collector and sold for $40,625 (est. $12,000/18,000) in the Arts of the American West auction.


Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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