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Arts of the American West

Lita Solis-Cohen | December 4th, 2013


Rare Meskwaki bear claw necklace and turban. The necklace is composed of 31 grizzly bear claws on an otter neck ring, each pierced through the center and joined together with a hide strip strung with an alternating series of large white and pale green glass trade beads, a long tapering tab of otter fur suspended below, overlaid with a cloth panel stitched with rows of concentric diamonds against a blue glass beadwork ground, backed with dark blue wool stroud, edged in red silk ribbon and trimmed with red, white, and blue beadwork, 44" long with tab. It was offered together with a turban, similarly decorated with red silk and beaded details and overlaid with three beaded medallions. The lot sold for $75,000 (est. $40,000/60,000) to the Meskwaki Nation, which prefers the modern spelling to the one used in the catalog.

Cheyenne beaded hide cradle mounted on a pair of narrow wood slats with fine aged patina and remains of red pigment at the pointed ends, decorated with brass tacks forming striped panels and crosses, the sack finely sinew sewn with glass seed beadwork and metallic bead accents against a white ground, with stylized butterfly designs alternating with classic geometric motifs, trimmed with cut hide pendants strung with brass beads and hawk’s bells, and small beaded hide bundles across the hood, possibly charms or tobacco offerings, and lined with printed cotton cloth, 46" long, $68,750 (est. $40,000/60,000).


Pair of Sioux beaded and painted hide man’s moccasins sinew sewn in red, green, white, and blue glass beadwork, with a zigzag band on the edge, vamps trimmed with rows of tin cone pendants and remains of green pigment on the cuff, 10½" long, $7500 (est. $1200/1800).

Sioux beaded and fringed hide pictorial tobacco bag, composed of tanned buffalo hide sinew sewn in numerous colors against white, lazy-stitched glass beadwork ground with faceted metallic details, each side with a pair of equestrian figures wearing feather bonnets surmounted by a pair of thunderbirds flanking a cross, the cut hide section below tightly wrapped in red, yellow, white, and pink-dyed porcupine quillwork with rectangular designs, mounted for hanging, 36" long with fringe, sold for $28,125 (est. $15,000/20,000).

Sotheby’s, New York City

Photos courtesy Sotheby’s

David J. Brown, a prominent real estate developer in California and Colorado, and his wife, Carol, collected American Indian arts, paintings of the West, and photographs by Ansel Adams and arranged them artfully in their house in Paradise Valley, Arizona. After David Brown died in February 2013 the Paradise Valley house was sold, and the collection, most of it bought from Morning Star Gallery at the New York Winter Antiques Show, was sent to Sotheby’s for a single-owner sale.

The collection was presented in a slim catalog with color pictures of the Browns’ stunning house, demonstrating how living with a collection of Native American art can be inspiring.

Of the 43 lots offered on the afternoon of December 4, 2013, at 2 p.m. following the morning American art sale, 37 lots sold for a tidy $1,250,628. The sale was 86% sold by lot and 73% sold by value. The failures included a high-priced painting and some beadwork and quillwork. A Kiowa beaded hide and cloth fringed cradle that failed to sell at $42,000 (est. $60,000/90,000) was sold immediately after the sale to a European collector who had phone difficulties during the sale, according to David Roche, Sotheby’s American Indian consultant.

 Fewer than 20 people came to the salesroom to bid; most of the successful bidders were on the phone. Only one major lot went to a bidder in the salesroom. A Plains Indian painted pictorial buffalo hide robe sold to a paintings dealer for $118,750 (est. $100,000/150,000). Roche said he believes the dealer bought it for his own collection and for a record price. In October 1984 when it was the cover lot of the sale at Sotheby’s, it brought a record $33,000 (est. $20,000/30,000).

The most talked-about lot in the sale was a bear claw necklace and turban that belonged to Chief Pushatonagua of the Meskwaki tribe. Reportedly Sotheby’s had to get a license from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to sell the necklace because it has 31 claws from an endangered species, even though it is a 19th-century artifact. It sold on the phone for $75,000 (est. $40,000/60,000) to the Meskwaki Nation in Tama, Iowa. (The Meskwaki prefer the modern spelling of the tribe’s name.) The tribe persevered as it bid by phone against competition from an absentee bidder who left a bid with the auctioneer.

“It is an old council necklace, worn as a sign of authority when our tribal council went to Washington,” said Jonathan Buffalo, director of the Meskwaki Museum in Tama, when reached by phone. He said Tama is about an hour north of Des Moines and an hour west of Cedar Rapids in central Iowa.

“To our tribe this is a cultural investment. It will never be sold,” Buffalo went on to say. “When the U.S. government destroyed our tribal sovereignty, they lost their symbolism, and the bear claw necklaces went to the families of the last wearer, and in hard times in the 1930’s, they were sold to collectors.”

Buffalo said the tribe asked the family to repatriate the necklace and was told “No.” The tribe asked Sotheby’s to sell it for its low estimate and was told “No,” so the tribal council allotted money to buy it. He said, “It will go on view soon at the casino, so that the tribal members and the public can see the symbol of our tribe. We will have an event when we have a secure case for it. The bear claw necklace lost its symbolism when it left our tribe. It has been in a coma; now we are going to revive it.”

All of the other lots sold on the phone or on the Internet. Moccasins sold for $2500 to $7500. Baskets sold under estimates in a depressed basket market, and a Navajo pictorial blanket of Germantown wool made $25,000. Modestly priced material generally sold over estimates, while high-priced dresses and shirts, Ansel Adams photographs, and paintings sold under expectations.

A painting by Ernest Leonard Blumenschein(1874-1960), Arizona Dam, sold for $365,000, (est. $300,000/500,000), but another high-priced Western picture, Where Navajos Tend Their Flocks by Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1839), failed to sell.

David Roche said the spring sale of American Indian art is scheduled for May 22, the day after the American paintings sale. Will we see more Western paintings offered with Native American material? The pictures and captions tell more about the December sale. For more information, contact Sotheby’s at (www.sothebys.com).

Navajo Germantown pictorial blanket finely and tightly woven in numerous shades of four-ply wool yarn in an eyedazzler design, composed of a female figure with outstretched arms wearing a flared skirt and surrounded by numerous pictorial and geometric elements, including a pail, knife, fork, and a pair of arrowheads, enclosed by a large-scale concentric serrated diamond, the perimeter with friezes of similar elements and strips of parallelograms, 87" x 56", sold for $25,000 (est. $12,000/18,000).

Plains painted pictorial buffalo hide robe probably depicting a war record, showing numerous galloping equestrian figures, some wearing fully feathered headdresses, others holding coup sticks or shields with feathered coronas, in red, yellow, black, blue, and green pigment, approximately 105" long, sold for $118,750 (est. $100,000/150,000).

Oscar Edmund Berninghaus (1874-1852), Grand Canyon Stream, 13¾" x 18", oil on canvas laid on board,signed O.E. Berninghaus” lower right, sold for $34,375 (est. $12,000/18,000).

Western Apache coiled polychrome pictorial olla with cylindrical body, rounded shoulders, and flaring neck, woven in willow, devil’s claw, and yucca, with a radiant rosette on the base, surmounted by zigzag bands and columns of rattlesnake bands in alternating colors, the open field with human figures and small crosses, 15 1/8" high, sold on line for $3438 (est. $4000/6000) in a weak basket market.


Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest

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