The art of native Americans has been long undervalued in the auction
That neglect ended June 4, 1997, at the Sotheby's auction where several major
lots sold for multiples of their high estimates.
The very successful auction was helped by a fine advance story in The New
York Times by Rita Reif, Sunday, June 1, 1997, and the provenance of many
of the pieces.
Reif, interestingly, noted in her article that "a practice now universal
at the major auction houses" was "not using provenance to determine estimates."
She might have added that the auction houses have in recent years taken a
decidedly tough stance against ambitious estimates in an attempt to lower
the rate of buy-ins.
(The issue of estimates is a touchy one for consignors. One the one hand,
they are eager to have estimates as high as possible in the hopes of impressing
prospective buyers with the worth of the object in question. On the other
hand, they are fearful of a lot not selling and not only having to pay the
auction house an extra fee for that but being saddled with a work that has
now been publicly "burnt" and therefore much, much, much harder to sell for
Even more disconcerting is the not infrequent auction house policy of entering
a contract with consignors for an agreed-upon estimate and then calling them
up closer to the actual auction and giving an lower estimate, thereby trapping
the consignor in a difficult situation. Such problems are particularly evident
in falling markets where the auction house senses a declining market. The
market now, however, is not declining.)
The art that stood out was from the Northwest, generally some of the most
popular and sophisticated.
Lot 216, an early Nuu-Chah-Nulth (Nootka) wood face mask from the collection
of Adelaide DeMenil had been estimated at $75,000 to $95,000 and had been
one of two illustrations in Rita Reif's article. It sold for $525,000 including
the buyer's premium.
The quite magnificent, 200-year-old, fierce-looking mask, whose wood grain
closely follows the contour of the face, has an Oriental flair and was formerly
in the Dresden Museum.
The other illustration in Rita Reif's article and the cover illustration
of the Sotheby's catalogue, lot 266, a Tlingit ceremonial coat, Chilkat,
also fared remarkably well. It had been estimated at $60,000 to $80,000 and
sold for $497,500. About 100 years old, the coat's condition was pristine
and vibrant with the traditional pale blues, yellows, blacks and white that
the Tlingits often used in their very attractive, almost moderne, patterning
and abstractions. It also came from the DeMenil collection.
Another DeMenil piece, lot 234, a Northwest Coast wood pipe a bit over 9
inches long and sculpted in the shape of a raven had been estimated at $15,000
to $18,000 sold for $134,500. The stunning piece has a rich brown patina
and is decorated discretely with abalone shell plaques.
Another mask, not quite as spectacular as lot 216, but nevertheless very
awesome, lot 228, was one of the stars of the auction from the Wellman
Collection. It had been estimated at $50,000 to $75,000 and sold for $123,500.
It is a Tsimhian mask, Nishga, possibly a shaman's mask, and is black face
with vermilion lips and eyes born ribbons that once secured bearskin eyebrows
One of the Wellman pieces that proved a disappointment and did not sell was
lot 199, a charming Salish ceremonial mountain sheep horn rattle that was
shown in a black-and-white photograph at the front of the catalogue being
held by Dr. George S. Heye, the founder of the Museum of the American Indian,
at the East Saanich Reservation in Vancouver in 1934. It had been estimated
at $30,000 to $40,000.
Another surprise at the sale was lot 82, a very large and important Plains
Pictorial Hide, Northern Cheyenne or Sioux, with a series of episodes from
the life of "Kills-Eagle), a chief, whose account of the events of the Battle
of the Little Big Horn were reported in The New York Herald, according to
Sotheby's. It had been estimated at $35,000 to $45,000 and sold for $40,260,
but it was as wonderful a hide as one could imagine and should have sold
for much more. It was sold by the Philbrook Museum of Art to "benefit the
A Great Lakes Ceremonial Club, possibly Chippewa, lot 21, of the classic
"gunstock" form sold for $18,400 and had been estimated at $6,000 to $9,000.
It was a dramatic piece of fine sculptural quality,
The concha belts, kachina dolls, wampum, squash blossom bridal necklaces,
woven baskets and blankets that are standard fare at such actions did well
at the lower price categories, but the auction, number 7002, certainly will
raise appraisals at fine collections around the country.
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