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Important American Indian Art


November 30, 1999

Tsimshian wood face mask


Lot 259, a rare and important Tsimshian wood face mask,

Nishga, 10 ľ inches high

By Carter B. Horsley


This American Indian Art auction at Sotheby’s is highlighted by two very powerful and important masks from the Northwest Coast and Alaska from the collection of Adolf Hoffmeister in Prague, who had acquired them from Charles Ratton in Paris.

Hoffmeister, the catalogue points out, was a "key participant in the Surrealist movement of pre-World War II Europe. In 1935, André Breton wrote an article with Paul Eluard for the Cahier d’Art that featured both masks. Breton was the author of an important Surrealist manifesto and the catalogue provides the following interesting commentary:

"As a subscriber and active participant in the surrealist Movement, Hoffmeister, along with his colleagues, were among the first of the European artistic intelligentsia to recognize the beauty and artistry of American Indian objects. Of course, it was their understanding of the context from which these objects came and the principles of their manufacture, man of which echoed those of the Surrealists, that ignited their interest. Until that point, ‘art negre,’ or primitive art from Africa, had been the vogue, influencing major artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Braque. But the Surrealist made objects from the Americas an unique part of their own pioneering efforts and took great pride in their ‘discovery.’ Proving a new context for these pieces, in addition to their ethnographic significance, raised the visibility of American Indian art worldwide. The validation by the world’s leading artists at the time also helped to give it a new level of importance."

The catalogue includes the following commentary by Steve Brown on this lot:

"The underside of the lower lip was once covered by a piece of cotton print fabric, connecting the lower lip to the chin, representing a skin-like appearance in the mechanical feature. Only a small fragment of this fabric now remains. The original lower lip may have been connected by a piece of tanned animal skin. The shiny graphite-laden paint and minimal vermilion details, particularly in conjunction with the central crest-ridge, impart an otherworldly appearance to the mask. With respect to the identity of the representation, one can relate this mask to another one with very similar features that is now in the Canadian Museum of Civilization.…The CMC mask is carved with the same peculiar features as this representation, though with a lesser degree of finish and refinement."

Lot 259, shown above, is a rare and important Tsimshian wood face mask, Nishga, 10 ľ inches high. The work was also formerly in the collection of the Heye Foundation. It is said to represents a women’s spirit that lives at the base of the cliff where the Nass River current meets the tide. It is of unusually deep and rounded form with a sharp bifurcating ridge and an articulating labret forming the extended lower lip above the slightly truncated chin line. The lot has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. It sold to a European dealer for $684,500 including the buyer's premium as do as all the sales prices in this article.

The price set an auction record for a work of American Indian art, eclipsing the previous $525,000 record set in 1997. The auction's total of $4.5-million also set a new record for this category, eclipsing the previous high of more than $3.9-million at Sotheby's in June, 1997. "We were thrilled with the high level of interest in today's sale. It's most gratifying to have American Indian art received by such a large and diverse group of collectors," declared David Roche, the head of the department at Sotheby's.

The other mask, Lot 260, shown below, is a Kwakwaka’wakw face mask, Dzunukwa image, circa 1840-1870, that is 12 ľ inches high and has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $244,500.

Kwakwaka'wakw face mask

Lot 260, Kwakwaka’wakw face mask, Dzunukwa image,

circa 1840-1870, 12 ľ inches high

The catalogue provides commentary by Steve Brown on this lot:

"The bold and straightforward composition of the facial features, made up of closely integrated hollows and ridges, closely replicates the features of an emaciated, skull-like appearance that is the heart of the Dzunukwa representation. The Dzunukwa image is related to other beach and forest-dwelling creatures from various Northwest Coast cultures that represent the spirits of those drowned or lost in the forest….Dzunukwa images frequently have large and thick eyebrows (and sometimes a beard and mustache) often represented by pieces of black bear hide and fur attached to the face. In this example, large sections of bearskin (representing the brows) are attached with wooden pegs to the forehead, while a much large piece of hide was attached to the top and sides of the mask, forming a covering for the head of the wearer. On later masks, these hide attachments are more often fastened to the carving with metal tacks or nails. The tool marks and general finish of this mask appear concurrent with a nineteenth century attribution, and suggest that the carving was done with larger, more sophisticated tools than those available to carvers it he eighteenth century….Curiously, the tip of the nose and the projections of the lips on this mask are made of added-on sections of wood, each nailed in place with very old-looking fasteners. In form and finish, these added pieces appear to have been part of the original carving, rather than ones attached later as repairs or replacements."

Lot 261 is a nice, large Northwest Coast wood feast bowl, probably Haida, 34 ˝ inches long, carved in the form of a squatting quadruped, possible a wolf or bear, with long curving tail. The work has a conservative high estimate of $15,000. It sold for $11,500.

Hopi kachina doll

Lot 326, a Hopi polychrome wood kachina doll, 17 inches high

The auction has several nice Hopi polychrome wood kachina dolls, the nicest of which is Lot 326, shown above, which represents Shalako Mana, the "Corn Maiden," wearing red boots, traditional manta, embroidered with triangular rain-cloud and butterfly symbols, over a painted feather dress, and coral bead necklace around her neck, the classic sack mask painted with red chevrons and a hatched rainbow on the chin, a symbolic ear of corn attached across the forehead…The 17-inch-high lot has an ambitious estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. It was withdrawn. The other kachina lots have much lower estimates, none higher than $5,000. One of the nicer ones, Lot 330, sold for $6,900.

There are many excellent and impressive baskets from the Robert Whiteside Collection in the auction leading off the afternoon session that begins at 2 P.M., including Lot 255, an unusual Tubatulabl coiled jar that is 9 inches in diameter and has an estimate of $4,000 to $6,000 and sold for $3,450, and Lot 254, a Tulare polychrome pictorial coiled jar with red yarn trim around the periphery and an estimate of $3,000 to $4,000, and sold for $12,650.

Also, Lot 245 is a Pima Geometric coiled storage jar that is 21 inches high and has a conservative estimate of $3,500 to $4,500, and sold for $6,900, and Lot 239, an Apache pictorial coiled tray with a very complex pattern of concentric panels, 25 ˝ inches in diameter and estimated at $6,000 to$9,000, which sold for $8,050, and Lot 232, a large Apache pictorial coiled storage jar, 21 inches high, and estimated at $20,000 to $30,000, which sold for $19,550, and Lot 234, a 10-inch-wide Apache pictorial coiled tray with human and animal forms and an estimate of $1,200 to $1,500. It sold for $3,680.

Lot 231 is a Yavapai pictorial coiled storage jar with high rounded shoulder and flaring rim that has an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. It sold for $20,700.

Sotheby’s will also feature works of art from the Robert Whiteside Collection in its next two Important American Indian Art auctions.

The morning session of this auction features 220 lots from The Lucille and Marshall Miller Collection, which has many classic examples of baskets, pottery and blankets as well as many newer or "contemporary," works. More than 93 percent of the lots sold, a very impressive showing.

The highlight of the Miller collection according to the catalogue is Lot 4, "The Cartier Jar" by Maria Martinez (1887-1980) and Julian Martinez (1885-1943) that Mr. Roche said, in the catalogue's "Specialist’s View," a feature that Sotheby’s introduced this year, is "one of the most famous works of art ever created by these legendary artists" and "is also considered one of their finest."

The jar is named after Jacques Cartier (1900-1991), a dancer in the Ziegfield Follies who became a choreographer and landscape designer and was well-known for his role of the Fire Dancer at the annual Santa Fe Fiesta. He acquired the jar from Maria around 1940. She made the jar and Julian decorated them and he is created with the motif of a single band of decoration. They discovered the process of making black-on-black pottery in 1919 that would revolutionize pottery making at San Ildefonso, the catalogue maintained.

The 15-inch-high lot has an ambitious high estimate of $150,000. It sold for $255,500.

Another highlight of the Miller collection is Lot 23, a monumental and rare redware storage jar with four bear-paw impressions encircling the shoulder by Magaret Tafoya (b. 1904), Santa Clara. The lot has an ambitious high estimate of $90,000. It sold for $85,000.

It is a bit difficult for some collectors and admirers of American Indian Art to see quite high prices for mid-20th Century works in comparison to mid-or-late 19th Century works, not only because of historic authenticity and rarity, but also because the latter works tend to be derivative and quite commercial and highly stylized, which is not to imply they ar+e without artistry. Both, of course, have their merits, but the market values are rather distorted, a reflection perhaps of the activity of dealers handling "contemporary" works. In an age, of course, where museums place high emphasis on selling reproductions, such disparity of value may not too hard to understand.

Some works, such as Lot 35, a lidded blackware jar, 7 7/8 inches high, of tapering form in swirl pattern that could inspire Issey Miyake, are very beautiful. It has an estimate of $8,000 to $12,000. It sold for $9,200.

Lot 125, a Tularoasa black-on-white effigy vessel, circa 1150 A.D., however, has the same estimate, and Lot 133, a Gila polychrome pictorial bowl, circa 1200-1450 A. D., with an anthropomorphic design has an estimate of only $1,200 to $1,500! Lot 125 sold for $9,200 and Lot 133 sold for $2,875.

See The City Review article on the Spring 1997 American Indian Art auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Spring 1998 American Indian art auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Spring 1999 American Indian Art auction at Sotheby's


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