By Shawne MacIntyre, MMSt., ISA AM
On a cool October morning in 1863, the Rev. Robert James Dundas—a Scot traveling the shores of coastal British Columbia, Canada—purchased a group of 18th- and 19th-century Northwest Coast Indian objects at a local church mission before returning home. Among the many items were Tsimshian nation carved-antler war clubs, a shaman’s rattle, a carved and painted headdress, combs, bowls and an extraordinary wooden portrait mask glinting with green, vermillion and a dark pigment enhanced by graphite.
For 143 years, the portrait mask and the other objects would reside in the U.K., passed from generation to generation, before being brought to auction in 2006 at Sotheby’s, New York. A collection with impeccable provenance (the reverend’s extensive journals detail the items’ acquisition as well as valuable historical information about the region), prospective buyers from Europe, the U.S. and Canada assembled in the sales room to jockey for ownership of what was billed as “The Dundas Collection,” one of the finest collections of native artifacts in private ownership. The elegant and rare Tsimshian portrait mask was assigned an estimate of $700,000 to $1 million in U.S. dollars.
The market for American Indian (or First Nations, as they are known in Canada) artifacts and other “ethnographic art”—a term commonly used to refer to the material culture of indigenous people—began with first-contact seafarers and early missionary activity and was then robustly propelled by trade and colonization. Masks, clothing, weapons, pottery, jewelry and all manner of utilitarian items were obtained as curios, demonstrative of the prevailing western notion of the “noble savage.” These items ranged from ornamented functional objects to those of spiritual or ceremonial significance, many of which imparted its owner with social prestige or status in local hierarchies.
The works most coveted today are often the works that were most coveted then. And for many reasons: the degree or type of ornamentation; the materials used; certain symbols, designs or patterns; who owned, wore or used them; and the spiritual, ceremonial or social significance ascribed by the tribe. An Oglala Sioux (a sub-tribe of the Lakota in the U.S.) war shirt, which holds the record for the most ever paid for an American Indian artwork at auction, is demonstrative of all these elements.
Offered at Sotheby’s New York in 2011, the fringed shirt is composed of tanned deerskin hides and is sinew-sewn by hand. Its upper half is painted in a yellow vegetal pigment (as opposed to synthetic dye) and the lower half in blue, to represent sky and rock, which are important to Lakota cosmology. Richly ornamented with tightly sewn geometric motifs of red, blue, yellow, green and white glass beads, it is also trimmed with numerous tassels of silky black human hair. A war shirt is regarded as sacred and carries great cultural weight. Thought to possess intrinsic powers that would transfer to its wearer, war shirts could only be sported by a warrior who had earned the right to wear it by demonstrating great sacrifice and bravery; typically, it was bestowed to head chiefs.
In this case, the war shirt was owned and worn by Chief Black Bird, a participant in the Great Sioux War of 1876-77, and a well-known historical figure who participated in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in England. Further enhancing its provenance is the photographic evidence of the chief wearing the shirt as early as 1899. Eventually the war shirt was acquired by a member of the Vanderbilt family before finding its way to the Sotheby’s floor, where it sold for $2,658,500 U.S. dollars, against an estimate of $250,000-$350,000. It remains a world record for an American Indian artwork at auction.
The sale was with not without its detractors. Some argued that items of a sacred nature should not be sold, while others emphasized that in the majority of cases, important artifacts were sold out of reach of First Nations groups and into international private collections, thus severing ties to culturally significant works. The history of ownership in the above case was non-refutable, but that is often not the case with much American Indian material culture. Herein lies one of the many legal, political and ethical challenges of collecting in this genre.
Much has changed since the era of acquiring “curios,” and these changes have been to the benefit of American Indian nations and the protection of their unique cultural patrimony. Though the items collected by Dundas were “given up” by that tribe upon their conversion to Christianity—a debatable concept by today’s standards—many items were not always acquired by trade or by assent.
Today’s collector must be sensitive to numerous issues. For example, if a work is composed of certain organic materials (ivory, eagle feathers, etc.) that contravene endangered species laws—such as the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act in the U.S. or the CITES Agreement in Canada—it may be prevented from export or import, depending on the country. A collector must also be aware of whether an item originated from private lands or public lands, as some laws forbid the collection of items from federal territory; such legislation exists to prevent the plunder of gravesites and archaeological sites. This is a relevant issue in the market for Anasazi ceramic vessels in the U.S.
Additionally, title—and cultural significance—remains very much a perilous issue for private and institutional collectors alike. In the U.S., the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 governs and restricts the sale of Indian material culture by American museums. These institutions are prevented from de-accessioning or selling such items without first doing their due diligence by reaching out to direct descendants or tribes to allow them to file for repatriation of significant objects.
However, as discovered by the Hopi tribe of the U.S., this law does not extend to private collections, nor does it have international authority. In a well-publicized legal battle, the Hopi sought to prevent a French auction house from selling a number of masks and headdresses which the Hopi view as “Katsinam” or friends—vessels containing sacred spirits. Among other arguments, the Hopi posited that sacred objects should not have a commercial value. Despite several attempts to prevent the sale and have the objects repatriated, France’s laws allow the trade of such material and all items eventually sold by summer 2015.
Some dramas surrounding cultural patrimony do have joyful endings. Many of the artworks in the Dundas Collection were successfully bid upon by Canadian institutions and private collectors at the 2006 Sotheby’s auction in New York. Under the auspices of Canada’s Cultural Property Export and Import Act, these works will likely never leave their homeland again. And, that day, the Tsimshian mask completed its round-the-world journey, returning to Canadian soil with a final price of $1.8 million U.S. dollars.
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