Published: December 29, 2020
Review by Rick Russack, Photos Courtesy Skinner, Inc.
MARLBOROUGH, MASS. – Skinner’s director of tribal arts, Mike Evans, knew that he had a very special Navajo weaving in his hands and the marketplace responded accordingly. A few days prior to the December 14 sale, which grossed $851,310, Evans discussed the Claflin serape and said that it had been collected in the late Nineteenth Century by Eliza Hosmer of Concord, Mass., who had spent time in New Mexico in 1890 and amassed a collection of about 50 outstanding Navajo textiles. In 1932, it was acquired by William Claflin, an amateur archeologist, wealthy businessman, museum trustee and collector of Southwestern Native American artifacts. In the 1920s, he conducted archeological research in Utah for the Peabody Museum at Harvard. Most of his collection was donated to the Peabody Museum but this serape remained privately in his family until now.
Known as the Claflin serape, it may date to 1863 and is made of native Saxony yarns and handspun churro fleece dyed with natural cochineal and indigo. Evans said, “this textile embodies all the characteristics of early classic Navajo serapes: a horizontal design layout incorporating narrow bands, with three wider joined terraced diamond devices between, the largest being in the middle of the blanket. This configuration of larger central diamonds is often used in serapes of this period. The predominate colors of red, blue and white add to the appearance of complexity and the use of the Saxony yarn creates an extremely tight weave.” The serape sold for $237,500.
It was one of several Navajo weavings in the sale, which would go on to produce two of the top three highest prices. A classic man’s wearing blanket of handspun wool and colored with natural dyes sold for $87,500. It had a chief’s second phase pattern composed of three separate sets of parallel bars with contrasting colors, and had a repair to one edge. A Northwest coast cloth dance robe, probably from the Kwakwaka’wakw, most of whom live on northern Vancouver Island in the Pacific Northwest, earned $20,000. It dated to the late Nineteenth Century and had been worked on a commercial wool blanket. It was decorated with a crest in the form of an appliqued “Tree of Life” in red wool trade cloth, outlined with mother-of-pearl shell buttons. There were several other quality weavings.
Other Native American works included numerous beaded items, baskets and other storage containers, pre-contact and later Southwest pottery, Navajo katsinas, silver, crooked knives, pipes, moosehair decorated objects, contemporary Northwest coast items and more. There were also a number of poi bowls from Hawaii, one of which, 12 inches wide, earned $2,750.
The numerous examples of Northwest arts included argillite, bone and horn objects, masks, effigy figures, etc. Eskimo items included masks, walrus tusk carvings and more. Selling well over its estimate was a Haida mid-Nineteenth Century argillite pipe with complex carving, which included a raven and five other clan crest animals. It realized $8,125, while another Haida argillite piece, a carved group of three shamans, 7½ inches tall, earned $2,625. Northwest carved horn spoons ranged between $500 and $1,200. One of the interesting Eskimo items was a Nineteenth Century carved wooden mask from Alaska. With a great patina, it had a hollowed-out face with pierced eye slits, cut out nostrils and an open mouth with a slightly protruding tongue. It sold for $4,063. There were multiple lots of Thule period (generally considered to extend from about 1100 to 1400) carved walrus tusk objects, including a large game bird or duck, which earned $406.
Beaded objects included examples from Eastern Woodlands and Plains tribes. A truly exceptional Kiowa beaded blanket strip from the Diker collection, illustrated in the 2004 book on their collection, sold for $31,250. On buffalo hide, it was more than 5 feet long and the beading was colorful and well designed. Plains beadwork included a fully beaded pair of Sioux moccasins, circa 1880, with geometric designs and red trade cloth edging, which finished at $3,000, while a Sioux beaded hide saddle blanket from the late Nineteenth Century finished at $2,000. A large Plains western-made beaded purse with multicolored geometric designs finished at $1,875, and a pair of Comanche high-top woman’s moccasins with yellow pigment and multicolored beadwork detailing, earned $1,625. A pair of finely woven Eastern Woodlands beaded sashes, dating to the early Nineteenth Century, finished at $3,750. A particularly colorful Mohawk carved and painted cradle board, with birds and floral designs closed at $10,000. Some of the Native American pieces drew more than 30 bids.
Ethnographic materials came from many eras and many parts of the world: Pre-Columbian artifacts from Central and South America, Borneo, the Himalaya region, Papua New Guinea and other parts of Polynesia and Africa. A number of masks were included from various African cultures. An 18-inch tapering Songe Kifwebe hollowed out mask with a protruding mouth, thin nose and crescent-shaped cut-out eyes realized $3,250. It was covered in white kaolin with black details. Songe are part of the Bantu group living in the Congo and these masks symbolized the spirits of the dead and the struggle between good and evil. Another interesting mask, from the Baule people of the Ivory Coast, was a hollowed-out portrait mask with a pointed chin, open mouth and an elongated nose. It reached $2,875.
A group of gold pre-contact artifacts from Central America had been collected by George Washington Goethals when he was working on the Panama Canal. A Diquis gold pendant from Panama, that may have represented an eagle, circa 800-1500, finished at $2,000. A small gold pendant from Costa Rica in the form of a frog realized $875.
Department head Mike Evans grew up in New Zealand and has a particular interest in Oceanic arts, as well as Inuit and other ethnographic arts. When asked to select his favorite item in the sale, he selected a Tongan pole club, which was far from the most expensive item in the sale. “I’d have to pick this one, if I were going to buy something for myself from this sale. It’s quite early, and its fully carved with various geometric designs. It also has an early nail in its base. At one time, the natives often battled their Polynesian neighbors on nearby islands, such as Fiji. This may have been a weapon, or it may have been used in dance ceremonies, but it’s an outstanding example.” It sold for $4,688, which Evans later said he considered a bargain.
After the sale, Evans commented, “It’s been a good year for my department. Obviously, we’d always like to see more bidding but this sale did well. The percentage of unsold items was consistent with prior sales and the gross of about $850,000 was fine, perhaps a little lower than I’d have liked – but the market is changing. Mid-level tribal material is soft these days, making it a good time for new collectors to get into the field, but the Native American market is stronger. Buyers are quite knowledgeable and quite specific in what they’re looking for. Some of the material really needs to be handled and that’s difficult with today’s virus restrictions. The bear-claw necklace was an exceptional item and did better than we thought it would. The Kiowa beaded blanket strip from the Diker collection was wonderful and sold for about three times what we thought it would. It was nice to see the interest in Eastern Woodlands items, like the Mohawk cradle board, which also finished well above our estimate.” The department’s next sale will be in May.
Unsold items are available for purchase. For additional information, www.skinnerinc.com or 508-970-3254.
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