Published: June 21, 2022
Review by Madelia Hickman Ring, Photos Courtesy Hindman
CINCINNATI, OHIO – Retired Air Force pilot turned art dealer and author Forrest Fenn (1930-2020) hid in the Rocky Mountains a cache of treasure – purportedly gold nuggets, rare coins, jewelry and gemstones – and wrote a memoir of short stories that inspired a decade-long treasure hunt that ended in 2020. Fast forward two years and a selection of Native American works from Fenn’s collection were offered in an online auction at Hindman on June 9. The sale of 168 lots achieved a total of $876,313 and, with all but eight lots finding buyers, a sell through rate of more than 95 percent.
“Forrest was an institution in the collecting community and that carried throughout the sale,” noted Danica Farnand, Hindman’s senior specialist in Native American, Prehistoric and Tribal art. “There was strong interest from across the United States, but we were also thrilled with the international engagement.”
The top lot of the day was a twisted stem and Catlinite pipe reportedly once owned by Hunkpapa Lakota chief Sitting Bull (circa 1831-1890), which smoked its $60/80,000 estimate and brought $125,000. The provenance of the pipe had been questioned and Hindman included with the lot fairly convincing materials to support the attribution to Sitting Bull, including a cabinet photo taken in the St Paul, Minn., studio of Alfred Palmquist and Peder Jurgens, that shows Sitting Bull holding an identical pipe. While Fenn believed the pipe to have been owned by Sitting Bull, the existence of other pipes, and a broken history of ownership led Hindman to catalog it somewhat cautiously, as “believed to belong to Sitting Bull.” The identity of the buyer was not disclosed.
For those who were in the market for a Sioux pipe in a different price range, a Standing Rock carved pipe stem and Catlinite bowl, was a more affordable $8,125 but still significantly more than its $2/4,000 estimate.
Clawing its way to a second place finish was an impressive Sioux grizzly bear claw necklace that surpassed expectations and achieved $75,000. Not only had the necklace been published in James Hanson’s book on Fenn’s collection – Spirits in the Art: From the Plains and Southwest Indian Cultures (1994) – but it was an early example and had provenance to Mae Reed Porter, an art collector and historian of the American West. According to Farnand, grizzly bears were highly revered by Native Americans of the Plains; killing a grizzly bear was considered equal to killing a human in battle and the necklace would have been highly prized.
As fearsome as the claw necklace was, a third quarter Nineteenth Century Missouri River figural ball club that was impressive in its own right sold within estimate, for $22,500. It was cataloged as being uniquely decorated with the remnants of a horse effigy, colored pigments, a mirror and a knife blade protruding from the ball.
Also published in Spirits in the Art was a Pueblo buffalo hide shield with stylized designs in yellow, white, red and black that deflected its $10/20,000 estimate and rounded out the third highest price of $27,500. Made in the third quarter of the Nineteenth Century, it was considered an early example.
From the same region came the sale’s highest selling piece of pottery, a Walpi polychrome storage jar that achieved $21,250. Fenn’s pottery collection had, according to Farnand, been renowned; over the years, he assiduously collected jars of monumental size, the earlier the better. The jar, which had also been illustrated in Spirits in the Art, was accompanied by a note of identification from the late Pueblo ceramics expert, Francis Harlow.
Other prices for pottery included $9,375 for an early Cochiti storage jar of exceptional size at 15½ inches high and 17½-inch diameter, and, for $6,875, a Zuni polychrome pottery jar.
Characteristic of the collecting category, many lots in the sale were decorated with beadwork. Among these was a Sioux beaded pictorial tobacco bag, fourth quarter Nineteenth Century, which was decorated with ghostly heads on its neck that represented enemies killed, as well as horse tracks for the number of horses captured. Bidders took it to $18,750. An Apsáalooke [Crow] beaded parfleche knife sheath, late Nineteenth Century, was a bright example with beaded embellishments on the side that Farnand said took it “to the next level.” Given it had been estimated at $6/8,000, the result of $13,750 certainly supports that assessment.“Bags featuring Elk Dreamers…have been recently highly sought-after at market,” Farnand noted, in reference to a Sioux Elk Dreamer quilled hide tobacco bag that made $11,250, nearly double its high estimate. The elk head decoration denotes the Elk Dreamer Society, which acted out their dreams, tested their powers in dance performances, sang songs at society feasts and made medicine.
Farnand said that Hindman had “expected Fenn’s dolls to see enthusiastic bidding,” but she was surprised at the level of interest at several, notably a beaded Crow doll that had been illustrated in Fenn’s book, Historic American Indian Dolls (2007). The catalog notes how the doll, circa 1890, was special because of the inclusion of its knife sheath housing a bone knife in the shape of an owl. It outstripped its $3/6,000 estimate to close at $13,750.
Other dolls bringing noteworthy results was a Hopi three-horned Katsina, one of just four Katsina dolls in the sale, which saw heated international bidding and brought $12,500, a significant improvement on its $2/4,000 estimate.
Fenn’s collection of strike-a-light cases and bags also attracted significant interest, with a Kiowa beaded example, with thread and sinew-sewn on harness leather, that dated to the late Nineteenth Century and fired bidders up to $10,625.
“We were thrilled by the performance of the rare photography offered in this sale,” observed Farnand, of half a dozen lots of early photography that kicked off the sale. Five of six lots offered sold, led by a group of 19 images of Comanche chief Quanah Parker (1845-1911) that made $10,000.
Baskets were led at $10,000 by two Apache figural basketry ollas, one of which featured seven dogs on the shoulder; the other had 14 male and female figures, and eight dogs.
Wearable artifacts – notably clothing and jewelry – were also in Fenn’s collection and many lots saw strong results. Of several lots of moccasins and leggings, a pair of circa 1875 Kiowa beaded hide leggings in a bright green decorated with thin twisted yellow fringe, and brass and glass beads that had provenance to the Henry Balink Collection finished at $9,375. Also bringing $9,375 and leading the jewelry category was a lot of two pairs of early Pueblo earrings and ancestral Pueblo beads, set with turquoise. The jewelry was created in the second half of the Nineteenth Century with beads dating to pre-1500.
Hindman will conduct Part II of the Forrest Fenn Collection of Native American artifacts on September 8.
Prices quoted include the buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house. For information, www.hindmanauctions.com or 312-280-1212.
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