Published: April 27, 2021
Review by Greg Smith, Catalog Photos Courtesy Cowan’s Auctions
CINCINNATI – Cowan’s Native American Art auction finished at $997,265 on April 16. Its offerings of 299 lots included art and artifacts from every region of North America spanning prehistory through the Nineteenth Century.
The firm continues building on its reputation as a premier seller of Native American beaded material, as confirmed by yet another six-figure result for a tobacco bag. Cowan’s set an auction record for any tobacco bag at $131,250 in its previous September 2020 Native American art sale with a Sioux Elk Dreamer Society example. It added to that stable a $100,000 result this sale with a Cheyenne River pictorial bag attributed to Edith Claymore (Miniconjou, 1858-1910). Of tanned deer hide sewn with sinew, its beadwork blended the colors of red white-heart, light and dark blue, pea green, greasy yellow, and white. The central panel featured full-width beaded images of warriors on horseback to both front and back. Above them was a beaded image of a buck to one side and a doe to the other, both set in relief on the deer hide without a beaded background.
Cowan’s director of the Native American art department, Danica Farnand, said the bag featured exceptional imagery. “The more images on the bag, the better it is,” she said, noting the special placement of the doe and buck above the central panel. Farnand said it was very likely by the same hand as examples in the collection of the State Historical Society of North Dakota and the Denver Museum of Natural History.
Other notable beadwork included a Blackfeet hide dress that sold for $20,000. It had originally been collected by US Special Agent Johnson N. High (1842-1909), who in 1890 was appointed to oversee the Bannock and Shoshone Indians on the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho Territory. High would go on to adopt a Paiute child, Lena Rivers High, who would ultimately die of pneumonia. The dress was made during his time on the reservation and had descended through generations of his family since.
Three pieces with beadwork achieved the same price at $17,500, including a Cheyenne child’s buffalo hide cradle, a Kiowa decorated antler quirt with buffalo hide wrist strap and an Apsáalooke hide belt pouch.
The beaded cradle featured geometric work and was backed using a canvas flour sack with print for the Gallatin Valley Mills in Bozeman, Mont.
Published in Helen Sage’s Native American Horse Gear: A Golden Age of Equine-Inspired Art of the Nineteenth Century was the quirt. Sage wrote, “The crosses, especially the one on the right, have been identified with the dragonfly, an associate of Thunder. The notches at the base if the handle might represent achievements in battles, such as the number of coup counted, horses stolen or enemies killed by the owner of this quirt.”
From the fourth quarter of the Nineteenth Century was the belt pouch, which featured the colors of red white-heart, light and medium blue, greasy yellow, pink, green, and white. The triangular tab was trimmed with a red wool cloth border.
Rising to $68,750 was a Tsimshian carved bone soul catcher, 8¼ inches long, which featured two open mouth wolves separated by a human figure. The amulets were worn by shamans, who used them to recover souls that had left a patient’s body. According to Marie-Françoise Guédon in her 1984 People of Tetlin, why are You Singing?, the double-headed monster is important to Northwest Coast mythology as a being that could change shape and move through the realms of air, water and earth. Guedon believed the inspiration for this form may have been the otter canoe. She wrote, “often described as having a mouth at each end… This is one of the indications that the so-called soul-catcher could indeed be a representation of the otter-canoe.”
Farnand said, “This is the first time we have handled a soul catcher of this caliber. These are rare objects, and this was an early example, circa 1800. As part of a shaman’s personal toolkit, the soul catcher was used when herbal medicines failed. It was believed that the illness was then caused by an escaped soul, so the shaman would travel to the Spirit world, capture the soul with the help of the soul catcher, and return it to the patient.”
Also from the Northwest Coast was a Chilkat horn feast ladle with a sheep horn scoop and goat horn handle inlaid with abalone. It sold for $21,250. The piece bore a label that identified it to Captain Michael A. Healy’s collection and said it was exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair. Healy was the first Black American to command a Federal ship as a career officer in the United States Coast Guard. Healy arrived in Sitka, Alaska in 1868, just one year after the Alaska purchase, and would remain there for more than 20 years. He rose through the ranks until he was ultimately considered one of the most knowledgeable seamen in the Alaskan waters. Natives called his ship “Healy’s Fire Canoe” as he became a de facto lawman of the territory. The natives were said to respect him as he protected seal and whale populations and introduced Siberian Reindeer.
Rising to $34,375 was a Zuni Classic period embroidered manta with a deep brown twill wool center and an indigo border embroidered with swallowtail butterfly, diamond elements and accents of tulips. The whole work measured 47 by 41 inches. It came from an estate in Sinking Spring, Ohio, and was collected by “Chief” R. Deerfoot, the son of Cherokee Chief Samoset and his wife, Monokau. According to Deerfoot’s obituary, he was 9 years old when he promised his mother on her deathbed that he would get a formal education. He went on to attend Carlisle University and would join the US Military in World War I, where he was a major in command of a group of Native American soldiers. He was said to have been the first Native American to pilot an airplane for the government. Deerfoot became an evangelist, though a 1948 article in The Tennessean noted he was “placed under a suspended six-year sentence for practicing medicine without a license in Rossville, Georgia” and “promised to vanish from the Georgia scene.”
Rising to $16,250 was a set of 40 Apache painted rawhide playing cards. The group included 13 face cards and had been collected in the 1930s on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. Also Apache was a bow that featured the signature of Geronimo. It went out at $6,250, the auction house noting that it was likely sold by Geronimo during his tenure at the St Louis World’s Fair in 1904. It was deaccessioned from the Henry County Historical Society in Indiana.
“During the St Louis World’s Fair in 1904, Geronimo signed many items, including photographs, which we handled quite routinely,” Farnand said. “Signed 3D objects are much more rare. In 2009, we sold a bowcase and quiver with his signature, obtained by a fair guide in trade for a turquoise ring, but that is the only example of a signed bow that I can remember us handling.”
On her favorite item, Farnand pointed to a bone crucifix collected in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which went on to take $1,875. “What I really appreciated about this was the warm, golden patination to its surface,” she said. “It was an object that you wanted to hold. I gravitate to items that show wear – the gloss you see on worn hide or the rich coloring on a wood handle. These are traits which are hard to replicate and show me that the piece was loved.” The crucifix measured only 2¾ inches high and featured “HIS” inscribed to the back. It was believed to be Mi’kmaq or Maliseet.
All prices reported include buyer’s premium. For information, www.cowansauctions.com or 513-871-1670.
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