Published: March 8, 2016
Danica Farnand is one of the country’s foremost experts on American Indian art (beadwork, weaponry, clothing, textiles, etc) and has been involved in major auctions based specifically around that material for more than ten years. She heads up Cowan Auctions’ American Indian art division.
What first sparked your interest in anthropology and how did you get from upstate New York to Ohio?
Indiana Jones was my hero growing up. When it came time to go to college, I thought it seemed like it would be a cool job, so, much to the chagrin of my parents, I started wandering that direction. I moved to Cleveland and went to John Carroll University, where I majored in art history and minored in classical studies. I got my first job out of college at the Cleveland Restoration Society and realized I was on the right path. I went back to school and received my master’s in anthropology, with an archaeology focus, from the University of Cincinnati.
Did you begin at Cowan’s in the American Indian art division or did you start in another department? How long have you been its director?
After I graduated from UC, one of my former professors introduced me to Wes Cowan. Cowan’s was still pretty small at the time, and I was brought on to run contracts, respond to inquiries, catalog early photography, and other things — really, wherever was needed is what I did. The year I started was also the year Cowan’s had their first American Indian art auction. It went well and Wes asked me if I wanted to organize the sales. It’s hard to believe that was 14 years ago!
What are some of the biggest changes in this field that you have seen in terms of market trends and what (which artists, types of material) is collectible?
It’s not surprising that the older pieces, Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century beadwork, textiles, baskets and carvings, are very desirable. However, I am seeing more art from the 1950s through the 1970s emerging from collections. A few years ago, material from this era was very difficult to sell, but we are starting to see it gain increasing traction at auction. Much of the art from this time period is affordable to entry-level collectors.
Are there particular things, perhaps religious in nature, that you won’t take on consignment?
Respecting Native cultures is paramount to us, so if something comes across my desk that is or may be potentially sensitive, we won’t sell it. This ranges from certain Hopi katsina dolls to medicine bundles.
What’s a typical day like?
My day usually consists of responding to consignment inquiries, and that can be either in the office or on the road. I do a fair amount of traveling, looking at private collections and attending trade shows. Depending on the auction cycle, I am busy cataloging the material that is sent in, editing the catalog or setting up the sales room for the auction. What is great about this job is that every day is an adventure: you never know what you are going to see or who you are going to meet.
Do you exclusively deal with antique and vintage objects or do you work with contemporary American Indian artists?
We sell both antique and contemporary art. Generally, the contemporary pieces we auction are from private collections and are not coming directly from the artists themselves.
How often do issues like repatriation or the Indian Arts and Crafts Act come up in your line of work?
These issues have come up, but not very frequently. In regard to repatriation, there have been a couple situations where the sale of an item has been stopped. In these cases, the pieces were museum property, and therefore subject to the regulations of NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). Cowan’s guarantees the authenticity of everything we sell. If someone purchases an item and finds it to be fraudulent, it is our policy to fully refund the returned item.
Any advice for people interested in starting a collection of American Indian art?
It’s like everything else in life: always buy what you like and what makes you happy. For those looking to build a collection, I would recommend saving up for a quality piece of art that is emblematic of the style and era you like. You’ll never regret it. And, of course, always purchase from reputable sources.
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