Published: July 24, 2012
Coeur d’Alene’s annual July art auction was notable for several choice paintings, but the immediate postsale buzz was for a war shirt worn by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe that came in second only to Howard Terpning’s painting, “Scout’s Report.” The important war shirt sold Saturday, July 21, for $877,500. The Terpning work brought $$965,250.
The chief is depicted in this war shirt seen in a painting on display in the Smithsonian Institution that was painted by Cyrenius Hall in 1878. The shirt was considered to be one of the chief’s prized possessions. He wore it in a photo taken by John Fouch in 1877, the earliest known photograph of the chief.
According to noted Native American scholar Theodore Brasser, “Following their surrender in 1877, the Nez Pierce were marched 400 miles to Fort Keogh near present day Miles City, Montana. Shortly thereafter, John Fouch, the post photographer, took the first portrait of Chief Joseph. Joseph is seated in the photo and his hands appear frostbitten. Yet his hair is pushed up in a proud warrior pompadour and he is dressed resplendent in this shirt.”
According to the auction house, the shirt was likely given away after the chief’s death in 1904 and kept in the family for many years. It came to the market at an Indian relic show in the 1990s and was sold without any attribution or collection history. It changed hands again before the connection with the historic photo was discovered.
The shirt is of the classic sleeved poncho type, made of two soft thin skins, probably deerskin, and martial symbolism is also associated with the fringes of white (winter) weasel fur tipped with the black fur of jack rabbits, according to Coeur d’Alene.
The shirt, which would have been worn only on special occasions, owes much of its visual appeal to the beadwork, sinew sewn on separate strips of hide, crossing the shoulders and running down the sleeves. The geometric designs of solid blocks of color, framed with finger-width lanes of darker color, are characteristic of the “Transmontane art style.”
Leading the paintings in the sale †and the top lot of the auction overall †was Howard Terpning’s dynamic “Scout’s Report,” which depicts an Indian scout wearing a wolfskin sharing his findings with his war party. The 32-by-48-inch oil on canvas was painted in 1988.
Discussing this painting, Terpning wrote, “Scouts were sent out ahead of a war party to locate enemy camps and forces. These scouts often wore wolf hide †thus, were themselves called ‘wolves.’ It was believed that the great hunting ability of the wolf was imparted into the warriors. And of course, the wolfskin served also as a camouflage. In the painting the scouts are reporting what their reconnaissance determined. The young man in the background went along as an apprentice to this specialized skill. One of his tasks was to take care of the horses while the wolves crept close to the enemy.”
A complete report on the sale will appear in a future issue.
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