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The Lure of Native American Memorabilia
by Bob Brooke


Native American arrowheads have long been collected by scavengers at known settlement and battle sites. But since the turn of the 20th Century, collectors desire to obtain just about any object made and used by the tribes that lived throughout North America. And with the inauguration of the National Museum to the American Indian in Washington, DC., awareness of these objects is at an all-time high.

No matter what form Native American artifacts take, collecting them seems to be booming. Native American art combines age-old tradition with innovation and talent, resulting in a variety of art forms for collectors of all levels. Baskets, weavings, and pottery, many with centuries-old influences, incorporate a natural spirit with timeless appeal.

Why are so many collectors, both amateur and professional, being drawn to Native American artifacts? Two words–investment value–sum it up. Appreciation, both artistic and financial, has never been stronger. Certain types of pieces–pottery, baskets, blankets and rugs–have risen in value significantly, doubling or tripling in value over the last decade.

Generally, collecting Native American artifacts falls into two distinct categories. On the one hand, everyday objects like baskets, jars, weavings, and clothing, usually decorated with some sort of artistic design, may not be considered art, but antiques or collectibles. On the other hand, art collectors gather unblemished rugs, jars, and baskets as art forms. Pricing for the former is more reasonable, while pricing for the latter can be stratospheric.

While useful items such as pots, blankets, snowshoes and mocassins may have been originally used by Native Americans, they created large baskets, rugs, and exceptional pots specifically for the collector market. This falls in the realm of folk art, which crosses a mysterious dividing line between antiques and art.

Laws Governing Collecting Native American Artifacts
Unlike other antique collecting, laws govern the collecting of Native American artifacts. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is the main federal law, passed in 1990, that provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain Native American "cultural items"–human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony–to lineal descendants or Indian tribes.

The law, however, also forbids the buying and selling of these particular objects, which is where it applies to individual collectors. While its legal for people to own such objects, it’s illegal to sell certain ones that don't qualify under the NAGPRA’s definition of cultural items.

A series of laws passed in 1906, 1966, 1979, and 1992 forbid the taking of Native American artifacts from federal land, including national forests, parks and Bureau of Land Management land, unless granted a permit to do so. Over the years, states have passed their own laws that restrict the taking of Native American objects from state land, echoing the federal laws. There are also laws that deal with pre-Columbian art and taking native works out of other countries. Under these laws, those who dig up artifacts from federal or state lands can be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars and can also be prosecuted and sent to jail.

And if a collector knowingly or unknowingly purchases these illegally excavated objects, federal or state officials could seize them without giving any financial compensation.

Acquiring Native American Artifacts
So how can collectors acquire Native American artifacts? Purchasing them from shops or galleries and from special shows seems to be the primary way. But whatever the method, collectors should buy what they like, what fits their budgets, and what seems to be backed up by a documented provenance.

t’s important to deal with reputable dealers. If a dealer can't tell a collector where an object came from and how he or she acquired it, the collector shouldn’t buy it. It’s also important to see the piece in person as each piece is unique.

Unfortunately, pieces from the Native American graves tend to be the best ones. Native Americans buried their better pieces in graves, so they’re often protected from use and tend to survive in a more complete state. One way to distinguish a grave pot or jar is to look for a "kill hole," which the potter made in it when it was buried in order to release the spirit from it.

Types of Articles to Collect
Baskets have has always been a leading category in Native American craft collecting. Their appeal is enduring. As one of the earliest art forms, dating back at least 10,000 years, Native Americans used them primarily for utilitarian purposes, as well as religious, and, later, financial reasons.

From the looms of Navajo weavers came wool rugs and blankets comparable to the world’s finest weavings. Mostly women wove these on upright looms, which they made themselves. The transition from producing weavings for personal use to producing them for sale occurred when reservation trading posts created new markets for them a little over 100 years ago, beginning the development of the modern Navajo rug.

Collectors also enjoy collecting Native American pottery. To be considered a "traditional" piece of pottery, the potter must have dug the pot’s clay out of the ground and constructed it entirely by hand without the use of a potter's wheel. He or she then carved or scratched designs into the surface of a dried piece before it’s fired. Potters also applied designs with "slip," a thin mixture of water and clay colored with ground minerals or plant materials. Many Navajo potters coated their pieces with pine pitch, giving them a lustrous finish. Traditional Native American pottery is not glazed. If a pot has a shiny surface, then it had been polished by rubbing the surface of the piece with smooth stones. Often potters incorporated several of these techniques on a single piece.

When a person speaks of Native American art, the first thing that often comes to mind is beadwork. Although glass beads weren’t available until Europeans used them in trade, they quickly became a traditional form of embellishment for a variety of everyday items and ceremonial objects. Distinctive types of beadwork distinguish different regions of the country and subtle differences of style from different tribes within each region.

Native American women applied beads to fabric or hide in different ways. The most common way was the lazy stitch, in which they sewed the beads in even rows with different color combinations used to create geometric designs. They also applied beads using contour stitches in which they sewed the rows of beads in curvilinear patterns with varying numbers of beads used to fill spaces and create curved designs such as flowers. And they stitched beads into tubular strips to finish the edges of designs and to cover the handles of rattles or the stems of pipes. Tribes in the Northeastern United States used raised beadwork, which created three-dimensional designs rising up from the surface of the fabric.

The Market for Native American Memorabilia
Today, high prices exclude many collectors from collecting Native American artifacts because it has become trendy to do so. Often, decorators set these trends–they recognized the beauty and simplicity of Native American art as early as 1890. Pieces that once sold for $50 now fetch $5,000. In fact, prices on Indian artifacts above $5,000 are commonplace, with some of the rarest objects selling routinely for half a million.

"Artful" or "visual" objects are those to which collectors pay the greatest attention and for which they pay the highest prices. Those interested in antique Indian art insist that objects be in excellent condition and have a relatively early date of manufacture. Ironically, these considerations leave lots of beautiful but "not quite perfect" examples to choose from for those who have a limited budget for collecting.

Few collectors consider everyday items such as fire-making equipment, hide-tanning implements, packing cases, saddlery, clothing, hunting gear, stone tools, food-preparation utensils, snowshoes, and animal traps that may not be artistic. They may, however, have beautiful forms, reveal fascinating uses of raw materials, show unusual construction techniques or exemplify a truly ingenious adaptation or variation resulting from centuries of trial and perfection. It’s objects like these that can lead to a better understanding of the everyday life of living in a tipi camp, wigwam village or pueblo. And more so than with other antiques, collecting Native American artifacts helps a collector understand more about the peoples and cultures that produced them.

Learning more about Native American artifacts is essential to forming a good collection and helps collectors buy with confidence. Some probe deeper into tribal histories, customs, artistic symbols and the profound spiritual significance of tribal art to the Native American.

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